Harvest of tragedy

Print edition : May 15, 2015

Sacks of potatoes lying outside a cold storage at Dhaniakhali in West Bengal's Hooghly district. Photo: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

Sheikh Najir Mohammad, of Selimabad village in Bardhaman district, who said this year "not one sack was sold from the field". Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Sheikh Najir Mohammad's wife, Azmira Begum, slicing potatoes to feed her cows. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

In Bardhaman district, a protest organised by the CPI(M) against the neglect of farmers. Photo: SHANKAR GHOSAL

In Sasanga village, Bardhaman district, the family of Ratan Saar, who killed himself after potato prices fell and he knew he would not be able to repay the money he had borrowed to grow the crop on his leased land. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

In Bishnubati village, Bardhaman district, the family of Prasad Let, who ended his life by comsuming pesticide. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

A police officer pacifies farmers outside a cold storage after the authorities failed to distribute potato bonds to them, at Muluk in Birbhum district on February 23. Photo: PTI

A farmer displaying the cold storage bond. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Uttam Ray, a farmer, in his house at Khandagosh in Bardhaman district, where he has stored his entire potato crop. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Potato farmers protesting in Kolkata on March 20 after several of their brethren committed suicide. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Bimal Murmu and his wife, Laxmi, of Manirambati village in Bardhaman. "I feel I constantly need to keep him in my sight," she says. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

ON the morning of March 20, Prasad Let, a farmer of Bishnubati village in West Bengal’s Bardhaman district, sat poring over his account book. According to his wife, Parvati, it was the deadline to repay the loan of Rs.24,000 that he had taken from a cooperative society. He had taken another farmer’s land on lease for one season to grow potato, emboldened by the high returns it fetched last year. But this year, he could not get a price anywhere close to the amount he had invested, and creditors were at his door. After going through his accounts, Prasad walked a long way away from his home before consuming the pesticide that ended his life.

“A few days before he committed suicide, people from the cooperative society had come demanding that he repay the loan. I believe he felt humiliated,” Parvati told Frontline. Her tragedy reflects the plight of potato farmers in West Bengal. At least 16 potato farmers have committed suicide since early March, when it is time to harvest the potato crop, to the middle of April. Thousands more face absolute ruin. According to the Trinamool Congress government, however, most of these suicides have been due to “family problems” and not out of agricultural distress.

As if personal grief and financial ruin were not enough, Prasad’s wife, mother and two young sons have had to put up with reports circulated allegedly by the ruling party that his suicide was due to the constant bickering between husband and wife over Prasad’s drinking habit. “In our 14 years of marriage, we have never had any altercations, and my husband never touched alcohol,” said Parvati. The yield from the land, including Prasad’s share, was taken by the landowner who put it in cold storage in the hope that once the cold storage facilities opened he would get higher prices for the potatoes and recover from the sale what Prasad owed him. Whatever is left would be Prasad’s own. This is a common practice in rural Bengal. Meanwhile, Parvati, whose ornaments were pawned to buy fertilizer, seeds and pesticides, had to sell one of the two goats she owned to pay for the immediate needs of the family. “I will have to now start selling household articles,” she said.

Around 40 kilometres away from where Parvati lives stands the house of Ratan Saar, in Sasanga village in the same district. Ratan too had planted potato on seasonal lease on 2.5 bighas of land, for which he had to pawn his wife’s ornaments, sell the cattle they owned, and borrow from moneylenders. When the price of potatoes started falling after the harvest, the landowner, as was expected, took the produce to put it in cold storage, keeping the receipt bond. Both Ratan and his wife, Swasti, knew there was little chance of getting anything back. Their domestic peace was marred by constant bickering, and on the same day that Prasad took his life, Ratan too consumed poison. “Towards the end there were a lot of fights between us. It stemmed from our hopeless situation, but I never thought he would kill himself,” Swasti said, breaking down time and again while talking. Her two children —a seven-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy—quietly stood by watching their mother with expressionless eyes.

Almost the entire Sasanga village consists of families of farmers who cultivate potatoes on leased land, and each one of them is heading towards ruin. Dhiru Saar, an elderly farmer, suffered a stroke after an altercation with the landowner who wanted his entire yield. “I begged him to leave some for me, which I would try and sell in the market, but he insisted on taking it all and putting it in cold storage. That very night I had a stroke. Now, I will not be able to do anything at all,” he said. As on April 17, half of the 16 suicides reported took place in Bardhaman district.

Reasons for the crisis

Death and despair stalk the agricultural fields of West Bengal today, but it would be too simplistic to put the blame simply on excess production and reduced demand. While, at 110 lakh tonnes, potato production this year has been 15 per cent more than last year, it is only one of the reasons for the distress. Increase in input costs, particularly seeds, has raised the total expense of potato cultivation to Rs.21,000 per bigha, as against last year’s Rs.15,000-16,000. The price of seeds for the Chandramukhi variety of potato has increased to Rs.4,200, almost double of what it cost last year; and of the Jyoti variety to Rs.2,800 as against Rs.1,800 last year. The average yield per bigha is around 85 sacks (one sack containing 50 kg of potato).

This year, only during the first few days of harvest (around late February) did the farmers get a price of Rs.200 per sack, selling directly from the field, but even then it was at an average loss of Rs.4,000 per bigha. Moreover, only a handful of farmers sell the crop so early; the majority waits for some more time to pass. However, by the time the rest of the farmers decided to sell, the prices had started plummeting, until it hit a low of Rs.150 per sack, Rs.100 less than what the farmer needs to just break even. There were no traders coming forward to buy directly from the field; they only came to pick up the quantity of the produce required to recover the loans that they extended to the farmers, be it in cash or in the form of seeds and fertilizers.

