Distress and deathSUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY
|West Bengal: An agrarian crisis looms over the State as farmers commit suicide in spite of a bumper crop.|
A distressed farmer outside his home in Bardhaman district, the rice bowl of West Bengal.
THE topic of suicide figured repeatedly in Safar Molla's conversations with his neighbours a few days before his death. The 18-year-old marginal farmer from Kaltikuri village in Bardhaman district's Bhatar block talked about it quite casually, in fact even jocularly. Everybody in the village knew he was up to his neck in debt, but then so was almost every other farmer in Kaltikuri. Safar had run into a debt of Rs.80,000 from the previous season. Market rumours confirmed his greatest fear that the prices offered by traders would be lower than those of last year and that he would only sink further into debt, unable to sell his harvest at profitable prices. On the night of November 18, 2011, during a break while watching television with his mother, he quietly went to another room and consumed a bottle of poison.
“He never told me anything, lest I should worry. I wish he had told me, instead of killing himself,” Razia Bibi, Safar's grief-stricken mother, told Frontline. She lost her husband when Safar, who was her youngest son, was seven years old. Safar was in charge of seven bighas (three bighas make an acre) of agricultural land they had.
Anger and desperation pervade the entire village of mostly small and marginal farmers, who are aware that they are being inexorably sucked into a never-ending cycle of debt. The irony is that in spite of a bumper crop this season, farmers in the State face ruin. Sacks of paddy are lying unsold in several houses. Some of them are forced to sell the produce at low prices, sustaining enormous losses.
Sheikh Jamaluddin, a marginal farmer owning six bighas of land, has an accumulated debt of Rs.70,000 since the last season. “The produce was so good this crop season that I was hoping to repay the debt, but I suffered a loss of Rs.42,000 as the market prices crashed. I will have to borrow again for the next season,” he said with an air of resignation in his voice. Some farmers are even contemplating giving up farming. Hearing their accounts of misery, one does not find it difficult to understand the compulsion that drove Safar to end his life.
Sheikh Addas Ali, who had spent his entire life in the village, has in his old age left the State in search of work. His daughter was sent back home by her in-laws as he failed to give them the money he had promised. “He wants to send money to his daughter so that she can be accepted back in her in-laws' home,” his former neighbour Sheikh Hasmatullah explained.
CHIEF MINISTER MAMATA Banerjee. Her government appears to be in denial mode.
The situation is the same in the neighbouring villages of Kalitapahar, Mahattuba and Nayapara. An agrarian crisis looms over West Bengal as farmers and agricultural workers are committing suicide in spite of a bumper crop. Unable to deal with the burden of debt and facing heavy losses in paddy sales to traders and middlemen, 29 (unofficial figure) farmers are said to have ended their lives in the State between October 2011 and January 2012. They would have been assured of a minimum support price had the government come forward to procure more grain. Bardhaman district, regarded as the rice bowl of the State, alone reported more than 20 suicide cases in the past four months.
In spite of clear evidence of extreme distress in the farming community, the Trinamool Congress government appears to be in a denial mode, with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee insisting that only one farmer has committed suicide since she assumed power in May last year. Referring to the incidents of death as “unfortunate”, she said, “Whenever someone commits suicide, the family is told to claim that it is a farmer's suicide in order to avoid the hassles of a police case.” She even hinted at a Left conspiracy behind what she believed were “false rumours”.
On the day she made the statement, January 23, another farmer, Sheik Mustafa of Howrah district, killed himself, apparently owing to debt and loss in the sale of paddy. Within a week, two farmers, Buthnath Pal of Bardhaman and Dayal Burman of Malda, and an agricultural labourer from Bardhaman took their own lives. All the suicide cases have been apparently triggered by the same factors. The rise in input cost, particularly the cost of fertilizers and fuel, has compounded the farmers' woes.
Surya Kanta Mishra, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, said although cases of suicide by farmers had been reported earlier in the State, it had never taken place on such an alarming scale. “The situation can be prevented from getting worse if the government intervenes now. But it needs to acknowledge the crisis. With every passing day, as the Chief Minister clings on to her mode of denial, the situation is worsening,” the Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA told Frontline.
Even the Congress, the Trinamool Congress' political ally, has objected to the government's stand on the issue. “No responsible political party can be oblivious to the death of dozens of farmers. Being part of the government does not preclude us from undertaking political movements against these deaths that are haunting rural Bengal,” Pradesh Congress general secretary Om Prakash Mishra said. He is considered to be one of the more pragmatic voices in the alliance. In the light of the suicide by distressed farmers, senior Congress leaders have voiced their concern over the kind of governance in the State.
“It seems that governance has taken a back seat and the government machinery is not equipped to respond to the bumper crop and is unable to ensure the payment of minimum support price,” a Pradesh Congress leader told Frontline.
The Congress has suggested that the State government constitute an all-party team to visit the affected families to provide succour and, in the process, determine the veracity of the reports. “Unfortunately, the State government has not taken cognisance of this suggestion either,” said Om Prakash Mishra.
The Pradesh Congress sent several fact-finding teams to the villages from where the suicides were reported. “We have reports from some of the places, including Purbastali, in Bardhaman, and Howrah which our teams visited, confirming suicide by distressed farmers. They are not mere allegations. The reports are true and the State government ought not to be in denial of this reality,” a senior Congress leader said.
