South Asia has made substantial progress in agricultural production, but this has been "neither adequate nor equitable enough to reduce the region's huge backlog of poverty," said Farid Rahman, Acting President of the Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre in Islamabad, Pakistan, which prepared the report with support from UNDP.
More than a third of the people in the region - 530 million - live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than US$1 a day. The report covers Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Agricultural development programmes have failed to benefit small landholders, who constitute the majority of the rural poor, noted Dr. Hari Krishna Upadhyaya, Chairman of the Centre for Environment and Agricultural Policy Research Extension and Development in Kathmandu.
UNDP Resident Representative Henning Karcher pointed out that productivity of the agricultural sector and rural development are directly related to the targets of the first Millennium Development Goal, which include halving the proportion of people in extreme poverty and the proportion suffering from hunger between 1990 and 2015.
The report calls women the "invisible and unrecognized backbone" of South Asian agriculture, yet in rural areas they remain hostage to backward, feudal traditions, it says. Women very rarely control assets, including land, which seriously reduces their ability to protect their basic rights and limits access to credit and support services.
"Administrative structures have not shown adequate sensitivity to rural women's needs, and as a result, women's programmes are still peripheral," noted Mr. Karcher.
Small farms should be the centre of the revival of agriculture and rural development, according to the study, and the incentive system that is provided to commercial farming should not be at the expense of the vast majority of the rural populace.
The report recommends accelerated investment in agricultural research, technology, and infrastructure, including agricultural marketing and irrigation facilities. It also urges governments to create a legal framework to define property rights and speed land reform.
For South Asian countries to benefit from globalization in agricultural trade, the report says, it is important that the "rich and prosperous proponents" of free trade in the North play a fairer game by eliminating large agricultural subsidies.
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