Swamped by potatoes
In the middle of April, well over a month after the harvest, potatoes still lay in the fields under straw covers. The farmers of the State are practically swamped with potatoes. The ones in the fields will eventually rot, so the growers are compelled to store them in their own houses. The house of Uttam Ray, an indigent farmer of Khandaghosh in Bardhaman district, presents a bizarre and at the same time pathetic picture. There are potatoes everywhere—on the floors, under the beds, below the stairs. “I do not know what we’ll do when they start rotting,” said his wife. This year Uttam produced 210 sacks of potatoes in 1.75 bighas of land, of which 60 sacks are lying around in his house and in the fields. “Generally, half of my produce is sold from the field itself, and the other half I send to cold storage. This year not one sack was sold from the field,” he told Frontline. In the house of Sheikh Najir Mohammad in Selimabad village in the same district, his wife, Azmira Begum, was slicing potatoes to feed the cows in their shed. “We have to do something with all these potatoes,” she said. Like most other farmers, Nazir feels that the State government’s decision to freeze inter-State movement of potato has been the main reason for the present crisis.

Export ban

In 2013 and 2014, the State government took an ill-conceived decision to freeze the export of potatoes to the neighbouring States of Odisha, Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand, ostensibly to reduce the rising price of potatoes in West Bengal. Though the ban was lifted this year, the neighbouring States had already made other provisions and were no longer dependent on West Bengal. The Odisha government, in fact, increased potato production in the State by giving subsidies for seeds and fertilizers. As a result, West Bengal has been saddled with a bumper crop of around 11 million tonnes, while its annual consumption does not exceed 7 million tonnes.

Calculating that a crisis was afoot, traders stayed away from fields. “The government wanted to feed the people potato at cheap prices and so took the necessary measures to kill the potato farmers. I have 150 sacks rotting in the fields,” said Madhab Santra of Kelepara village in Hooghly district. Arun Samanta, who cultivated the neighbouring field, was taking some of his potatoes back home. “The debt situation is such that it is better to hang oneself,” he said. Both the farmers agreed that export alone may not have helped them make a profit, but the situation would certainly have been less terrible.

Distress in the villages is evident in the worried faces of the adults and in the bewildered expressions of the little ones who sense something is wrong. Suicide, death and hopelessness are bound to come up in conversations, and in many cases suicide is being seriously contemplated. The smile on the face of Sheikh Abdul Jalil of Selimabad village encapsulated the tragic irony of the fate of poor farmers like him. It was the smile of one for whom hope itself was a joke. “I’m now in the cemetery,” he said with a laugh, as he sat talking with some other farmers in a small bit of greenery next to the potato fields. “And I am not smiling,” he said, with the same smile stuck on his face.

The situation has wrought havoc in the agrarian society. The spectre of suicide haunts village households, leaving the women in a constant state of paranoia. Laxmi Murmu of Manirambati village in Bardhaman admitted to being in a state of perpetual fear for her husband, Bimal Murmu, who raised potatoes on five bighas of leased land and found himself in a debt of Rs.80,000. “After so much hard work, we lost everything. I feel I need to constantly keep him in my sight. A few days ago, he was late in returning home, and I panicked and started crying,” she told Frontline. “Our lives have become directionless now. We are just living from day to day,” her husband said.

The cruel irony is that potato is the cash crop that farmers fall back on in times of financial stress. “We settle our debts with the price we get from potato; we pay for our daughters’ marriage from it. When that fails, we are truly in trouble,” said Biplab Santra, a farmer. The only thing left for the farmers now is hope. An almost impossible hope that once the cold storage units are opened the potatoes will fetch enough price to ameliorate their present condition. Most admit that in their hearts they know that it will not happen. “What else can we do right now, but sit and hope?” said the smiling Sheikh Abdul of Selimabad.

Cold storages full

The cold storage facilities in the State, which have a total capacity of around 62 lakh tonnes, are already full. Once they open, the additional charges of keeping the potatoes inside at a total cost of around Rs.75 per packet (including storage, insurance and readying charges) will also have to be taken into account when calculating the price of the potato. According to Patitapaban Dey, president of the West Bengal Cold Storage Association, the plight of the farmers will continue even after the cold storages open around the middle of May. “Though we hope the demand will increase by that time, there will not be any turnaround this year mainly due to the increase in the cost of production,” Dey told Frontline.

The farmers fear that the situation may worsen once the stores open and the market collapses owing to continuing lack of demand. They feel that only government intervention can save them from further ruin.

However, before the State government can do anything, it first needs to acknowledge the existence of a crisis—something which it has steadfastly refused to do until now. Meanwhile, the farmers have been staging protests in various parts of the State. When the government did step in, it announced that it would purchase 50,000 tonnes of potatoes from the farmers—a quantity many feel is too little, and a gesture many believe has come too late.

The State government has also urged the Centre to either waive or reduce the loans taken by the potato farmers from different banks. However, this too is being perceived as an eyewash and an attempt by the State to shift the responsibility for its ineptitude to the Centre. It is well established that only loss of crops due to natural calamities is eligible for bank-loan waivers. “It is most unlikely that loss on account of market fluctuation and expectation gone awry will qualify for Central assistance. This will set a unique precedent,” said a senior source in the administration. Moreover, according to the farmers, bank loans account for only about 20 per cent of their total debt burden; most of the loans come from private sources like moneylenders, traders and landowners.

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