According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), between 1971-72 and 2010-11, the net cropped area “decreased by 4.9 percent which represents an annual average decline of about 0.5 percent.”
Agriculture accounts for 19.6 percent of our national GDP and yet, over the last 30-40 years, about one percent of our agricultural land is shifting to non-agricultural uses.
Bangladesh lost at least a quarter of her agricultural land over the last four decades.
According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), between 1971-72 and 2010-11, the net cropped area "decreased by 4.9 percent which represents an annual average decline of about 0.5 percent."
At this speed of decreasing agricultural land, the experts fear, in 200 years Bangladesh will lose all of its arable lands.
In the face of such realities, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's recent announcement to establish special economic zones (SEZ) to save arable land from indiscriminate industrialisation comes as a sign of hope.
On November 6, the prime minister said that the government is going to "stop building industries here and there" to save arable lands for the sake of "ensuring food security for the 16 crore people."
Despite an announcement of relief from the prime minister about setting up special industrial zones, we better not overlook that industrialisation is not the only actor that plays a role in reduction of arable lands.
According to Professor Dr Kamal Uddin Ahamed, vice-chencellor of Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, random occupation of agricultural lands for housing and educational institutions also plays a major role in it.
Professor Ahamed applauds the prime minister's announcement about stopping random industrialisation, but he insists on proper guidelines about where and how these special economic zones to be built for the reason that without a prudent plan, the attempts might not be successful.
Dr Ahamed recommends wisdom in setting up the special economic zones. He emphasises on locating these zones all across the countries.
"Each of the 64 districts should have one special economic zone," says the professor. "Along with divisional cities where a big total of the population live, the government should emphasise on the areas like Barishal, Noakhali and Chattogram hill tracts where vast tracts of barren and unfertile lands lie."
To leave the arable lands untouched, lands with salinity that deter crops from growing, barren lands and demesne lands owned by the government could be the target location of these economic zones.
The diversification of locations of the zones, however, could be successful in saving arable lands on the condition that the government ensures that none of the zones are established on the roadside arable lands even in districts like Faridpur, Rangpur, Kurigram etc.
Dr Nathu Ram Sarker, director general of Bangladesh Livestock Research Institute, agrees with Professor Ahamed about locating the special economic zones in various parts of the country.
But Nathu Ram says that "the government should ensure proper transportation and communication facilities for the district-level economic zones to convince the industrialists that business is smooth in the special zones no matter how far they are located."
Whereas industrialisation is much denounced in terms of our decreasing arable lands, a few people are there to single out housing and building various institutions on random roadside lands.
Many in the village areas now have a flow of liquid money, thanks to the hard-earned remittances from abroad. Some people in the villages are now capable of building homes for themselves. Good for them but let us not overlook the fact that minus the implementation of "Protection and Usage of Agricultural Land Act", the country is losing much of its arable lands for housing purposes.
Putting an added emphasis on this, Professor Ahamed suggests that the government should encourage people in building multi-storeyed houses. Not only in the villages, following the examples of developed nations, getting used to living in multi-storeyed buildings could save much of the agricultural lands all across the country, including the cities.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina correctly put that the "demand for food never ends and rather increases with soaring up of the population." It is obvious that steps must be taken so that demand for food can be ensured. But more importantly, we need to ponder over how the rising rate of population can be controlled.
With 160 million people in such a small country, Bangladesh might have 250 million people by 2050. Given this scenario, ensuring food for this added population may turn out disastrous if a growth in population continues simultaneously along with the reduction of arable lands.
To ensure demand for food for the rising number of population and to advance our agricultural production, Professor Ahamed recommends establishing agricultural industries in the proposed economic zones.
In a densely-populated country like Bangladesh, a reduction in arable lands is not only an unfortunate thing; it is devastating for the future. It could badly impact the country's ability to achieve and maintain self-sufficiency targets, and endanger food security and availability.