Vol. 4 Num 77 Tue. August 12, 2003  

Beneath the surface
The veritable vegetable grower

I was visiting few projects that are reported to be "pro-poor". We have been hearing about "pro-poor growth", "pro-poor policies" etc. for a pretty long time. A close scrutiny, sometimes, showed that there was always a slip between the cup and the lip. It allegedly, appears pro-poor but serves the rich. I just wanted to know whether all that called "pro-poor" projects were, in fact, rhetoric or reality. Thanks to the Poverty Elimination Through Rice Research Assistance (PETRRA) project under the aegis of IRRI for allowing me to visit some of their "pro-poor" projects. On way to my mission, the Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service (RDRS) officials of Thakurgaon engaged in PETRRA projects introduced me to a person. They were narrating how a penniless person rose to the prominence among the poor. I wanted to meet him and he courteously called on me.

Deprivation and desperation

Khairul Islam (45) never thought that doomsday was at his doorsteps. Nor should he have thought so. Because, his father owned 11.5 acres of land to be inherited by three sons. But brothers, allegedly, betrayed Khairul by managing all lands from the father and thus depriving him of his due share. At that time of the disaster, he had three sons and a wife. Soon after, in 1991, his wife died and he had to marry Parul Begum to look after the kids and the household. Khairul was confident that he could overcome the crisis but the constraint was cash money. Desperate as he was to feed a family of five and another to join very soon, he went to a 'mahajan' and borrowed Tk. 20,000 at an interest of 10 per cent per month. Mentionably, all that he had of his own were: (a) a house made of mud and straw; (b) 10 decimal homestead land and (c) a jug of seeds of Lal shak (red leafy vegetable).

Some body told Khairul that NGOs could help him with credit to carry out income earning opportunities. He approached RDRS but, painful as it was, the prayer was rejected on the plea of poor credit worthiness of Khairul. Few days later, one Shamsul Huq of RDRS stood beside him and paid on his behalf a cumulative savings amount of Tk. 140 at a time. Meantime, family's economic crisis began to mount. It was very hard to get three meals a day. There was no option left for him than begging or borrowing. However, after joining the group formed by RDRS, Khairul got training on vegetable production and poultry rearing and applied for a loan. While other applicants were given a loan of Tk. 4000 to 5000, it was only Tk. 2000 for Khairul. However, with the money in hand, he leased in one bigha land for one year with Tk. 1000 to grow vegetables and decided to set aside the rest of the amount for petty trading and buying inputs.

Valuable vegetables

Khairul went for the production of cucumber in the leased-in land. The decision was based mainly on the demand for the product in the market that he could ascertain. Fortunately, soon he could become a contract grower of BRAC to supply seeds. Thus, output and seeds from cucumber fetched him about Tk. 16,000. Excluding all costs, Khairul reaped home Tk. 8000 as net income! Lucrative profits from cucumber lured him but for food security of the household, he also went for paddy cultivation. Then potato. He excelled in both. Seeing his promising and profitable performance, the landowner leased out another 75 decimals at Tk. 3500 for one year. Khairul grew vegetables and began to sell in the roadside arats. In 1994, he sold vegetables worth Tk.32,000. With that money, he mortgaged in 2.5 bigha land at Tk. 20,000 and bought 50 decimal paddy land.

Bridge as boon

In 1998, Bongabandhu Bridge over the Jamuna was opened up for traffic. Khairul had read up to eighth grade but could read well the realities on the ground. He realised that the biggest bridge could help better business and trading, especially of perishable products. In his lifetime, he saw farmers growing vegetables but failed to fetch a fair price due to the lack of communication to market the crops. About half of the products used to perish in the absence of disposal. But those days appeared to have gone with quick contacts, facilitated by the Bridge, between his region and all other parts of Bangladesh. Imbibed with the new insights, Khairul began to devote more land on vegetable production. To be specific, he used his newly mortgaged-in 2.5 bigha land to grow raddish and other vegetables. A party from Dhaka came to see his farm and expressed the desire to buy products on regular basis from him. A silverlining loomed large in Khairul's life. Neighbours began to visit his fields.

