By the early 1970s a significant number of irrigation pumps called deep tube wells (DTWs) had been sunk with foreign aid funds to irrigate a dry-season rice crop using modern, high-yielding seeds developed in the Philippines. It was hoped that this would bring the nation's chronic food deficits under control.
Bangladesh, a territory of 35 million acres and one of the most densely populated in the world, needed to increase its food production. We had 21 million acres available for cultivation. In the rainy season we produced mainly rice and jute, but there was potential to increase our crops through an extension of irrigation and improved water management during the dry winter season. Specialists estimated that existing crop yields amounted to only 16% of our farm yield potential.
The management structure for the tube wells was supposed to be a cooperative that local farmers would join to ensure fair and judicious use of the machinery. In practice, within a short time, most tube wells fell under the control of the wealthiest person within its command area. Huge bribes were often given to ensure DTW was sunk on a politically well-connected person’s property. Worse still, parts of poor people's land were often seized to build the canals that would carry the water to the wealthy farmers' fields. Over time, most of the pumps fell into disuse.
Thought not an agronomist, Dr Yunus went about finding out how he could help the villagers of Jobra grow more food by replacing their low-yielding local variety of rice with the high-yielding variety developed in the Philippines. One day in Autumn 1975 Dr. Yunus asked one of his trusted student, Dipal Chandra Barua, to find out why the irrigation pump in his village was not going to be used during the upcoming season. Dipal reported back that over the two-and-a-half years since it was sunk, the farmers were unable to afford the diesel fuel and the parts to keep it running. Those who contributed toward the cost complained that because others refused to pay their share, the water had been shut off during critical periods. Rice harvests had been ruined, and participating farmers were sometime worse off than if they had simply left their land fallow. On several occasions, unhappiness about mismanagement had boiled over into violence.
Dr Yunus studied the problem, talking to farmers in the fields and at his home. He decided to convene a meeting of farmers whose land fell within the pump's command area. His aim was to persuade them to work together to ensure that there was a dry-season crop in the coming months.
The gathering was held outdoors, in front of a tea stall in Jobra. As it is customary in Bangladesh, most of the farmers who attended arrived late, and it was past midnight when Yunus interrupted the shouting matches that had broken out, and presented a plan.
In this plan, Dr. Yunus and the people he appointed to a management committee would run the tube well and supply all the seeds, fertilizer, and insecticide. In exchange, Dr. Yunus would receive one-third of all the crops harvested. The other two-thirds would be split equally between the owner and the cultivator of the land. Dr. Yunus would sell his share to recover the costs of running the program, and any surplus would be reinvested into the upkeep and improvement of the tube well.
He [Dr. Yunus] liked the simplicity of tehbhaga (three share) – three parties shared the work, and the same three parties shared the fruits of the work. Each had incentives to make the initiative a success, and the farmers had the rare opportunity to cultivate under a scheme in which someone else bore most of the risk of crop failure.
Initially there was hostility. Old wounds and jealousies from earlier efforts to manage the tube well resurfaced. Larger farmers were particularly mistrustful of the plan. Farmers also insisted that Dr. Yunus take one-sixth of the share rather than one-third. They also wanted him to accept total responsibility for any loss. If the government, they argued, could sink tube well without charging the villagers anything, why couldn’t the university put together a management plan for free as well? The elites members of the village also requested that they’d be given special status by being included on a largely symbolic advisory committee. Dr. Yunus agreed to this group’s request and remained insistent on his share of third. Finally, after intense negotiation the plan was adopted unanimously.
Dr. Yunus named the project the Nabajub Tehbhaga Khamar (New Era Three Share Cultivation Scheme). He divided the participating farms into four blocs, and assigned a student to manage each. Assaduzzaman, a recent graduate of the Economics Department whom Yunus had hired to be the secretary to the Rural Economics Program, was named the project coordinator. Yunus and Assad (as Assaduzzaman is commonly known) began procuring the necessary seeds, fertilizer, diesel fuel, and insecticide with a 40,000 taka ($1,000) loan from a local branch of Janata Bank. Yunus took out an additional 25,000 taka loan for building an inexpensive cross dam in a nearby stream to provide additional irrigation.
Everyone associated with the project was impressed by the degree of Yunus's personal involvement. The expectation was that he would have his students organise everything and simply come back after the harvest to inspect the results. Instead, he attended every committee meeting and spent considerable time in the fields talking to the farmers. His and Latifee’s familiarity with every aspect of life in Jobra grew.
The farmers were amused. But we were very serious. We offered our free services to help them plant the high-yielding rice. University students and teachers became volunteer farmers. The whole village and the campus community watched us struggling to plant rice seedlings while knee-deep in mud. Who ever saw a university professor planting rice along with the farmers? It was unheard of.
My students and I showed the farmers the importance of spacing each seedling at a regular intervals and of planting in a straigt line in order to optimise production and land yields. The local newspaper published photos of us, showing local farmers how to use a string to get the rice in a straight line. They laughed at us at first, and many students were contemptuous of my hands-on approach, but we helped quadruple rice production.