RAZIA BIBI, MOTHER of Safar Molla, who committed suicide under the burden of debt and loss from paddy sales, in Kaltikuri in Bardhaman district.
Governor M.K. Narayanan also voiced concern over the spate of suicides. “Farmers' suicide is an issue which is engaging the attention of both the Centre and the State government,” he said, adding that many of those who killed themselves were indeed in debt.
The simple supply-demand logic points at an inverse ratio between production and the market price. In West Bengal, where 97 per cent of the farmers are small and marginal farmers and sharecroppers, accounting for 84 per cent of the total land under the plough, high production, unless backed by an efficient government procurement machinery, will inevitably result in distress sale. This time crop yield was particularly high, with a total of 150 lakh tonnes of paddy harvested all over the State, an excess production of around 30 lakh tonnes. This surplus, when converted into rice, would amount to 20 lakh tonnes, which is the State government's target of procurement until September 2012. As of January, it has been able to procure only 4,16,371 tonnes of rice. This, in view of the crisis at hand, is inadequate to stem the situation. Until now, the bulk of procurement was made by the State government through various State agencies, and a comparatively smaller amount was procured through Central bodies such as the Food Corporation of India.
But the State government, in an attempt to do away with middlemen, recently instructed the rice mills to procure paddy directly from farmers at the minimum support price of Rs.1,080 a quintal. However, according to informed sources, with limited funds and poor infrastructure the State government is finding it difficult to procure rice from the mills urgently to provide relief to the farmers.
“The rice mill owners want us to wait for three months to receive our cheques as they are not getting paid by the government. But I cannot wait. I need money to start agricultural operations for the next season and to support my family. So I was forced to resort to distress sale,” Sheikh Billal, a small farmer from Bhatar, told Frontline. He sold his produce at Rs.520 a sack of 60 kg instead of Rs.648, the minimum support price.
“Ever since the system of minimum support price came into being, it has been observed that the market price is always higher than the support price. But here [in West Bengal] it is very low, which means the State government is not using the support price the way it is supposed to,” eminent economist and former head of Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi, Dipankar Dasgupta, told Frontline. Dasgupta said that although the government intended to free farmers from the clutches of middlemen, the plan did not work out the way it was envisioned as the government did not put in place the necessary infrastructure for a smooth transition from an old system to a new one.
THE WIFE OF Buthnath Pal, a marginal farmer who committed suicide in Bardhaman district.
“Some small details were overlooked. For instance, until recently, farmers did not have to buy the sacks required to carry their produce to the rice mills or pay for the transportation of the rice. For a small farmer these are big expenditures,” Dasgupta pointed out. Moreover, not all the small farmers had bank accounts, so payment by cheque would not help them. “What these farmers need is immediate cash payment. They are too poor to hold on to their stock for long,” Surya Kanta Mishra said.
State Food and Civil Supplies Minister Jyotipriyo Mullick admitted that since there were no rice mills in 175 (out of 341) blocks in the State, farmers often had to travel 30-50 kilometres to sell their produce. He, however, maintained that the Chief Minister was right in pointing out that except in one instance, there were no cases of suicide by farmers.
“We cannot take responsibility for someone who takes a loan from moneylenders for personal reasons and commits suicide because he is not in a position to repay it,” he said at a press conference on January 30.
With the additional cost burden, coupled with increased input costs, the minimum support price barely allows small farmers to break even. According to the estimates of the Krishak Sabha, the powerful peasant organisation led by the Left Front, in some of the cases the cost of production for small and marginal farmers this year exceeded the minimum support price.
“Our calculations have established that under the present circumstances, the minimum cost of production of the common variety of paddy for the small and marginal farmers in some of the villages is Rs.1,100 a quintal, while the minimum support price is only Rs.1,080,” Ganesh Chowdhury, a senior Krishak Sabha leader, told Frontline.
“Nearly 30 suicides is a reflection of the crisis that is affecting rural Bengal. With the State government not intervening to save the farmers, who in turn are not able to generate surpluses, agricultural labourers cannot be paid. Going by the State's dismal performance in the implementation of the NREGS [National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme], there is hardly any scope to fall back on that project either,” CPI(M) Polit Buro member Nirupam Sen told Frontline.
A PENSIVE FARMER in his field in Bhatar block of Bardhaman district.
Of the 29 suicide cases, nine were agricultural labourers. As of December 16, 2011, the State had been able to generate an average of 14 mandays of employment under the NREGS as against the national average of 47 days.
There is anguish and desperation in the households of farmers. Sheikh Nurul Islam, a small farmer from Bardhaman, had borrowed money last year to buy ornaments for his daughter's wedding. This year he suffered a loss of around Rs.30,000. He will soon have to borrow more to buy the next season's seeds.
“Right now I do not see a way out of this situation. Whatever I do, I will get deeper into debt,” he told Frontline. His anger is now directed against the Trinamool Congress, the party he had supported in last year's Assembly elections. “I have always been a Trinamool supporter and I believed Mamata Banerjee when she said she was for Ma, Mati, Manush [mother, earth, mankind – the Trinamool Congress' slogan]. Now why has she turned her back on all the three?”