Turning the table

Khairul, for the first time in his life, decided to go to Dhaka to sell his outputs. He reckoned that the margin that goes to the middlemen could pour into his pockets provided he established direct connection with the buyers. There was, of course, risks involved since he knew nothing about Dhaka and the deals there. But as I mentioned, the person was desperate to go up the income scale and risks had to be taken to overtake others. One fine morning, Khairul got out of his home with 40 bags (70 maunds) of raddish, and rode on a truck that was carrying stones. With an address of a merchant at Kawran Bazar collected from his local arat, he reached the place and the person with his bags of raddish. They were sold at Tk. 240/maund to give Khairul Tk. 17,000. After deducting the costs of transport, seeds, labour/draft animals, fertilizer/water etc., reportedly, he got a net return of Tk. 6000. Second time also from the same land, he took to Dhaka 15 bags but price went down due to over supply. This time, at Tk. 130 per bag, he reaped home about Tk. 2000.

The next trip, again for the first time, was to Chittagong in 2001. His bus from Thakurgaon started at 5 pm and reached Chittagong at 6 am next day and after selling the products he returned the same day because of the bridge that was once a dream. Khairul carried six cages (18 maunds) of karala to fetch home a net return of Tk. 13,000. Just a week later the same kind of journey took place with six cages (27 maunds) of Karala.

Farm and fortune

And so the rewards continued. Khairul started producing karala bitter gourd to sell in Khulna and Dhaka markets. In 1999, sales from raddish and karala were hefty and he bought 2 bigha (1 acre) of land at Tk. 44,000. Meantime, he devoted no less attention to the education of his children, meeting non-food needs of the family and saying prayers regularly. His children are getting good education in schools and colleges/training institutes. "But, I also use them in the early morning to harvest the daily crops that I take to the local arats for sale. This is mainly to teach my family that fortunes come from farms. I also employ children of poor neighbours just to give them some cash money", Khairul described to me. "Now a days, the number of vegetable growers in this region increased substantially, especially the poor farmers who used to keep land fallow are now vying to grow vegetables because of the opening up of markets due to the big bridge. In the past, farmers used to go to the roadside with vegetables and, more often than not, used to throw away the unsold surplus. Now-a-days, nothing like that happens. Earlier, we produced vegetables and we perished but now it is the reverse: if we do not produce we perish". Khairul continued his conversation, as if, with a student who knows little about the role of Jamuna Bridge and the realities around the poor farmers.

Truthful trainer

Starting with zero amount of land in 1992, within the span of 11 years or so, Khairul now owns four acres of land plus he leased in another one acre to grow karala. I saw signs of happiness in him. However, he was looking at his wrist watch at 9.30pm reminding me, perhaps, that a businessman like him has not much time left for a gossip with a university professor who draws upon a definite salary (irrespective of the output delivered!) at the end of each month. But Khairul will have to go home, take stock of things for tomorrow's markets, rise up at 5am and then again go to bed at 12 midnight.

During the discourse, it was nice to hear that RDRS now knocks at the door of Khairul whose loan prayer was once rejected on the plea of poor creditworthiness. The reason they look for Khairul is to train other vegetable growers coming from different areas. Khairul teaches them with right earnest, not textbook type economics, but economics originated from the practical experiences of his fields. "It is not the size of the land but hard work, small amount of capital, some knowledge on production and marketing and above all a good communication system that could improve the fate of people like me", Khairul told me. In other words, according to him, the poor only need a small amount of land, institutions to provide small cash, training on new cropping systems and a good communication network to market their products. Thus infrastructure, innovations and institutions seemingly constitute the core of any approach to poverty reduction especially of the resource poor farmers.

Still with dreams!

At the fag end, as I was wishing him a success, Khairul said: "Sir, I have two dreams to come true. First, to buy a pick-up van so that I myself can carry the commodities and second, to write a book". "Writing a book?" I gave a surprise look at him. " Yes sir, about my life. I have already named the book as Paruler sansar (Parul's family)". "Why not Khairuler sansar?" I wondered. "Because throughout the journey so far, my wife Parul stood beside me to share the sorrows and silverlinings. In fact, she played the pivotal role in relieving us of the rigours", said Khairul, the veritable vegetable grower to live in my memory for years to come.

Abdul Bayes is professor of economics, Jahangirnagar University