Rural Development in Bangladesh -The Asian Age

Rural development is a planned change to improve the economic nd social living standards of the rural poor through increased productivity, equitable distribution of resources and empowerment. In general, this change can be divided into two parts, the establishment of rural institutions and technical. In the eyes of economists, it focuses on the whole issue of technological, economic, political and social change related to the collective efforts aimed at accelerating the growing welfare of the rural people.

The specific goal of rural development in today's Bangladesh is to enable the rural underprivileged, especially the backward women and children, to control the surrounding environment and the appropriate distribution of benefits as a result of that control. The key to rural development in Bangladesh is (a) poverty alleviation, improving the living standards of the rural poor, (b) equitable distribution of income and resources, (c) creation of massive employment opportunities, (d) planning, decision making, process implementation, sharing of opportunities, participation of local people in the evaluation of rural development programs and (e) giving greater economic and political power to the rural people to control the use and distribution of scarce resources.

Prior to 1971, there were several types of rural development agencies in the country. Village government has its origins on those times. The main responsibility of the village government was to collect taxes on behalf of the central government as well as to control the law and order situation and to promote trade and commerce. Apart from building limited rural infrastructure and carrying out emergency relief operations, the medieval rule did not set a precedent for a well-organized and institutionalized concept of rural development.

In 1793, through the Permanent Settlement Act, the British created a kind of obedient zamindar class. This zamindari system abolished the local rural bodies of Bengal and provided a good source of revenue and political support to the central ruling class. Some philanthropists, including some government officials, took commendable initiatives to implement a number of rural development programs locally and to a limited extent. Poet Rabindranath Tagore formed an organization in 1921 to create a spirit of cooperation among the villagers.

Following this institution, various villlage welfare trusts, health cooperatives, educational institutions and handicraft training centers were established. Sher-e-Bangla A. K. Fazlul Huq, a political and social figure and Prime Minister of Bengal in 1937 set up many educational institutions and passed a number of laws to alleviate the debt problems and illiteracy of Bengal farmers. Mahatma Gandhi founded some ideal villages based on small scale agriculture and cottage industries which were run on the basis of self-reliance. High-ranking government officials under the British colonial rule experimented rural development projects under their respective jurisdictions.

In 1953, Village Agricultural and Industrial Development (V-AID), a rural agriculture and industrial development program launched with the support of the US government. This was the initial attempt to ensure public participation at the level of rural development during the Pakistan period. All major areas of rural development such as agriculture, primary education, health, sewerage, cooperatives, land reclamation, physical infrastructure and social and recreational activities were included in this program. However, the program failed to lay its foundation, as little was done to establish institutions and organize society at the grassroots level. The project was finally withdrawn in 1961.

However, despite the limitations of this program, it made a significant contribution to the conceptual foundation and progress of the Comilla model of rural development. The Comilla model was designed by the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development. Later it was renamed as Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development (BARD).

The model had four basic foundations: (a) Rural action projects: development of communication system and drainage system using local manpower; (B) Thana Training and Development Center: Training on agriculture, technology, cooperatives, rights and duties of citizens, etc.; (C) Thana Irrigation Project: Provision of irrigation facilities to farmers and collective use and management of power pumps and tubewells; (D) Two-tier co-operatives: To create a spirit of co-operation among the rural people through two complementary co-operative structures at the thana and mobsball levels.Ayub Khan's government in 1959 introduced a four-tier system of local government called basic democracy, which included unions, police stations, district and divisional councils.

A major development agency was set up at the national level under the support of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare to coordinate basic democracy and V-Aid programs. Proponents of basic democracy have identified the system as a way to introduce citizens to democratic autonomy, but opponents of the system say its underlying goal was to create a group of privileged constituencies and turn it into a trusted vote bank to further the ruling party's political agenda.

Since its inception, Bangladesh has witnessed the continuous experimentation of various theories related to rural development. In the post-independence period, a large number of volunteer and government organizations conducted relief and rehabilitation activities with the aim of rebuilding the war-torn economy and society. In 1972, the government launched the Integrated Rural Development Program for the re-introduction and expansion of the Comilla model in other parts of the country.

Later, the program was transformed into a new organization called Bangladesh Rural Development Board. Eventually it became the largest government agency for rural development. Its main functions are to formulate target group based projects and agricultural development projects such as adoption of productive projects, expansion of two-tier cooperatives, rural women projects and poverty alleviation projects.

A distinctive feature of the movement was its focus on rural development, reflecting the doctrine of independence and self-reliance, focusing on the village level, setting up an organization called 'Gramsabha' with adult members of the village and formulating participatory village plans for development activities. One of the major examples of the self-reliance movement is the Ulshi-Jadunathpur canal excavation program in Jessore district. Through this program, 18,000 acres of wetlands were brought under cultivation.

With the main objective of improving the socio-economic status of the people under the institutional framework, BARD started an intensive rural development program in 1975 with distinct features from the rural development sector concept. In 1993, BIRD initiated an experimental program. It was a small farmer development program, all of which aimed at small farmers.

The purpose was to organize the peasants and landless workers with the necessary interim assistance and other services for production and establishment of institutions. Other major government large rural development projects are development projects for the poor, Thana resource development and employment projects, rural social service programs, social development programs, rural women's self-reliance programs and rural employment technology.

Recent planning and government documents show that important aspects of the government's ongoing rural development policy include employment-oriented production, people's participation in development activities, greater support in the public and private sectors, and for rural poor women, ethnic minorities, children and the elderly. In addition to government initiatives, voluntary organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are engaged in extensive rural development activities such as income and employment, development, education, relief and rehabilitation planning and maternal and child care.

There are many non-governmental organizations in the country including international non-governmental organizations. A number of national non-governmental organizations were formed in the early seventies based on relief and reconstruction activities. The most influential doctrine of NGOs on rural development is generally known as the micro credit model, which is based on the combination of rural poverty alleviation and poverty alleviation.

Following this doctrine, a number of NGOs have gained a reputation at the national and international levels. Notable among these are Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), Association for Social Advancement (ASA), Grameen Bank, Proshika Human Development Center and Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service.

Analysis of past experience related to rural development efforts can identify a number of major problems, which have been hindering the successful execution of all efforts. These problems are: instability of rural development agencies, incompetent and corrupt leadership, non-cooperation of local governments by the central government, lack of well-organized rural development policies, unequal distribution of opportunities arising from rural development projects, limited development and limited resources.

The very nature of rural socio-economic infrastructure in Bangladesh poses a threat to the effective implementation of rural development programs. These include low capital formation, agrarian economy, lack of skilled and educated manpower, unemployment, inflation, increasing dependence on foreign aid, rapid population growth, rural political factions, frequent natural disasters, underdeveloped markets and financial institutions and underdevelopment.

MdArafat Rahman is aColumnist & Asst. Officer, Career & Professional Development Services Department, Southeast University