Neo-liberalism, food security and agriculture laborers in Bangladesh

By Mohammad Shahidullah

Food security of agriculture labor   

Food security is broadly defined as access by all people at all times to sufficient food to meet their dietary needs for a healthy and productive life. It depends on availability of food, access to food and utilization of food at national, household and individual level.

bangladeshi_rice_400Food availability at the national level is determined by domestic food production; public and private food stockholding; food imports, including food aid; and food exports. With the liberalization of international trade, global availability of food is of increasing importance for national food security. Availability of food at the household level depends on the household’s own capacity to produce food, household food stockholding, and availability of food in the local markets. These factors, in turn, are a function of market operations, infrastructure, flow of information, and seasonal variations in domestic food production.

From the field information, it has been found that more than half of the year, agriculture laborers purchase food from market; depending on family size and operated land under cultivation.  According to statement of sharecropper-cum agriculture labor, in an average, they purchase food from market 5-6 months. The rural wage in agriculture and non-agriculture sector, those who are not involved in cultivation either in sharecropping or in cash lease basis, have to purchase food whole the year; are most vulnerable to price hike of food items. Majority of them are mostly absolute landless and some of them have no homestead land. The price hike of food items since 2008; affected the consumption pattern of poor people, it is like meal rationing and reducing the nutritious item like meat and fish in food item[1].

It has been found that in an average the marginal farmers and agriculture laborers sale 50% of produce within a week after the harvest to pay the loan, irrigation and cost of other inputs; at that time the price remains low in the market. There is intermediary between mill owner and sharecropper; the landless sharecroppers informed that they sell it to local bepary (traders); bepary sells it to mill owners. Generally they don’t sell directly to mill owners as some times the mill owners don’t pay the price immediately after the supplying the paddy.[2]   The Public procurement system does not support the small farmers; the mill owners receiving the price support of public procurement as an intermediary.[3] The agriculture workers organizations demanding to government to procure rice directly from farmers at union level, not from rice mill owners.

There are variations in problem of food security in Rangpur division and rest of the country; in Rangpur region agriculture laborer face seasonal hunger called Manga in Ashwin/Kartic month; though it is reduced in great extent but extreme poverty still high in this region. The workers take loan from informal sources in taka or paddy with high interest rate; it is TK. 100 interest per month against TK. 1000; in case of paddy, the interest rate is higher and it varies from area to area.

Food security and safety net program

To address the problems of poverty and food insecurity, government implementing different food- and cash-based social safety net programs. Currently, there are more than 90 such programs. It is five types, (i) public works program; (ii) Training programs;  (iii) Education programs;  (iv) Relief programs; and (v) Programs for disadvantaged groups. The characteristics of key safety net programs according to its type are described in the following box.
Budgetary allocation for food security under social safety net programs

The safety net programs for food security are Open Marketing Sale (OMS), Vulnerable Group Development (VGD), Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF), Test Relief (TR), Gratuity Relief (GR), and food for works program for the rural and urban poor. The allocation for the food security has been declining under social safety net programs. The allocation has been declining from 47.5% to 40.5% for the year of 2012 and 2013 respectively. It is 35.3% in 2014 (Table 4.1).

Table 1: Budgetary allocation for food security under social safety net programs (in crore TK)

Sector 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14
Allowance programs under safety net 7139.74(50.1%) 7631.41(43.7%) 8989.02(45.3%)
Food security programs under safety net 6758.09(47.5%) 7072.55(40.5%) 6998.08(35.3%)
Different fund and programs under safety net 339.64(2.39%) 2776.02(15.9%) 3850.36(19.3%)
Total 14237.47(100.0%) 17479.98(100.0%) 19837.46(100.0%)

Source: Budget Documents, Ministry of Finance, Government of Bangladesh[4]

Problems in safety net programs

The major problems of safety net programs are low coverage in terms of quantity and quality, not well coordinated, not well targeted, corruption and leakages. According to BIH survey 2011-12, it excludes many poor and includes many non-poor households, while 61 percent of the households in the poorest income quintile are beneficiaries of at least one safety net program, 22 percent of the households in the highest income group also receive benefits from the system in rural Bangladesh.

