With its abundance of manpower, cheap and easily available, conventional wisdom has always dictated that any productive economic activity in Bangladesh has to be labour-intensive, low-skilled, and thus add little value (low ‘value-added’).
This holds true for pretty much the entire economy, but perhaps nowhere more so than the still vital agriculture sector – the largest employment sector in the country that provides employment for about 41 percent of the labour force, according to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey 2015-16.
That number however is dwindling, having been as high as 63 percent just about a decade earlier, and is estimated by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to come down to 36 percent by 2020.
In view of the generational shift that sees less and less of the country’s youth interested in entering the agri-economy, even as the challenge of increasing food production for a growing population remains, a decision was taken at the start of 2019 to frame, for the first time, a policy on agriculture mechanisation.
An expert panel convened by the Agriculture Ministry has already submitted the draft of the policy, that aims to “increase farm productivity by speeding up the process of adoption of low-cost but efficient machinery at growers’ level.”
Yet even before the policy has been officially adopted, a farming community in Bishwanath upazila in Sylhet has stolen a march on the authorities by taking the path to mechanisation on their own initiative.
Much of what the government envisions for the agri-sector as a whole has already been implemented in Bishwanath, where they are already reaping the benefits in terms of falling costs, increased efficiency and bigger yields afforded by the use of machines such as the rice transplanter.
Upazila Agriculture Office sources said that there are eight rice transplanter machines in Bishwanath. The farmers took advantage of the 70 percent government subsidy facility for expansion of machinery in agriculture.
Although some mechanisation in various processes has existed in Bangladesh (e.g. upto 95 percent of land is tilled by power tillers and tractors), it is particularly the adoption of potentially game-changing machines like the transplanter that the government now wants to encourage. Department of Agriculture Extension figures indicate just 1 percent of planting is done using machines at present.
In one estimate, a rice transplanter increases the approximate area that a person can plant in a day by almost 15 times.
“Not only that the technology is being used in all the agricultural works including making seedbed, producing seed, sowing, harvesting and threshing of paddy, and collecting stalk to cultivate as per demand at lower cost and lesser time.”
Jaber Hossain, a farmer of village Alapur of the upazila, said, “I sowed rice seed on about 15 acres of land during last boro season and harvested rice using a Combined Harvester Machine after getting training from Agriculture Machinery Testing and Training Centre under Farm Mechanisation project.”
“Using the CHM has been a boon for me. I have benefitted by spending less money and also less time, which is also equal to more money,” he said, adding that non-arable land would reduce and demand for using agricultural machinery would increase immensely if the growers get training on using the machines.
Monohor Hossain Munna, Convener of Bishwanath Sadar Union Juba League and himself a farmer said, “I have sowed the paddy seed using rice transplanter for the first time.”
“I have sowed the seed of aman paddy on one and a half acres of land using transplanter. This year I will sow seeds of aman paddy on five acres of land using this machine. I am hopeful that the yield would be better than in the past,” he added excitedly.
Upazila Agriculture Officer Ramjan Ali noted that food production would have to almost doubled by 2030 in accordance with the government’s vision., towards which all agencies of the state are working according to a plan. unb