We are all in the same depths of darkness as we have been in the past, says a farmers deep in debt and distress
In the villages behind lush paddy fields along the road from Bardhaman town to Katwa, there is agrarian distress, and no one knows it better than the farmers of Musthali. Only a couple of months before the West Bengal Assembly election began, hundreds of journalists and scores of camera crews had descended on the village when BJP president J.P. Nadda had lunch at the home of a small marginal farmer, Mathura Mondal.
On January 9, after the televised lunch, Mr. Nadda launched the party’s Krishak Sampark Abhiyaan by asking for a handful of foodgrains from a few houses in the neighbourhood.
Mr. Mondal’s house still bears a fresh coat of lime paint, but the courtyard where the BJP leaders sat for lunch has a few bags of rice. Out of 12 bags of paddy the marginal farmer grew, he had to give six bags to the moneylender. He said he still owed him ₹5,000. At the beginning of the farming season, he had taken a loan of about ₹10,000 from the moneylender, some of which was spent on tilling his small land holding and some on hosting the guests on January 9.
“Why didn’t you tell the media about the loan when they were asking you about the menu,” Nilkamal, another farmer, asked Mr. Mondal. He said he could not open his mouth when the BJP president visited. “I did not get a chance. If he [Mr. Nadda] had asked something then, I would have explained our distress to him,” he said.
Mr. Nilkamal said the families which gave foodgrains to the BJP president were summoned by the Trinamool Congress MLA from Katwa, Rabindranath Chatterjee, who offered them sweets and a message on which side they should align with.
“All this was politics of display. We are all in the same depths of darkness like we were in the past,” Mr. Nilkamal said. He has tilled about 3 hectares of land, but like Mr. Mondal, he had to depend on the local moneylender. He had to sell paddy to the moneylender for ₹1,200 to ₹1,300 a quintal, whereas the minimum support price [MSP] was ₹1,885. “If we don’t sell it to the mahajan (moneylender), where will we get the capital to invest for for the next farming season,” he asked.
The farmers at the local tea shop, about 100 m from Mr. Mondal’s house, say neither the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi of the Centre nor the Krishak Bandhu scheme provides any succour to them. For months before the election, the BJP and the Trinamool sparred over the two cash transfer schemes. The BJP has promised all pending benefits of PM Kisan for the past three years, ₹18,000 to all the 73 lakh farmers, if the party comes to power. The Trinamool, which claims that its Krishak Bandhu scheme is more inclusive, has increased the yearly benefits from ₹6,000 to ₹10,000.
“These incentives mean nothing to farmers, if the input cost keeps rising. The price of fertilizers has increased three times in the past few years because of the withdrawal of subsidy. Moreover, for small farmers, the MSP is a distant dream,” Kenaram Mondal, one of the senior-most farmers in the village, said, adding that neither government understand the issues of farmers.
Erstwhile Left bastion
Bardhaman Purba used to be a Left bastion, particularly of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), before 2011 and has given the party many peasant leaders like Hare Krishna Konar. As in the rest of the State, in this election, the party has put faith in young candidates. At the CPI(M) office in Bardhaman Purba, party veterans were giving tips to Pritha Tah, 28, an SFI leader and candidate for Bardhaman Dakshin, on how to face the election.
Syed Hussain, secretary of the All India Krishak Sabha of Purba Badhaman district, maintains records of the deaths due to agrarian distress in the region.
Since 2011, 224 farmers died by suicide in Bengal, of which 154 were from Purba Bardhaman district, he said.
Mr. Hussain said the last death due to agrarian distress was at Bohar in the Monteshwar Assembly constituency. Buddhadeb Pal, 57, died by suicide on February 12. He had cultivated potatoes on about 1 hectare of land and could not get the desired price. “For the past three years, we were suffering losses. Father used to occasionally speak about the rising debt,” Jiban Pal, his son, said. Mr. Jiban is running to local hospitals and the police station for his father’s death certificate so that he can seek compensation. Though the Trinamool government has not admitted to a single farmer suicide in West Bengal, the State government has a scheme to provide ₹2 lakh as compensation to the kin in case of the death of any farmer in the 18-60 age group.
The leaders of the Left parties, including the AIKS, describe the Trinamool government’s claim of no suicide as “statistical jugglery”, pointing out that the State did not mention the occupation of those dying by suicide in the data provided to the National Crime Records Bureau and thus the farmer suicides became nil in its 2019 report. CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty said it was next to impossible that out of over 12,400 suicides in West Bengal, not even one was of a farmer or agricultural labourer.
(For Kolkata suicide helpline, call 2463 7401 or 2463 7432)