Thursday, April 30, 2015

Potato Fields Turned Death-meadows for Bengal Farmers

By Pijush Banerjee

THE insecticide was there in the house to prevent infection of aphids on mustard seeds. But Gudu Murmu had no intention whatever of spraying it on the mustard seeds. The marginal farmer from Bhatar poured it into his own throat.

The cost of the insecticide bought from a local fertiliser shop is still due to be paid. The onus is now on Ram Murmu to repay his father’s debt.

100 grams of the pesticide costs Rs 180. Mustard aphids, a type of little bug, infest the mustard seeds. The cost of the insecticide has now got added to the liabilities to the fertiliser shop incurred for the potato cultivation.

Even the poison consumed by farmers to commit suicide is bought in debt. The administration of the Mamata Banerjee government has suggested such distressed farmers to store 150 sacks of rice in their hamlets.

Ram Murmu, the son of the farmer who committed suicide was expressing his anguish, “Is the government out of its heads? We would have no troubles whatsoever if we could have had 150 sacks of rice in our house.”

Two sons of Swapan Kundu had to relocate to Chandigarh from Khanakul to work for a jeweler. Daily hard work from 10 am to 9 pm earns them a monthly salary of Rs 2000, with the owner bearing their food and lodging expenses.

Swapan Kundu, a potato farmer from Khanakul, committed suicide after failing to cope up with distressed selling.

After enquiring about his death, the Mamata Banerjee government had inferred that his sons are ‘well-to-do’. Soumen Kundu, the elder son, after returning to his village on learning his father’s suicide commented, “If the family is well-to-do, who on earth moves to Chandigarh for a meager Rs 2000 monthly salary? I am only 25, and my father was 55 years old. You must understand that why I had to leave my family and state at this age.” But who is there to understand the agony of the son of a farmer who has committed suicide?

Swapan Kundu’s wife has to take insulin twice a day. With liabilities worth Rs 1,18,000, her sons are now striving to obtain the life-saving drug to keep their mother alive.

Starting from March 4, the harvesting season for potatoes, 16 farmers have taken recourse to suicide in 20 days. The spate of fatal suicides was mainly concentrated in high yielding potato production areas of Hooghly and Burdwan, a few from Howrah, Birbhum and West Midnapore. What started as distress sale has reached to the proportion of no sale at all within 15 days, driving thousands of farmers into unprecedented crisis.

Farmers would commit suicides on account of distress selling, in a state where ‘Mati Utsab’ (soil festival) is annually organised at the whim of the chief minister! This year, the government has also organised the ‘Matitirtha Utsab’ after the ‘Mati Utsab’. In such a festive springtime, farmers are getting killed due to distressed selling, and being unable to repay debts.

So, the government has discovered that Gudu Murmu, the marginal farmer from Bhatar, had no debts. Actually, a marginal farmer like him is not even eligible to take loan. He has cultivated on a contract basis in just 17 katha land. ‘Showing’ 150 sacks of rice in his house, the government has concluded that he was a habitual drinker of country liquor. No representative of the government has as yet reached even the villages where farmers have committed suicides.

Gudu Murmu had taken two bighas of land on lease this year for potato cultivation. The contract had stated that both the landlord and the farmer had to equally bear the expenses of cultivation.  And, they would also equally share the profits on selling the yield. But, the price of the potatoes is much below than the expenses of farming. Gudu Murmu could not gather the courage of collecting the potatoes from the field. And, he chose to drink insecticide before doing that.

What about the accounts of the 150 sacks in his house?

“Are these mine? These belong to the land-owner. And only 37 sacks. They are kept in the house as we could not get enough prices for them. If these are sold, half of the earnings are to be given to him. This year the price of rice is on the ebb. So those could not be sold. My father had thought that the potato cultivation could compensate for the losses of paddy cultivation. He himself is now gone.” Ram Murmu was replying to the shameless lies of the government.

The voices of the people do not seem to reach the 14th floor of the Nabanna. If it would have, the government could have easily taken initiatives to stop this endless death march. A potato farmer had written to the chief minister on March 3 fearing imminent danger. The letter had directly reached the resident in the 14th floor of the Nabanna.

Now the words of the letter have made a cruel return to the soil. What were the anxieties written in the letter of a potato farmer from Udaynarayanpur?

