From cursory field clearing process to bewildered farmers, inadequate kerosene to half-finished burning of the affected plots, there are just too many gaps in the suspected control symptoms of wheat blast mission that the Bengal government has undertaken in a war footing mode.
Wheat blast is a deadly disease caused by fungus Magnaporthe oryzae. Symptoms similar to this disease that wrecked havoc in April 2016 in Bangladesh (forcing authorities to destroy standing crops on nearly 20,000 hectares) showed up in two districts of Bengal – Nadia and Murshidabad. Alarm bells rang in Bengal and Delhi and the Mamata Banerjee government ordered destruction and burning of the wheat on about 1,000 hectare in these districts on an emergency basis.
“Central government officers visited Bengal and held meetings with us. There is no other way than to burn the crops. Primarily the symptoms look like what blast. We have to contain it because it will be devastating if it spreads. We have pressed in men and materials at the villages. However, it is a huge exercise and some shortcomings may be there. We are trying our best,” said Purnendu Bose, state agriculture minister.
But a visit to some of the affected fields of Chapra blocks of Nadia district on Saturday by HT team exposed quite a few gaps resulting in some of the affected crops remaining untouched.
There seems to be fewer agriculture personnel in the districts who can ensure a fool-proof destruction of each and every strand of the wheat crop. They were visiting the fields, since morning but they don’t have enough machines to fell the crops and burn them.
The government employees want the farmers to take the initiative to destroy their harvest. But they were suffering from the shock of the disease and the resultant financial loss. “The government has announced a compensation, but it is not adequate to cover our loss. Moreover, we have no idea when the money will be paid to us,” said Sixty-year-old Dulal Sheikh of Sonpukur village in Chapra Block in Nadia, situated barely 8 kms away from the Bangladesh border.
“They set fire to my field. But a lot of it remains. How will I clear all of it? Who will pay for it? I have already lost the crop,” said Dulal Sheikh. The administration is offering Rs 50,375 as compensation for crop destroyed of per hectare.
The scene was the same at Sonpukur, Hatikhola, Mohotpur, Sikra and other villages in Nadia near the Indo-Bangladesh border.
On Saturday, a harvester machine felled more than half the crop on his 12.5 cottah field. But the machine has many fields to work on – Saturday was the deadline set by the government for destruction of the crops – and has to leave.
The government officials present at the spot set fire to the crops, but they had to leave even if half the crop was not burnt. As the HT team found out, merely setting fire to the crop could not ensure their destruction – only the crop ripe for harvest would burn, while the unripe green ones would not.
There were unexpected hurdles.
“There is not even sufficient kerosene needed to effectively burn the entire crop. The unripe ones don’t burn properly and remain. We are therefore seeking the help of the farmers,” said an officer on conditions of anonymity.
At some areas authorities are asking farmers to cut the crop and burn it themselves, making a visit later.
The ramifications can be dangerous. Agri experts conceded that if the fungus crosses the borders of Bengal to reach the wheat basket in the Hindi heartland, the effects can be disastrous.
The record books, however, are unlikely to show these gaps. Government officers are recording the culling and burning process – taking a few snaps of the field, the farmers and uploading the information along with the coordinates of the plot on a government website at the end of the day.
In some fields the fungus, however, may continue to thrive and spread. The disease was first identified in 1985 in Brazil, and thereafter it spread to Bolivia and Paraguay. Last year it spread in six districts of Bangladesh.