The Comilla Programme of Rural Development shows how we can develop our economy.
Posted on January 23rd, 2023

By Garvin Karunaratne

The Comilla Programme of Rural Development was implemented in Bangladesh from 1960 to 1969 by a tri cornered effort of the Government of Bangladesh, The Agency for International Development of the United States of America and the Ford Foundation. The Agency for International Development of the US Government handed over the task to Michigan State University and a few major professors of Michigan State University were resident in Comilla throughout this nine years.

The Government of Bangladesh selected a senior civil servant, Dr Akhter Hameed Khan to be the Director of the Programme, established an Academy where there were specialists in agriculture, livestock and rural development to direct the programme involving the future of every family within the area.

This Comilla Programme involved the development of agriculture and livestock with small industries being established in an area of 107 sq miles and a population of some 150,00. It was a pilot project to find the easiest and best method of enabling economic development and therein lies its importance to all Third World countries. and the land was developed through deep tube wells. It was easily the most successful major development programme the last century has known.

It achieved the task of developing agriculture and livestock to the maximum by getting the people organized into a process of developmental action through cooperatives where the full membership met every week, when Akhter Hammed Khan and professors from Michigan State University looked into their difficulties and organized action to surmount the problems. It was this unending effort over eight years or more that enabled the achievement- of doubling the yield of paddy, the staple crop, the development of cattle breeding, establishing a creamery that churned milk into cheese and butter and the establishment of industries. The cooperative took charge of building up every person in the area and thus a situation of full employment was achieved.

It involved a process of developing an administrative framework where all development departments like agriculture, livestock, industries etc. were housed together at the divisional level, which enabled development to be achieved. Instead of Government village level employees like overseers handling extension, each cooperative selected a model farmer who was trained at the divisional level. These model farmers ended as trained farmers and it was easier for them to convince the people than outside extension overseers.

Cooperatives was the people’s institution which enabled the people to meet, discuss their difficulties and cooperate, and take action to enable the increasing of their incomes. Everyone was found employment and it ended up making the Kotwali Thana an area of 107 sq miles and a population of over 170,000 becoming prosperous. As a result the Kotwali Thana is an area of full employment and prosperity in a country full of poverty.

The Comilla experiment was so successful that it was adopted in other sections of Bangladesh.

Sri Lankan extension in paddy farming and agriculture suffered a major set back in the late Seventies when the World Bank imposed the Training & Visit System which specified that agricultural workers were forbidden to use peoples organizations like cultivation committees and cooperatives. Instead the workers and officials in agriculture were to contact the farmers direct. This contacting farmers direct is suitable for countries where there were farmers with large extents and not suitable for peasant farming where an agricultural officer has a few thousand farmers to contact. (Yodakandiya has 13,000 farmers) ,

The Third World countries followed the Training & Visit System because if you followed it a foreign aid package was provided towards the salaries of local officers and servicing costs. This package also has a grace period of 10 years. This made Governments readily accept this package. In any Third World country where the number of farmers is in thousands , peoples organizations like cooperatives and cultivation committees etc have to be used in contacting farmers. These organizations give the opportunity for farmers to cooperate and work together. Cultivation Committees were disbanded with the abolition of the Paddy Lands Act and cooperatives died down as few farmers used them. This marked the death knell of agricultural extension in Sri lanka .(A Critique of the Training & Visit System of Agricultural Extension in Administering Rural Development in the Third World, University Press Dhaka, 1983)

Further, President Premadasa in one of his unguarded moments promoted all Agricultural Extension Overseers to become Grama Niladharis in 1992 and since then there is no qualified and trained agricultural extension worker at the village level. The closest trained and qualified agricultural officer is the Agricultural Instructor at the divisional level. He has around 13,000 farmers in Yodakandiya and 3,500 farmers in Ranorawa. In short the agricultural extension work was totally crippled.

The Cooperatives if developed and made vibrant can step into this vacuum in agricultural extension. Hon Philip Gunawardena when he was the Minister of Agriculture in 1956-1959 built up farmers organizations like Cultivation Committees and Multipurpose Cooperatives to offer the nexus for the farmers to participate and enable cultivation to be done in an organized manner.

Thus the Comilla Programme method of bringing about agricultural and economic development perhaps offers a solution to the Sri Lanka economic meltdown today. The ideas of Hon Minister Philip Gunawardena too comes to the forefront. It is the only method that is available.

Muhammed Asafuddowlah, once Director of the Comilla Programme states:

The Comilla Approach showed results yet unmatched in terms of application of non formal techniques in imparting lessons of management, discipline and increased income. The pristine quality of this system is its comprehensiveness and is its conceptual integration….. The greatest testimony of the viability of its viability of a concept is its result. In that analysis, the Comilla Approach has no peer.”(Introduction to The Works of Akhter Hammed Khan)

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