I kept looking for new ways for the university to make a difference in the community. My interests and concerns for local farming were entirely practical.
An empiricist, I was willing to learn by my mistakes and those of others.
I was trying to bring the academic world and the village together through a university project I championed called the Chittagong University Rural Development Project (CURDP).
Some of my students recall that I was quite formal when I first took up my teaching duties in 1972. I used to require students to sign up if they wanted an appointment with me.
If that was the case, the CURDP which I headed broke down all the stiffness and all the aged-old formal barriers that existed in Bangladesh between a university professor and his students.
By now I had almost completely abandoned traditional learning and was conceptualising many CURDP programmes, including a mass literacy project. I encouraged my students to go down with me into the village and see how day-to-day life there could be improved. They could choose a topic and write a research paper for a course credit.
When the harvest was completed in early June 1976, the results were impressive. The land under cultivation had ended up reaching 85 acres, and the yield exceeded 1.2 tons per acre, double the national average. Yet the program posted a 13,405 taka ($335) loss after the bank loan was repaid because of an unexpected drop in the price of rice, the high cost of overseeing the program, storage problems, and some pilferage. Dr. Yunus, refusing to go back on his word, went ahead and covered the amount out of his own pocket.
When word leaked to the village that the professor had absorbed the loss, many farmers were surprised and distraught. Some expressed a feeling of shame at having six months' worth of rice in their houses while the man who had organised the program was out thousands of taka.
It was learning process for all of us. The first year ended with enormous success. Every farmer was happy. They did not have to spend any cash, and they got a very high yield. I, however, lost 13,000 taka because farmers cheated me on my share. They gave me less than the one-third they had promised me. But I still felt victorious because it had worked. We had grown a crop where no crop had ever grown on this land in the dry season before.
For the 1976-77 dry season, Dr. Yunus took a advisory role and shared his knowledge on the necessary introductions to the bankers and the wholesalers from whom he had bought the agricultural inputs. He fought off the farmers request to administrator the program, reminding them that he was only a professor and not an irrigation specialist. His job was merely to demonstrate what was possible. Now it was their responsibility to institutionalise the program, or discontinue it if they choose to do so.
With proper irrigation, the fields were suddenly full of the emerald green of the standing rice crop. The beauty and promise of a rice crop warms the heart of every Bengali.
In order to make the Tehbhaga Khamar project more effective, Dr Yunus and his associates pioneered the idea of 'Gram Sarkar' (Village Government) that same year. In this concept local government would be formed based on the participation of rural people.
Though he worked tirelessly to make his rural programs a success, Dr Yunus had "deep misgivings".
The Tehbhaga program highlighted one issue that he had overlooked: once the rice was harvested, manpower was needed to separate the rice from the dry straw - and this "mindless boring work" was given to destitute women. Since they were the cheapest day labourers and they had no other choice other than to beg on the streets, their dire hopeless situation made these women the most exposed by employers. Many of them were widows, divorced, or abandoned with children to feed. They were too poor to be share-croppers and were landless and assetless and without hope.
They would come early in the morning like beasts of burden and would separate the rice with their feet, for hours on end, holding themselves upright by finding tiny ledges for their fingers to grip the wall so as not to fall over while they worked.
I could not get over the scene I witnessed: some 25-30 women threshing the paddy produced on the farm. They did this with their bare feet, facing a wall on which they found support. They would perform a continuous twisting motion, wrapping the rice straw around their feet to force the paddy to separate from it. This would go on endlessly from morning to evening. Their wage depended on the amount of paddy they separated during the day's work. They received 1/16th of the paddy they separated. This usually meant 4 kilos of paddy a day, which was worth about 40 US cents.
The women would compete to find a convenient position against the wall to make it less tiring. They would race to arrive the earliest. The competition was so fierce that many showed up at the workplace when it was still dark, only to find others already there.
What a terrible life - to earn 40 cents investing the weight of your body and the tiresome motion of your bare feet for 10 hours a day!
There was something fundamentally wrong. His programs were designed to help the poor. Yet it was these same people who were manipulated the most. They worked the hardest but were given peanuts for their back-breaking toll. So Dr Yunus decided to focus on the most important people: the poorest of the poor.
Dr Yunus concluded that rural programmes in general overlook two fundamental factors: role of women and productivity time. Female involvement is highly restricted and neglected while at the same time the landless and near-landless who provide the bulk of the labourers only use 20% of their total available labour time, leaving them idle for the other 80% of the time. This was a shameful waste of their talent.
Therefore, Dr Yunus decided to target these two groups.
I always thought that the landless would be more enterprising than small farmers because a life tied to the land, the way a farmer's life is, tends to make people conservative, narrow in outlook, inward-looking. But the landless, who have no ties to the land, are likely to be more mobile, more receptive to new ideas adn therefore more enterprising. Their condition of utter destitution makes them fighters. And not being tied to the land, they are free from the traditional lifestyle.