COVID-19 fear ahead of boro rice harvesting in Bengal

Published : April 09, 2020 21:31 IST

Paddy fields at Purba Medinipur in West Bengal. A file picture. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

With the harvesting time for the boro crop approaching, the rice farmers of Bengal are a little apprehensive about the immediate future due to the spread of COVID-19 in the State. The harvesting time for boro rice is between the last week of April and the second week of May, and with the coronavirus spreading in the State, lakhs of farmers and agricultural workers are facing a season of uncertainty.

Sanu Bauri, a farmer from Ausgram, Bardhaman, who had planted boro crop, described his situation like a man caught between “a tiger on land and crocodile in water”. “On the one hand there is the fear of the coronavirus and on the other there is the requirement of people working in my field. I do not know whether I will get people to come and cut the crop, and if they do, I myself run the risk of getting the coronavirus,” said Sanu.

Though there is exemption for farmers and agricultural workers in the lockdown period declared by the Centre to prevent the spread of COVID-19, lack of labourers may pose a problem during harvesting. “We are spreading awareness among agricultural workers, telling them that during the harvesting time they must maintain distance from each other, and wear masks…. During boro harvesting, we are also demanding that the 100 days’ work scheme be joined with the agricultural work,” Amal Haldar, West Bengal secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the peasant wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told Frontline.

According to Haldar, a serious crisis is looming over the farmers of West Bengal. “We need to see whether the farmers and agricultural workers ultimately get the just price for the crops. We saw they did not get the right price for the Aman [crop]; now it remains to be seen whether the State government will procure enough of the boro produce, or whether once again the farmers will have to surrender to the middlemen. With the cost of production increasing, if the farmers do not get the right price for the crop, then it will be disastrous,” said Haldar. The CPI(M) and the AIKS are also gearing up to meet the basic requirements of those migrant labourers who will be returning as soon as the lockdown is relaxed. “For those who will be coming back from other parts of the country, we will ensure they do not have to starve by setting up community kitchens in the State,” said Haldar.

The lockdown is also causing problems for potato growers to sell their products. Veteran CPI(M) leader Samar Ghosh from Jamalpur, Bardhaman, pointed out that the potato growers were having to sell in very small numbers owing to lack of transport facilities. They were making do by sending small quantities of their product to the market through local transport like vans, etc.

According to Ghosh, it is the labourers in the semi-urban municipal regions, rather than the rural agricultural labourers who are more in need of immediate relief. “After the Aus planting season (around middle of March), there is still a little bit of money in the hands of the agricultural workers to see them through till the second week of May. But if they do not get work after that, it will be a huge problem. But the workers and labourers in the municipal areas are already in a bad way. We are trying to provide them relief in whatever way we can through our various mass organisations,” said Samar Ghosh.

Tea gardens may resume work

On April 9, the State government allowed the tea gardens of north Bengal to resume work, but with only 15 per cent of the workforce allowed per shift. Earlier Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had refused to allow the tea gardens to open, even though the Centre had given its nod. But the tea unions are not all happy with the decision. “The tea garden owners have not been giving wages during the lockdown period, and the workers are being forced to go and work out of desperation. The State government by allowing work to resume is actually increasing the risk of the spread of COVID-19. We had demanded that all the workers be paid a stipend during the lockdown, but that demand was not heeded,” Basudeb Bose, general secretary of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) told Frontline.

As of April 9, the number of “active” COVID-19 cases in the State stood at 80, and the official number of deaths stood at five.