May 10, 2012

Why this Shadow of Vidharbha over West Bengal?

How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?

THE lyrics of Bob Dylan reverberate in rural West Bengal these days, may be in a different refrain. In the last seven months of ‘changed’ regime, 51 farmers have committed suicide in the state. Dhana Tudu, an agricultural worker in Bhatar, Burdwan was the first. Khandu Ghosh, a poor peasant of Sadar1 block of the same district was the 50th. Ghosh hanged himself on April 27. He cultivated Aman rice in 10 bighas of land few months earlier. The produce did not fetch remunerative price as was the case with overwhelming majority of farmers in the state. Then he tried Boro cultivation but the paddy was destroyed by insects. In fact, there is a large scale insect attack in Burdwan and some other districts. Khandu Ghosh, after realising that his cultivation has been destroyed, committed suicide. Even before the news of this 50th death was commented upon, Mana Malik, a female sharecropper followed suit, again in Burdwan, this time in Jamalpur block. The story of young Mana, wife of a worker, is almost same as her paddy was also destroyed. Almost all of them were reeling under debt.

The brunt of spate of suicides has been felt by Burdwan, the leading paddy producer in the state. Till now, 35 farmers have taken their lives in this district alone. Three in Maldaha, two each in Bankura, Murshidabad, Hooghly, North 24 Parganas, one each in Jalpaiguri, West Midnapur, Howrah, Birbhum and south 24 Parganas.

The shadow of Vidharbha over West Bengal has raised serious questions. More than one lakh farmers’ suicides have taken place in the country in the last one decade. But West Bengal, except for sparse incidents, remained free from this trend. There was virtually no peasant suicides in the state related with crisis in agriculture during the tenure of the Left Front government. Even the virulent anti-Left media did not report any such incidents. Why this stream of suicides now? Madan Ghosh, state president of AIKS, identified neo-liberal policies as the central reason. ‘More than four  farmers’ suicides per month have taken place under the new government in the state. The central policies and the failure of the state government to protect the peasants are two principal factors behind such a tragedy’, said Ghosh. Both the governments are pursuing neo-liberal policies, he added.

The cost of production has sky rocketed in the recent period. The price of fertilizer has increased manifold. So are prices of other inputs like insecticides, seeds etc. The crisis in agriculture is an all India phenomenon. But during the Left Front period, the state government extended all possible protective measures to defend the peasants. That infrastructure has virtually collapsed under the new regime.

The minimum support price is usually much lower than the production cost. For example, while the per quintal production cost of jute was in the range of Rs 2000 to Rs 2500 in last season, MSP was declared at Rs 1175 only. Likewise, while MSP for the next season has been fixed at Rs 2200, the cost of production has meanwhile increased to Rs 3500 per quintal. Madan Ghosh alleged that the farmers have not received even the MSP. It was in the case of paddy too. No serious effort was made to procure paddy from the peasants. Farmers were forced to sell at distress prices. Same thing happened in the case of potatoes and onions.

This wide gap between production cost and sale price accentuated the problem of debt in rural Bengal. Farmers are taking recourse to private lending and micro finance loans with high interest rates.

Even this will not explain in full the disastrous situation prevailing in West Bengal today. Panchayats have been rendered inoperative systematically. The decentralisation of power has been reversed. This resulted in collapse of rural development programme and employment generation schemes, including MNREGA. Agricultural workers and poor peasants, partially dependent on such jobs, have lost their source of income. In a reign of terror, the peasants in most parts of the state are still unable to pressurise the government machinery to redress.

Bob Dylan’s lyrics have become relevant in the backdrop of continuous denial of the tragedy by the chief minister herself and her administration. In fact, the chief minister has admitted of only ‘one’ such incident without identifying which one. There is growing discontent in rural Bengal over neglect of peasantry while the state administration is busy in superficial beautification of Kolkata.

Left peasant organisations, along with other mass organisations have already initiated struggles against anti-peasant, anti-people policies of the government. Village level and block level rallies and jathas have taken place. Madan Ghosh said, ‘We are strongly against suicides. Our call is ‘Unite to struggle, not suicides.’

People’s Democracy, May 06, 2012

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