 “… Therefore madam, I am pleading to you to immediately take necessary actions to save us from the lurking obvious death.” This was how Dipak Santra concluded his letter. This potato farmer who wrote from a Goja village from Udaynarayanpur also stated that, “Taking debts, I have cultivated potatoes in my own two bighas, and in 3½ bighas shared land. Now, potatoes do not have a profitable price, and no one is willing to buy potatoes. We cannot find a way out from this devastatingly frustrating crisis. The potatoes can also not be left in the field owing to proliferation of potato aphids. Hundreds and hundreds of farmers are in the similar predicament as me.”

Those who had pleaded to the chief minister on March 3 would have also started to join the death march by now.

Cultivation of potatoes in a bigha had cost approximately Rs 17,000 this year. One bigha can yield at a maximum, 80 packets of potatoes. Potatoes are being sold at Rs 100 per packet. So, the earnings of a farmer per bigha are Rs 8000. This implies that the net loss is Rs 9000 per bigha. “The cost of Rs 17,000 is only the cost of cultivating. If we consider the expenses of collecting, the cost would rise even higher. Such is the dire situation.”

The price of potatoes is Rs 100 per packet. And, what about paddy?

Distressed potato seller Subal Bairagi informed that the price of rice is Rs 580 per sack (of 60 kilograms). It implies that one quintal rice costs only Rs 966! It is way below the minimum support price. The government has fixed Rs 1360 per quintal of rice as the minimum support price. The price in Bhatar is Rs 394 less than the MSP! The farmers who did not get prices for their paddy throughout the winter had hit the streets. Then also, the government did not show any initiative to curb distress selling. When did the government start buying rice? When, the distress selling by the farmers was over. Then, the government had opened Kishan mandis to buy rice from the farmers. The result, the middlemen bought rice at Rs 1000 per quintal from the farmers and sold a portion of that at Rs 1375 per quintal to the government. So, the farmers were kept at bay. This time, the government has decided to buy only 50,000 tons of potatoes at Rs 5.30 directly from the farmers. The farmers could not conceal their laughter at such a diktat even in such a period of agony and distress. “We saw enough of the direct buying of rice. Now, it’s the turn of potatoes. Go and see that they are already being bought from some businessmen”, sarcastically commented Subal Bairagi, the potato farmer from Bhatar.

The relatives of farmers whose family members have committed suicides are reluctant to go to the fields. “I have no intent of collecting the potatoes from the field. Let it remain as it is. Rs 2000 additional cost has to be incurred for the labour to collect those from the field. Even that price would not be met up. Then even we would not be left with any way-out, apart from drinking poison”, Ram Murmu expressed his frustration and anguish. So, the potatoes are heaped in the fields of rural Bengal. There is none to buy those. The farmers have lost all zeal to sell them. The fields of Bengal are expressing a silent sarcasm to the festive mood of the chief minister.

Last year, the chief minister was the prime speaker in all the meetings of the Task Force.  The idea of curbing potatoes to be sent to other states was devised by her. She was the one who had regulated the price of the potatoes in the open market. Why is she absent this time around?

Instead of lowering the price in the open market, Mamata Banerjee had increased the price of potatoes last time. But by banning potatoes from being sent to neighbouring states, she had created a much larger danger. The government had defied all protests which said that such a sanction is unconstitutional in a federal structure.

Though the government has relaxed its sanctions under pressure, yet its after-effect is far from being over. There is no demand of potatoes in Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Assam and Odisha. Being alarmed by the whimsical attitude of the West Bengal government, those state governments have provided subsidies to its farmers for fertilisers and potato seed, and urged them to produce potatoes. Hence, there is none to buy potatoes from the fields of farmers of Bengal, who have produced greater yield than the last year.

Mamata Banerjee would complete her four years of being sworn in as the chief minister in two months. In 2011, farmers had set their jute ablaze in the field, not getting the worth of their yield. Since then, there has been no agricultural season where the farmers have got fair prices for their crops. Rice, jute or potato – no crop had a fair price in the market. On the other hand, the expenses of cultivation have increased in geometric proportions. While the central government has increased the price of the fertilisers, the Mamata Banerjee government has increased the price of electricity.

The fields of Bengal are now the death-trap for the farmers. The farmers of Bengal are now in a similar state as the cotton farmers of Vidarbha.

No comments: