A paddy field after the harvest in Birbhum, West Bengal. (Source: BloombergQuint)

Budget 2019: Birbhum’s Paddy Growers Battle The Same Old Pain

Jayshree Singh bought a barren piece of land five years ago to set up a small organic farm in West Bengal’s Birbhum region. Kolkata-born and bred Singh started out by taking advances for a month’s supply of vegetables from friends. She now runs one of the many farm-stays around Rabindra Nath Tagore’s Vishwa Bharti University in Shantinekatan, 160-kilometres north of Kolkata. And she mostly relies on groundwater and drip-irrigation for her produce.

For Singh, in her 40s and more an entrepreneur than a farmer, it’s a self-sustaining business. “We believe in farming without any external input.”

That’s not an option for Debabrata Manjhi, who is unhappy with his lower-than-expected paddy crop. Organic farming lowers produce and is not for people like him who want to maximise production, he said, while trying to sell his produce at the Rooppur agriculture market. “A small farmer like me who can barely survive on current produce cannot afford that.”

Manjhi’s 2.4-acre field, a few kilometres from Singh’s farmstead in Mohula, didn’t get enough water this season because of poor rains. He didn’t want to rent a pump to lift groundwater because power costs would have eaten into his profit.

Farm hands threshing paddy in Birbhum, West Bengal. (Source: BloombergQuint)
Farm hands threshing paddy in Birbhum, West Bengal. (Source: BloombergQuint)

More than 90 percent of the cropped area in Birbhum comprises small farms of up to 2 hectares, according to the local administration’s website. That’s the legacy of the most successful distribution of land in India in the 1970s in West Bengal. Majority of the farms are owned by subsistence growers who live off their paddy produce. With aquifers depleting, nearly all depend on rains for irrigation—a cause for uncertainty in agriculture incomes across much of India as, according to the Economic Survey, two-thirds of farmland is watered by monsoon.

It’s not just the small farmers that struggle. At the nearby Belati Panchayat, villagers with larger land holdings BloombergQuint spoke to also largely depend on rains. Only a few can afford the costs of using pumps to draw groundwater.

Their struggle is not very different from farmers in a village from the opposite part of India. Like in Birbhum, BloombergQuint found water is the biggest uncertainty to farm incomes in Gujarat’s Mehsana district. Farm distress has already led to at least 10 Indian states pardoning agriculture loans worth Rs 1.7 lakh crore since April 2017. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s central government is also said to be working on a relief package ahead of the next general election.

Also read: Budget 2019: In This Gujarat Village, Distress Lurks Below The Surface 

‘Wrath Of The Sky And The Earth’

But lack of irrigation is one of their many worries. Blight attack is one of the key reasons for the fall in yield in paddy output in West Bengal. Which means farmers have to spend more on pesticides, increasing costs.

“We suffer the wrath of the sky and the earth,” Manjhi, in his 40s, said. “From the sky, it’s the rain (or the lack of it) and on the ground are the pests.”

This pest is prevalent mostly in potato and paddy and occurs mostly because of mono cropping, according to Sandeep Das, a farm researcher. “It kills the standing crop which decreases the yield. The cost of pesticide to counter it is quite high and is mostly borne by farmers.”

No Crop Insurance Payout

A fall in output because of crop damage makes farmers like Manjhi eligible for Prime Minister’s Fasal Bima Yojana that pays the difference between the threshold yield and the actual yield. The insurance is a must for farmers with bank loans and voluntary for the rest. Manjhi, who has a loan from State Bank of India, said his repeated efforts failed to get him the insurance money.

Also read: Budget 2019: For These Small Businesses In Gujarat, Loans Take Far Too Long

Farmers are not the only ones suffering.

Paddy crop stocked in a field in Birbhum, West Bengal. (Source: BloombergQuint)
Paddy crop stocked in a field in Birbhum, West Bengal. (Source: BloombergQuint)

Falling Incomes

Every year, Sheikh Mansoor Ali and his wife Shibani Lohar work in the fields during cultivation in their Rooppur village of Birbhum. After the harvest, they help separate chaff from the grain.

Mansoor earns around Rs 200 a day, which is more than what he made three years ago. But the number of days he used to work in the fields has gone down, he said. In the season of low rain and poor crop, his income falls even more.

Also read: Budget 2019: Arun Jaitley’s Fiscal Report Card

The couple now face competition from machines. Use of tractors, harvesters and threshers is growing even among smaller farmers. That means they get less and less work on the fields now.

“We used to work for at least two months during the harvest season earlier,” Mansoor said. “Now we get work for not more than 10 days.” But he is also a master mason, and that helps him support the family’s income.

Manjhi too sells seeds to augment his living. So does Palathoru, who has a tiny 0.3-hectare field. He works in the nearby brick kiln to supplement his income.

Do Government Schemes Help?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s targets to double farm incomes by 2022 through a host of initiatives like crop insurance. His government increased the minimum support price to guarantee at least 50 percent more than the production costs. West Bengal too offers a Rs 2 lakh insurance cover in case of death of a farmer.

In Birbhum, farmers said they are still to see the benefit of the newly announced schemes. Awareness is low.

The governments don’t have that much man power to handhold each farmer, said Das. “This happens all over the country and not specifically in West Bengal.” India will move to providing income support to farmers, like the scheme in Telangana, he said. “The West Bengal government has announced a similar measure and so have states like Odisha and Jharkhand.”

But a poor crop this year means good business for one person in Birbhum: Mansoor’s father and the local tailor. “If the produce is good, people go to the cities to buy new clothes,” said Saithlia. “When the yield is less, farmers prefer to mend old clothes.”

Also read: Budget 2019 BQView: The Economy Under Modi - Big Ideas, Small Successes