In Comilla Thana, or sub-district, lying along the eastern
border of the vast alluvial plain that comprises most of East Pakistan, the highest hope
of most villagers was that their lot would not worsen. The annual cycle was flood,
followed by sporadic cyclones, tornadoes and hailstorms and then drought. Loss of the
spring rice crop and severe damage to the autumn crop were common. In less than a century,
population growth had decreased the average family holding from five to less than two
acres, usually in separated fragments.
Deeply indebted, most farmers owed one half of
every crop to moneylenders. The society was bound by feudal traditiona man owning as
little as one acre spurned manual labor. Most village women were restricted to their home
compounds in purdah. Each year the great silt-laden Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers
enriched the soil, but the people grew poorer. Living on scattered hillocks in some 400
villages, one kinship group was usually separated from another in the same village during
the flood season. Afterwards lack of roads and distrust of neighbors in the keen
competition for land discouraged looking outward. Four-fifths of the villagers were
illiterate. Isolation and ignorance led to withdrawal, each group thinking its hardships
were distinctive and beyond hope of resolution.
Bringing change to this society was the challenge AKHTER HAMEED KHAN accepted in
becoming Director of the Comilla Academy for Rural Development. It was instituted by the
Government of Pakistan in 1956 to train government and semigovernmental personnel at all
levels concerned with rural development.
His own life had been a preparation for the Comilla experiment. An outstanding student
and for a time a member of the elite Indian Civil Service, he had rejected high position
to become first a simple farmer and then a locksmith to understand better how to live
usefully. This intimate association with "the uncounted man" led Director KHAN
to stake his reputation on proving that the village peasant could rise to lead himself.
To make teaching at Comilla Academy realistic and practical, began a pilot experiment
in nearby villages to test solutions to problems identified by careful research in rural
areas. Early in 1960 the government gave the Academy permission to use Comilla Kotwali
Thana as a laboratory for rural development. Ford Foundation grants helped finance the
Academy and the Pilot Experiment. Subsequently, the project was included in the
government's Five-Year Plan.
Director KHAN chose the cooperative approach based on individual freedom and personal
initiative. A few good farmers were trained briefly and sent back to encourage villagers
in their areas to organize Societies. Three main principles were insistence upon group
participation in all activities, injection of new ideas through fellow farmers chosen by
the group, and enforced savings.
In three years more than 130 primary village Societies with some 5,000 members have
been organized and the number is increasing as new groups form voluntarily. All Societies
have been federated in a Central Cooperative Association. It provides banking and credit
facilities, machinery service and repair, and training pertinent to the needs of the
villages. Organizers, model farmers and other chosen leaders, upon whom the transition
from subsistence to modern commercial farming largely depends, come weekly on separate
days to the Association. Given instruction in management and planning, improved
agricultural methods and keeping accounts, they return to share new knowledge with
villagers in weekly meetings of the Societies.
The first agricultural machines used in Comilla Thana were pumps for dry season
irrigation and tractors introduced cooperatively by the Academy through the Societies. All
are operated by village "drivers" trained by the Association. As debts are paid
off and savings accumulate, farmers are beginning to invest in tubewells, dairy cows and
other farm animals to further increase their incomes.
Academy training of village, town and sub-district leaders in Basic Democracy made
possible local management of substantial public works. During the 1962 slack season
distressed farmers and landless laborers from 195 villages cleared 35 miles of choked
drainage channels. They rebuilt and constructed over 14 miles of roads and embankments.
The Basic Democrats employed and supervised the workers from their villages. Direct
payment to workers, one-half in wheat flour and the remainder in cash, demonstrated that
foreign aid can relate directly to the village and benefit the great bulk of the
Education for children and adults and active programs for women and on health are the
new concerns of the Academy. Again, the approach is not telling villagers what to do but
enlisting their initiative, painful as the process sometimes proves.
Though encouraged by indications of an initial breakthrough in bringing new attitudes
and skills to the rural society, Director KHAN would have preferred a longer testing
period before applying the Comilla formula elsewhere. At the government's urging, however,
training in village cooperation and local government is now being extended to three
additional thanas. He insisted that each thana program be centered
around an educational institution, suggesting revitalized Village Agricultural and
Industrial Development Institutes. Personnel for these three institutes, which will serve
as three new Thana Training Centers, and all other aspects of the expanded program now are
training at Comilla.
In electing AKHTER HAMEED KHAN to receive the 1963 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government
Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his inspiring personal commitment of experience,
erudition and energy to scientific testing and application of a viable pattern for rural
reform among his people.