The Employment Generation Program for the Poorest (EGPP) targets the poorest most effectively. Both male and female beneficiaries do physical work in the program that mainly involves earth moving. About half (49 percent) of the total EGPP participants belong to the poorest 20 percent of the households. However, around 29 percent of the EGPP participants were in the top three income quintiles in 2011.[5]

Public Food Distribution System, Food Security and agriculture labor

Historically, Bangladesh inherited a large program of public food grain distribution that expanded further during the post-independence turmoil and the 1974 famine. The public food grain distribution and most associated regulations were, however gradually reduced during decades following early 1990.

The objectives of the Public Food grain Distribution System (PFDS) are: supply of subsidized /free food grains to vulnerable groups of the population, particularly during the times of economic stress and calamitous conditions, and (b) maintain stability in market prices. Government maintains a stock of food grains through imports from abroad and occasional procurement from domestic market.

Table 2: Public Food Distribution System through Sales and Non-sales Channel

Channel Total Distribution in current year (01 July 13 to 13 Feb. 2014) in Metric Ton % of Total
  Rice Wheat Total  
Sales 191383 201550 392933 30.43
EP 104799 67328 172127 13.332
OP 8165 2061 10226 0.7921
LE 0 9935 9935 0.7695
OMS 71635 121835 193470 14.985
Fair Price 2 0 2 0.0002
4th class employee 6341 18 6359 0.4925
Freedom Fighter 438 373 811 0.0628
Others 3 0 3 0.0002
Non Sale 526696 371451 898147 69.57
FFW 1165 92592 93757 7.2619
TR 192148 140192 332340 25.741
VGF 209307 0 209307 16.212
VGD 51296 107448 158744 12.295
School -feeding 0 10184 10184 0.7888
GR 31574 0 31574 2.4455
Others 41206 21035 62241 4.8208
PFDS Grand Total 718079 573001 1291080 100.0

Source: Ministry of Food, Government of Bangladesh.

Table 2 shows that government distributing food under 12 programs in two channels- price or sales channel and non-sales/non-price channel.  About 70% of public food grain is distributed through non-sale/non-priced channels under different safety net programs; the remaining 30% is distributed through sale channel. The amount of PFDS through sales channel is decreasing due to reforms programs prescribed by the International Financial Institutes (IFIs); from 1991 to 2006, it decreased 63% to 34%[6]. In 20014, the percentage of sales channel is 30% (Table 2).

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) organized a food policy research program in Bangladesh which was instrumental in causing a series of reforms in the PFDS. The significant reforms are abolition of rationing system, deregulation of numerous restrictions on domestic trade, induction of a larger role of private sector in the agricultural input markets, and most importantly, the opening up the external trade in food grains to private traders, have resulted in fundamental changes in the operation of food grain market. The onus of stabilization of food grain supply and prices has shifted to the market forces and traders. [7]

Among price channels, open market operation (15%) and subsidized supply to police and defense forces account for the largest share (13%). Among non-priced channels, Test Relief and vulnerable group feeding constitute the largest components, 25% and 16% respectively (Table 4.2). The target group of PFDS is not poor people under all the programs of sale channel. The non-sale channels are mostly corrupted.

The target group of PFDS is not poor people under sale channels: The target group of PFDS is not poor people under sale channel. After independence, there was a rationing system for the poor; government gradually abolished the system. But the rationing system is in practice for armed forces, police and government employees under essential price (EP) channels; these are clearly not a poverty reducing program. The agriculture workers organizations are demanding Rationing System for the agriculture workers; rice and wheat at the rate of 5 taka/kg, oil, dal at the rate of 30 taka/kg and sugar kerosene at the rate of 15 taka/kg.[8]

Government stopped food support through “Fair Price Card/rationing system” after introduction of 3 months which was targeted 80 lacs poor household in rural and urban areas at 20 kg rice/month for the poor households at rural and urban areas; which was the election commitment of government in previous term. [9]

