The Farmers' Voice
The constant honking of horns, mechanical whirr and tall buildings that urban dwellers of Bangladesh see every day do not reflect Bangladesh at large. Largely, the country is still lands of green pastures, home to people whose lives are interwoven into the very fabric of nature; far from concrete, far from industrialization. With two-thirds of the country's working population in the primary sector, Bangladesh is still an agrarian economy. This is the economy that people need to know more about, the rural economy. Star Insight Magazine was created to keep urban readers better informed about what's happening beyond the city's peripheries; it was created so that we may 'Know Bangladesh Better'. And this pursuit has led us to Shykh Seraj - the most well known agricultural development activist in the country. Last week, Zahidul Naim Zakaria met Shykh Seraj at his office at Channel i, and had the privilege of speaking to him about agriculture, his television programmes, and development in general. Excerpts from the conversation are presented in this fortnight's issue of Star Insight.
Zahidul Naim Zakaria: People rarely choose documentary-making about agriculture as a niche to specialize in. And you did so at a time in Bangladesh when television was just a new concept. What motivated you to work with agriculture?
Shykh Seraj: That's a long story! When I was studying at Notre Dame College, in 1972, I had started to work with a television programme called 'Pran Torongo' that used to air on BTV, the only channel that existed at the time. In fact, the concept of television had just been established for the first time. The programme I was a part of focused on youth activities, and was purely for entertainment purposes. What struck me as odd at the time was that, despite being on television, no one had noticed me. There weren't even any other channels so if anyone watched TV in the evening, they had to have seen me. But the response wasn't very encouraging. Later on, during late 70s, there was a direction from the government to use the television medium for popularizing industrial activities in Bangladesh. This was the first time the outdoor cameras, known as ENG with the large spool tapes came to Bangladesh, and we went out in teams to capture stories on industrial activities. The response to this was tremendous! When we reported about how various things such as steel products and sandals were being produced in the country, mostly in Tejgaon, people couldn't believe their eyes. People who used to watch the show used to ask me in person, “Seraj bhai, are these products really being made in Bangladesh?”
ZNZ: So you didn't begin with agriculture straight away?
SS: No, but my purpose from the very beginning was always to use television for educational purposes. I never thought of the television as only an entertainment box. Once I got feedback from people, I started to realize how significant the impact of this mass medium can be on the nation. I started to think about how I could use it for development. This led me to agriculture. Back then, since BTV had been established using development funds, there was a pressure from development partners to use the medium to increase awareness on various broad social aspects, such as farming, healthcare, education, etc. But it was very difficult to find people who were interested to create programmes to fill that slot and BTV had a hard time meeting these requirements. So, when I expressed my wishes to work with agriculture and create documentaries, my colleagues and seniors at BTV was quite relieved that they found someone who was willing to fill that gap.
ZNZ: So this was when you started “Mati O Manush” (Soil and Men) programme?
SS: Not quite. I actually took over a programme called “Kajer Kotha” (Tales of Work). I didn't like the name, and I didn't like what it meant. In those times, society had some preconceived notions, notions that I tried to change using my programme. People used to think of farming as production of rice and jute only, and farmers were thought of as ordinary village folk who 'work'. People used to consider city inhabitants as 'employees', those who perform office jobs and farmers or village residents as 'workers', those who perform manual labour. I didn't like the existing notions since people often looked down on farming. So I set out to change how the society perceived things. I renamed the programme as “Amar Desh” (My Country). In my programme, I set out to create models of agricultural prosperity. I started with giving rural people ideas. I saw that they weren't able to make a lot of money through traditional rice and jute farming, so I tried to diversify their sources of income. The rural household had access to various resources that were lying idle, which could be made use of for additional income. I suggested that they use nearby ponds for fishing. Instead of having only two cows for the farmland, families could have four and use the two additional ones for milk. Yards could be used to grow some vegetables. But I soon realized that people would not follow my recommendations that easily. So, I helped to set up models that people could follow. And this really worked! Hakim Ali's Mothsho Khamar (Fish Farm) was set up as a model, and on TV I showed how Hakim Ali was able to earn more than the ordinary farmer, and was able to live a much better life. This spurred fishing in ponds across the country. Another model that I set up and broadcasted on TV was Mrs. Jamani's Murgir Khamar (Poultry Farm). Here I showed how housewives could use their free time to create a small poultry farm and produce eggs. The demonstration showed how simple the process could be, and how easily housewives could not only feed their children and husbands eggs, but also sell the surplus eggs to supplement the family income. By this time, my programmes had already transcended the concepts of the traditional farmer and farming, and even the youth had started to participate in farming activities. On top of full length programmes, I had also started making fillers (small programmes between 5 and 10 minutes which run between full programmes) to demonstrate such activities. Today there exists over 150,000 fish farms and more than 100,000 poultry farms in Bangladesh. Poultry farms alone create employment for 5 million people.
