Kalipado Sheet, 67, a farmer from Nutangarh village in Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district, is comfortable these days.
At a time when crops have failed due to poor rainfall, he has at least 600 kg of surplus rice at home.
“I will not sell it this year,” he said, packing his bags to leave for Mumbai to join his son, who works for a small company.
Farmers from Nutangarh, 180 km south-east of Ranchi, and adjoining villages have migrated to bigger towns and cities for livelihood as the rains failed.
A 23 per cent deficiency in monsoon rain — the worst since 1972 — is expected to keep the output of rice grown in the June-September period at 69 million tonnes, down 18 per cent from 84 million tonnes.
The government claims it has enough rice in buffer stock to tide over the shortage but that hasn’t helped curb speculation and hoarding. “Prices may well have peaked because there is bound to be speculative urge, considering the shortage and drought,” said Abhijit Sen, member (agriculture), Planning Commission.
Manifestations of problem
At around 30 km north-east of Nutangarh, at Chakulia, a place known for rice mills, soap mills and an abandoned air strip used during World War II, Ganesh Prasad Rungta is idling at his rice mill. “Business is bad this year,” he said, pointing towards his mill, which has not processed paddy for a month.
Farmers in the rice belt stretching from Chakulia-Baharagora in Jharkhand, 225 km south-east of Ranchi, to Jhargram, around 180 km south of Kolkata, in West Bengal, are not releasing their surplus paddy to mills. Thus, the supply chain has been affected. The reasons for this are the delayed monsoon or the prolonged trouble in neighbouring Naxal stronghold Lalgarh, 160 km west of Kolkata.
There are 35 small and medium rice mills in Chakulia while Jhargram has around 60 medium and large mills. Each of these mills processes 10-50 quintals (one quintal = 100 kg) of paddy everyday. They are the main suppliers of rice to the Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal markets.
The crop grown abundantly in the belt is identified as swarna rice, consumed locally. It is priced at Rs 15-16 a kg in the local market.
The price was Rs 2 less last year.
“Farmers are not releasing their stocks. Hence, the supply of rice to the market has gone down,” said Rungta. He said that in May, before the monsoon set in, 100 kg of paddy cost the mill owners Rs 750, and this rose to Rs 925 per quintal by June.
“Farmers and rice traders are stocking paddy in their godowns,” another mill owner said, adding that late rain had helped the supply network, bringing prices down.
However, in late September, 100 kg of rice was available for Rs 850, down by Rs 75 within three months.
A losing proposition
A five-bigha (one bigha = 14,400 square feet) fertile paddy field and a couple of tanks to cultivate fish in Mallickpur village of Hooghly district, about 60 km north of Kolkata, should have been enough for Kalipada Patra, 50, to sustain a family of four.
“It is difficult to meet the basic needs of my family,” said Patra, adding “the return from paddy cultivation has gone down”.
“Our input costs have risen fast. Without the supporting income from pisciculture, it would have really been difficult,” he adds.
Prices of most inputs have gone up. And the cost of water has gone up by as much as 33 per cent.
A few kilometres down the dusty and winding road at Shimagachi village of Dadpur block, we meet Charan Murmu and Basudev Bauldas lazing on a roadside culvert. Both 35-year-old Murmu and 70-year-old Bauldas are landless agricultural labourers.
“Due to the dry months there was little work, denying us of our daily wage of Rs 50 and 2.5 kg of rice a day,” Murmu said. This monsoon both had to survive on rice they had been saving.
They eat rice and salt, or some local saag (spinach), as potato, the staple, costs Rs 20 a kg, more than double the normal price.
“The dry monsoon will hit production but we aren’t able to predict the extent at this moment,” said Naren Dey, agriculture minister, West Bengal, who is also an MLA from Hooghly district.
But in all this, local political parties read signs that agriculture is becoming less remunerative.
“All the input prices — those of water, power, tiller, labour, and fertilisers — are rising. Groundwater is depleting due to indiscriminate use of mini tubewells. It is difficult to predict the future of agriculture even in fertile stretches,” said Sajal Adhikari, 48, state committee member of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).
The party Adhikari belongs to is more radical in its socio-economic programme than the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Adhikari has about 2 bighas of family land, which he finds is unable to sustain him. Sharecroppers till his land while he teaches history in a local school and doesn’t even know the input costs.
Adhikari fights for farmer rights, but cannot afford to be a farmer himself. It is no longer an irony in West Bengal.