The poor household is supported by OMS and it also helps to stabilize the price of rice; but the rich households also taking advantage of it; it was found that sometimes quality of rice and wheat is not good. [10]

The non-sale channels are highly corrupted: The agriculture workers organization demanding revival of the 100 days employment guarantee project introduced by the last caretaker government in 2008 under non sale channel; government made downsize the 100 days employment guarantee project in 40 days under EGPP. The non-sale channels are highly corrupted. The findings of the Campaign for the Right to Food and Social Security[11] a civil society network are mentioned below. These findings compiled from newspaper reports.

 Table 3: Corruption and leakages in PFDS

Test Relief (TR)
  • Distribution among the ruling party members and selling the wheat
  • Selling the wheat
  • False allocation
  • False signature and taking away the allotted rice and wheat
  • Taking forced signature by the political leaders from chief of the allotted institute
  • Allotted against the false institute
Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF)
  • Distributed card among the 3/ 4 family members of a households
  • Distribution of one member rice to two members
  • Non participatory decision of UP chairman; chairman took decision alone
  • Manipulation by the political leaders
  • Plundering of wheat and selling it in market
  • Distribution among the rich households
  • Distribution of card by the ruling party leaders violating the guideline
  • Distribution of less amount of rice


Vulnerable Group Development (VGD)
  • Distribution of low quality of wheat
  • Distribution of less amount
  • Taking bribe
  • Selling the VGD wheat in open market

Source: Press Brief, 8 May 2012, held at Dhaka Reporters Unity, Campaign for Right to Food & Social Security

For food security of the rural poor; the CSO campaigners have following demands.

  • Setting up central data base for 25% extreme poor and reaching food to them without leakage and corruption;
  • Coordination among safety net program under one umbrella program and the approach should be based on rights not as charity;
  • Elimination of corruption and leakages in safety net programs; there should have participation of agriculture labor in distribution of card and support services; 
  • Establishing rationing system for the poor in a view to protecting the poor people from market fluctuation of food items; the proposed rate are: Rice, wheat at 5 Taka/kg, Dal at 30 Taka/kg, Sugar and Kerosene at 15 Taka/kg or liter ;
  • Ensuring profitable price of agriculture products.  
  • Reform in the public food procurement system and purchasing directly from farmers;
  • Adequate credit support for sharecroppers with low interest rate;
  • Revival of 100 days employment guarantee schemes for all the agri. labor  households; 
  • Formation of cooperatives of the producers.


[1] Interview with agriculture labor in Domar, Nilphamari

[2] Findings from interview with agri.labor cum sharecroppers at Domar, Nilphamari

[3] M. M. Akash, Budget 2013-14: Perspective of Agriculture Labor and Rural Workers (in Bengali), July 2013, Khetmajour Khabar, Dhaka

[4] Calculated from Seminar Paper on National Budget and Women Empowerment by Samunnay at CIRDAP auditorium, Dhaka on 10 March 2014

[5] Bangladesh Integrated Household Survey 2011-12, IFRI, Dhaka

[6] M. M. Akash, Right to Food and Political Economy of Food (in Bengali), Campaign for Right to Food & Social Security , July 2012, Dhaka

[7] Mohinder S. Mudahar and Raisuddin Ahmed, 2010. Government and Rural Transformation: Role of Public Spending and Policies in Bangladesh, UPL, Dhaka

[8] Interview with the Leaders of Agriculture Laborers Association

[9] Prothom Alo

[10] Press Brief, 8 May 2012, held at Dhaka Reporters Unity, Campaign for Right to Food & Social Security

[11] Press Briefing of Campaign for the Right to Food and Social Security held on 8 May 2012 at Dhaka Reporters Unity


(The above article has been submitted by Mohammad Shahid Ullah, an indenpendent researcher based in Dhaka, Bangladesh and has been published as it is. The views/opinions/analysis expressed in the article are of the author. Md. Shahid Ullah can be contacted at