ZNZ: Where did this passion for agricultural reform come from? How did you come to look at agriculture differently from the rest of society?
SS: To answer that question, we have to go even further back into the pages of history. In 1965, during the Indo-Pak conflicts, I was sent to my ancestral homes in Gobindiah village, Chandpur for three months. I was only a boy then, and this was the first time I came close to agriculture. I used to roam the crop fields during the day, even tried to work with the Tipras (tipras were people from Tripura; these people worked as agricultural labour throughout Bangladesh in the 60s). In those three months, I first grasped how it all connects, man to soil, to earth. I saw how fast the Tipras would separate the jute fibre from the sticks, I tried to do the same and could separate only 2 sticks in the time they separated 100! Their skill appalled me. This experience had changed something in me, and I realized where my passion lies.
ZNZ: It's amazing to see what the power of information can achieve! Over the years, how has the television programme changed? What are some of your recent initiatives?
SS: Amar Desh ran from 1980 to 1986, after which it was renamed, “Mati O Manush”, and it aired regularly under that banner from BTV till 1996. I restarted the programme in 2004, now from Channel i, with the name “Hridoye Mati O Manush” (Soil and Men in Heart). Since then the programme has grown rapidly and has branched out into various other events. Every year since 2006, Channel i pays respect to someone who has made tremendous contribution as a farmer to the country, through the Channel i Krishi Podok. Another programme that we have done is an entertainment programme during Eid dedicated to farmers and we also have Krishi news on the channel. The “Farmers' Voices in Budget” Programme (Pre-budget open field dialogue session between thousands of farmers and policymakers) proved to be very effective at the policy level. Recommendations submitted every year ahead of the national financial budget, in favour of poor peasants, have reached policy makers of the country. Another programme we have is the “Fire Chol Matir Tane” programme. This is truly a unique programme which selects four university students and takes them to the farmland, turning them into farmers for a few days. They not only learn farming, but also live and eat like farmers. This programme was created so that the future generation, who will be giving the country its direction in the future, is sensitized to the needs of the agro sector. In general, over the last decade, my stance has become more and more policy oriented. My programme has become more of a voice for farmers. It's not just about information anymore, but along with information there is a lot of consideration towards how farmers' welfare is affected, the market, prices and what needs to be adopted into state policies to make it easier for farmers to do their job and earn a decent living.
ZNZ: Your experience in the agriculture and the rural economy is extensive, to say the least! What do you think is the biggest bottleneck to the growth of the agriculture sector in Bangladesh?
SS: The market; access to it, and the market's fluctuations. Do you know what potato farmers have done this season? Price of their crop has fallen so low, that instead of selling it they have thrown their produce back on their crop fields to rot and become fertilizer. Farmers have no protection in the Bangladesh market. They take the most possible risk, and are the ones who have the least risk mitigation options open to them. It is a known fact that agricultural prices are the most unstable, since when their supply fluctuates, prices fluctuate along with them. Farmers in Bangladesh are exposed to climate vulnerabilities. And, on top of climate based uncertainties and price uncertainty, farmers suffer even more because of middlemen. Since middlemen buy in bulk from hundreds of farmers at a time, they are in control. Keep in mind that the middlemen also play a very important role in the chain of distribution, he cannot be removed and that's not the solution. But, there has to be more state regulation on middlemen to ensure that farmers make enough money to recover their investment. I have spoken to countless farmers who have fallen into the cycle of debt since they could not recover enough money from their output. There is no crop insurance. It amazes me to see how resilient our farmers are. They bear so many risks, they work with borrowed money, jump in to production with both feet without having the slightest clue whether they will be able to sell at a good price or not, or whether the climatic conditions will be favourable to grow. What is even more amazing is their steadfast dedication, as they come back to their profession season after season, with the faith that this season, things will be different. Big investors have many facilities from the state, exporters and industrialists have various forms of assistance; farmers only have themselves.
