Bangabandhu was born in a village. He, therefore, had a special interest in improving the living condition of the farmers. His commitment to reforming agriculture was embedded in his heart. Thus, during the very early days of his transition to national politics from the phase of student politics, one of his core political agendas was to address the appalling condition of the rural people.
On 17th May 1948, in a speech at Narayanganj Public Library, Bangabandhu highlighted the scarcity of clothes, food, corruption and injustices faced by the rural people and how their standard of living remained unchanged even after the creation of Pakistan. (‘Secret Documents of Intelligence Branch on Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’, Edited by Sheikh Hasina, Hakkani Publishers, Dhaka, 2018, Vol-1, page-19).In another speech in Narsingdi on 1 June 1948 he “gave particular stress on the abolition of Zamindari system without compensation…people were ready to pay all kinds of taxes, but they needed food, clothing and other necessities of life including education.”(ibid. p. 24). That he was passionate about the ill fate of land-poor farmers is evident from the Confidential Report No. 33 of the Intelligence Branch Police from Khulna submitted on 29 January 1949.
The Report says, “On 28.1.49 at about 08.45 hrs. Sk. Mujibur Rahman of Tungipara, Gopalganj, Faridpur, in company of Shamsul Alam, son of Najimuddin of Tothpara, Khulna Town went to Khulna Municipal Park and addressed a gathering of about 350 reapers of Faridpur, Dacca and Commilla. He asked them to follow him to D. M’s Bungalow in order to demand from the Dist-Magistrate permit for going home with paddy they had obtained as their wages for reaping.” (ibid. p. 89).
Although he could not obtain an immediate permit for the reapers due to bureaucratic complications as stated by the District Magistrate, he asked them to remain in touch with him and not to come to Khulna for reaping, which entailed so many troubles and sufferings.
He remained focused on the agenda of farmers’ welfare even when he was visiting newly liberated China in 1952 to attend the World Peace Conference. He was curious about how the Chinese revolutionary government helped improve the living condition of the farmers in such a short period of time. In his words “From the mausoleum we went to visit an agricultural farm. It was clear here that the government is concentrating on agricultural development, not through a top-down approach but with help of ordinary workers. This was a huge farm; seeds are nurtured here and then the better seeds are distributed all over the country. Chinese agricultural workers have all kinds of privileges.” (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ‘New China 1952’, Bangla Academy, 2021, p. 86). In China, he learnt to improve the condition of the ordinary people through agricultural development and education. He immediately compared this outcome with that of Pakistan’s top-down approach. The above words clearly indicate that he was preparing himself to take appropriate reform measures to improve the fate of peasants and other ordinary people if the opportunity comes. And he worked hard to create that opportunity, defying all the repression of the Pakistani ruling elites.
After a prolonged struggle for democracy and just governance based on equity and justice, he encountered a historic opportunity to get the people’s mandate for a change, through participating in the 1970 General Election of Pakistan. There were risks as the election was being held under Martial Law’s ‘Legal Framework’. Yet, he chose this path as he could intuit that the Bengalis were ready to vote comprehensively for his party. He did enough homework to tell the people in clear terms about the changes he hoped to bring during his election campaign. At the height of this election campaign, he proposed changes that needed to be brought about in the agricultural sector. He said,
“If truth be told, agriculture must be modernised. The obstacle presented by the fragmentation and sub-division of landholding must be overcome. An immediate step in the right direction would be to induce the farmers to group their holdings under multipurpose co-operatives. The government could provide an effective inducement for this purpose by funnelling through such co-operatives vital inputs such as irrigation, embankment, drainage, deep tube wells, water pumps, fertilizer, improved seeds, agricultural implements and machinery, credit and instruction in modern agricultural implements and machinery, credit and instruction in modern agricultural techniques. We would abolish land revenue in respect of holdings up to 25 bighas and write off all arrears in respect of such holdings. Ultimately, we aim at abolishing the present system of land revenue. We must explore the best scientific methods for the optimal use of our natural resources. We must prioritise the development and use of our forest resources, cultivation of fruits, chicken and duck farms, fish farms etc. We need to establish without delay research institutes for developing our water resources and water transports.” (Bangabandhu’s TV and Radio Speech on 28th October 1970; Haider Khan acknowledged for the translation).After Bangladesh gained independence, the First Five-Year Plan “was considered a first step towards the progressive achievement of a socialist economy in the future – an objective embodied in the Constitution and in the various policy statements of the Awami League, including its election manifesto in 1970” (Islam, Nurul, ‘Making of a Nation Bangladesh: An Economist’s Tale’, Second Impression, UPL, 2005, p. 191). Chapter VIII of the First FYP encompassed the past and current agricultural situation, and objectives and policies to be taken in the agricultural sector in line with the commitments Bangabandhu made in his pre-election speech. Rice, wheat, potato, sugarcane, oilseeds, pulses, jute, tobacco, and tea were among the major crops of Bangladesh (FYP, p. 83). The FYP identified a lack of appropriate development strategies, incentives, technology, low investment, low absorption capacity, ineffective implementation of programmes and inadequate infrastructures as the main causes behind slow growth in agriculture in the past. The Plan emphasised the importance of replacing traditional agriculture with modern agriculture for increased agricultural production and employment opportunities. Increase in agricultural incomes, increase in employment, reduction of rural poverty and equality of income distribution, improvement of foreign exchange from the export of agricultural products, particularly jute, improvement of nutritional standards, and increase in the contribution of forest resources were also identified as other objectives of the planned agricultural programmes. Measures for a more equal distribution of income of workers were specifically mentioned in the Plan. These measures were concentrated on using seed-based technology in certain areas, developing rural institutions at a rapid rate so that farmers could have more access to credit and cooperative organisations, undertaking a large number of labour-intensive projects by a Rural Works Programme, bringing about changes in cropping pattern using more labour-intensive techniques, providing subsidies on all inputs, organising landless labourers through the creation of cooperatives, dispersing rural industries and, encouraging consumption of groundnut and fish protein in areas of nutritional risk. In addition, land reforms were also proposed as an important measure for the desired change in the rural society (ibid. p. 88-89).
