Sixty-year-old Dulal Sheikh of Sonpukur village of Nadia district in West Bengal was overwhelmed with despair as he watched his labour of love go up in flames on Saturday.
Officials from the agriculture department had just set alight his standing wheat crop to stem the spread of a deadly fungus that had ravaged fields across Bangladesh last year and is now threatening harvest in West Bengal.
Since the last week of February, authorities have launched an offensive against symptoms of what is known as the ‘wheat blast disease’, first identified in Brazil in 1985. It reared its ugly head last month in Jalangi of Murshidabad district, before making a worrisome appearance in several blocks of Nadia.
If allowed to spread, experts said the fungus could be deadly, devouring standing wheat crop quickly. “We are not taking chances whatsoever,” said Pranab Kumar Hembram, an assistant director of agriculture, who along with other officials had descended on Sheikh’s field to destroy the crop.
The officials are in a race to clear the fields and burn the wheat to ensure there are no fungal spores that can travel from Bengal to the wheat bowl of the country in the Hindi heartland.
“We are felling the crop first and then spraying kerosene and setting the field on fire. We must ensure that all crops and seeds are destroyed. The spores which spread through air has to be contained,” said Arun Roy, project co-ordinator and additional director of the state agriculture department. To contain the spread of wheat blast, the state government has deployed men and machines, including combined harvester machines to chop off the crop, and jars of kerosene to set them alight.
The outbreak of wheat blast last year took a heavy toll on Bangladesh, where crops of over 20,000 hectares had to be burnt. Both Nadia and Murshidabad border Bangladesh, alarming the government in West Bengal.
The anti-fungus drive is said to be for protecting wheat crops. But Dulal Sheikh is desolate watching his crop go up in flames. “I had invested Rs 4000 for 12.5 cottah of land in terms of seed and fertilizers. This is apart from the toil my son and I put in. If everything went well I would have got Rs 6,000 for my produce, which means a profit of Rs 2,000. But now I don’t know what will I do,” he said, watching the thick smoke billowing from his field.
The administration is offering Rs 50,375 as compensation for crop destroyed per hectare. “The amount is paltry and we are not sure when the money will be disbursed,” said Atiur Khan, a farmer of Sonpukur, whose crop was also set alight.
Nadia is one of the most fertile tracts of Bengal with Gangetic alluvial soil flowing from rivers Ganga and Padma. Diverse crops from jute, oninon, red chilli to paddy and wheat are grown in abundance in the region.
Fortunately, the fungus affects only wheat and, as a result, the adjacent fields laden with red chilli and onion are safe.