ZNZ: What advice would you give the government to protect farmers from such uncertainties?
SS: First step is to regulate the middlemen. Let me cite an example of this. In Japan, the Japan Agricultural Association (JA) is a private entity under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture. By law, any middleman is a member of the JA, which means their activities are monitored by the Ministry. Second, set prices each season for each agricultural crop; a price that ensures that farmers have a minimum guarantee, a minimum security from the market and do not suffer. But this policy of minimum guaranteed prices has to be backed up by other policies. We know that supply fluctuations will inevitably affect the market. So when the government sets prices they also have to ensure that the market has no tendency to automatically shift that price down. This can be done with information. If the government's agricultural department is knowledgeable enough to inform the farmers, by district or at least by division, of how much of each crop should be produced, then the production levels can be controlled, and prices can be maintained. But, again, there would have to be some kind of association with national oversight to make sure that the production levels set by the government are adhered to by the farmers of each division of the country. To illustrate why it's so important to protect farmers and improve their lives. At the end of the day, they are the people who put food on everyone's table. Farmers of Bangladesh produce about 31 million tonnes of food. And about two thirds of that comes from the Boro season alone. We are marginally food sufficient at the moment. Suppose, at some point in time, some of the Boro farmers who face an increasing degree of uncertainty each season, decide not to produce anything. After all, what difference does it make to produce or not to produce, when the rice farmers himself cannot afford to eat rice? If that happens, if half the farmers stop producing during Boro, and if the output falls by 10 million tonnes, can you imagine what will happen? Forget prices, forget food sufficiency, in that scenario, people may start eating one another.
Shykh Seraj at a Glance
Shykh Seraj is a renowned Bangladeshi journalist and agriculture development activist. His television programmes have empowered the sector i.e. informing rural people about agricultural techniques, new crop varieties, agro-markets, organizing farmers' union, farmers' budget, organizing farmers' game shows, youth leadership programmes, running farmer health camps, etc. He has given farmers a voice for their fundamental rights. Born at the mighty banks of the Meghna river in Chandpur district, he grew up in Dhaka and completed his post-graduation in Geography from Dhaka University.
Before 1990, poultry farms were few in numbers. After Mr. Seraj's strong television campaign Bangladesh now has over 100,000 commercial poultry farms, worth 2.34 billion USD (approx), involving some 5 million people. He boosted up the fisheries sector which now has some 150,000 commercial fish-farms involving at least more than 4 million people and has turned out to be a full-fledged industry, with forward and backward linkages, worth 3.03 billion USD (approx).
He has received numerous awards and accolades for his services to agriculture in Bangladesh. He was awarded Bangladesh Government's Highest National Award 'Ekushey Padak' in 1995. He received the Ashoka Fellowship in honour of his poverty alleviation programmes. He also received UN's FAO A.H. Boerma Award in 2009 for using development journalism to fight against hunger. The BCA Golden Jubilee Honour Award 2010 (UK) and House of Commons Honourary Crest, 2011 (UK) were also awarded to him for his pioneering contribution towards increasing public awareness of all aspects of agriculture and development in both electronic and print mediums.
Shykh Seraj's mission is to enable farmers, with information, to combat hunger, climate change and tackle poverty. His programmes 'give voice' to farmers by bringing their problems to the attention of policy-makers and the government. Currently, he is Founder Director & Head of News at Channel i.
(R) thedailystar.net 2012