Cropping pattern usually creates a choice set for farmers in the light of existing resource endowments. It is not only the size of the owned land but other important factors such as subsistence pressure, infrastructural facilities, information base and marketing opportunities dictate the decisions on cropping pattern that changes with the passage of time. We observe that the dominant cropping pattern in the 1980s was production of paddy followed by keeping the land fallow-about one-third of the total cultivated land. Depicting an upward trend over time, total amount of land under this pattern hovers around 40 per cent in recent years. Another pattern is paddy followed by paddy. In comparable periods, the proportion of land under this pattern, on average, hovered around one-third of the total cultivated land. But there has been a significant decrease in the case of land under triple crops and, possibly, for this reason cropping intensity index has declined over time. Overall, it could be observed that the share of fallow land (after paddy or other crops) has increased in recent years. This is also an interesting development because; (a) farmers have learnt that land also need some rest and (b) economic solvency has reduced the urgency to pursue the earlier pattern. In any case, our discussions on cropping pattern clearly forestall that 70 per cent of the cultivated land in rural Bangladesh is used only for paddy production and only 18 per cent goes to non-paddy crops. It signifies that crop diversification till now could not emerge as an attractive option for farmers engaged in the war of food security.
Let us now look at the issue from the angle of farm size. First, in comparable periods of the 1980s and recent past, the main cropping pattern for small farmers was paddy followed by paddy. That means, after harvesting one paddy crop, farmers used to prepare for growing another paddy crop. But in recent periods, instead of going for another paddy, farmers began to keeping the land fallow. Of course, this pattern had been a favourite for medium and large farmers for a pretty long time. It appears that small farmers, for the sake of food security, have been tilting towards paddy followed by fallow option rather than paddy followed by paddy option. The reason of the shift could possibly be adduced to increased productivity of land via modern varieties grown. Second, triple-cropped land seems to be almost on the verge of non-existence, again with a view to reduce pressure on land of single crop constricting productivity. In the past, there was a trend to grow another non-paddy crop after two consecutive paddy crops. The departure is definitely a sign of improvement as land are not being cultivated as intensively as before with adverse impacts on soil fertility. Third, we notice that, cropping diversification is till now largely a "golden deer". Whatever feeble attempts at crop diversification have been made so far, it was mostly by the small and medium farmers. And finally, an inverse relationship between farm size and cropping intensity can be observed. For small farmers, the intensity declined from 174 in 1980s to 163 in 2000s; for large farmers, the index moved down from 169 to 139 respectively.
An examination of the cropping pattern and cropping intensity by irrigation status would provide another dimension of the issue under discussion. In areas where the main sources of irrigation are rainfalls and surface water, the cropping pattern is paddy cultivation followed by fallow claiming 57 per cent of the cultivated land as against 36 per cent in the 1980s. But this pattern does not seem to suit areas where underground water is mostly used for irrigation purposes. The difference between the two areas in terms of cropping patterns is mainly caused by the timely availability of water for irrigation. Second, consecutive two paddy crops form the pattern mainly for users of underground water, although over time the trend has diminished somewhat. For example, in the distant past, 60 per cent of the land embraced this pattern - paddy followed by paddy - as against 46 per cent in recent times.
In the very low-lying areas, the cropping pattern is paddy cultivation followed by keeping the land fallow, although the pattern is changing over time. The reason behind such pattern could be the early arrival of flood - called early flood. In medium and high land, the main pattern is consecutive two paddy crops i.e. paddy followed by paddy. On the other hand, in all topographic condition, the general pattern is to keep land fallow after growing one non-paddy cop. Crop diversification, in whatever degree takes place, is evident in high and medium land as early flood is unfriendly to vegetables, fruits and cash crops. That is why crop diversification is the lowest in low land and relatively high in medium and high land.
The cultivated land can be categorised into two main segments: (a) favourable zones and (b) unfavourable zones. In the favourable zones, water availability is somewhat certain; there is no salinity and no fear of drought or excessive floods. In unfavourable zones, the main determinant of cropping pattern is mostly Nature. We observe that, cropping intensity has declined in all regions - the highest in unfavourable zones and the lowest in favourable zones. Interestingly, in drought-prone areas, cropping intensity has risen by about 20 per cent as compared to a decline in the favourable zones. This unimaginable observation could be due to the fact that irrigation facilities have expanded in these regions to help the growth of HYV aman and boro paddy and bring more land under these crops. This is undoubtedly good news. But the bad news is that, as elsewhere, farmers in drought-prone areas have increasingly tilted towards growing only paddy and the increasing trend of crop diversification is almost a matter of the past there.
Bangladesh needs to make a shift from heavy reliance on underground to surface water irrigation. This will help both underground water level from falling as well as carving out a newer cropping pattern in the face of changing demand for crops from increased per capita income. However for that to happen, incentive and extension structure have to be altered.
Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University. firstname.lastname@example.org
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