Food grain productions were to be significantly increased with the introduction of HYVs in additional cropping areas (FYP, p. 92). The Plan also proposed a programme to increase jute yields. It mapped out the current situation, objectives, and programmes to achieve targets of production of both cereal and non-cereal agricultural products. It also planned how to provide modern inputs to farmers such as fertilizers, insecticides, seeds, water and, storage and marketing.
On Awami League’s bi-annual Council Session on 18 January 1974, Bangabandhu delivered the inaugural speech. He spoke about the importance of increasing production. He categorically stated that the world does not show respect to a begging nation. The country could not be built through alms from abroad. He blamed Pakistan for creating this difficult eventuality. He further said that Bangladesh was exploited by the Pakistanis for years and it was also devastated by the war. Increasing the level of production was of utmost importance for the rising population. He urged the people to engage in productive activities as it would help ease the pain of inflation that was prevailing in the country. He used the example of students in Bogura who were taking part in farming and earning for themselves. He also reminded the audience that his socialism meant higher production and consumption. (D.A.H. Khan, ‘Jatir Pita Bangabandhur Nirbachito Bhashon’, Vol-4, EkattorProkashoni, 2018, p. 80).
Chapter 8.3 of the first FYP was about the Rural Institutions that would supervise the agricultural sector. This chapter identified the problems with the past institution and current problems. It proposed to establish local government and cooperative institutions that would represent different groups of people. The institutions would be self-funded and self-managed and would be free of bureaucratic control. They would be dedicated to increasing production and ensuring an equitable distribution of income. The local government institutions were also to oversee local infrastructure building, social welfare, maintenance of law and order, collection of taxes, requisition of means of production and services, and local organisations such as cooperatives, associations and, clubs (FYP, p. 155-156). The Plan also mentioned that for a social transformation of agriculture, the means of production must be controlled socially. The rural power structure was authoritarian in nature and dominated by vested interest groups. If technology and decision-making process were controlled by them it would eventually lead to wider class differences. According to the FYP, “This problem can only be tackled by helping the depressed class to organise themselves, adopt innovations collectively, and become a dominant productive force. Co-operatives are a suitable organisation for such purposes.” (ibid. p. 156). The Plan then laid out the blueprint for the Integrated Rural Development Programme, Cooperative Programmes, Rural Works Programme, Urban Works Programme, Training, Research and Evaluation of Institutional Programmes, Agricultural Extensions, Agricultural Credits, Agricultural Education and Research, Agricultural Implements and Mechanisation and other Implements, Nutrients and, Employment. It also elaborated the land policy and stated that land reforms are a ‘focal point’ in the socialist transformation of the society. It also discussed excess land being distributed to landless farmers. Finally, the chapter focused on the importance of proper implementation of policies by the institutional bodies.
On February 4, 1974, Bangabandhu delivered another speech at the First National Congress of the Jubo (Youth) League. He assured the people and said, “Bengal has wealth, do not fear. Its wealth is its people. Bengal has a golden land. There’s nothing that can’t be produced in my Bengal. But we must work in a constructive way. We have coal, we need to mine it to survive. We have gas, we must be able to use it. We can produce jute, tea, tobacco and sugarcane. We can produce everything. Youngsters, all of these have been depleted. We need to invest anew. It will take time.” (Translated from Bengali, D.A.H. Khan, ‘Jatir Pita Bangabandhur Nirbachito Bhashon’, Vol-4, Ekattor Prokashoni, 2018, p. 87). With that sober note, Bangabandhu asked the younger generation to come forward to build the nation which had all the potential to become a prosperous ‘Sonar Bangla’.
The author is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Dhaka University and former Governor, Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]