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Exchange of seeds by farmers along Indo-Bangla border in Bengal fuels wheat blast

In July 2017, the state government on the advice of the Centre banned wheat cultivation for a year within an area of 5 km from the border in these districts to control crop damage. Earlier this week, the ban was extended for another year but a shortage of manpower to enforce it still dogs the government.

india Updated: Sep 09, 2018 18:54 IST
Sumanta Ray Chaudhuri
Sumanta Ray Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
wheat blast,wheat blast disease,Kolkata wheat blast
A farmer stands helplessly in the middle of his field staring at the crop that has been burnt by the government officers, in Kolkata, March 2017. (Subhankar Chakraborty/HT PHOTO)

An informal and free exchange of seeds across the India-Bangaldesh border in Murshidabad and Nadia districts of Bengal continues to fuel wheat blast disease a year after the state government banned wheat cultivation within five km of the international border.

In July 2017, the state government on the advice of the Centre banned wheat cultivation for a year within an area of 5 km from the border in these districts to control crop damage. Earlier this week, the ban was extended for another year but a shortage of manpower to enforce it still dogs the government.

But farmers continue to cultivate wheat in large swathes of unfenced border areas.

West Bengal’s agriculture minister, Asish Banerjee, sounded quite helpless. “Though we were expected to come out with a solution for tackling wheat blast within this period, it simply did not happen. There is a huge unfenced border in these two districts and we are unable to control exchange of seeds between the farmers of the two countries,” Banerjee said on Sunday.

Rahul Amil, a farmer in Basantpur village in Murshidabad district who has been cultivating wheat for the past few decades, regularly procures seeds from farmers of Bangladesh. Quality and price are both factors in opting for seeds from Bangladesh, he says. There is no fence between his village and the neighbouring country.

Not that a fence may have mattered much.

Krishna Halder, a share-cropper in the Mahakhola village in Nadia district exchanges seeds with farmers from the neighbouring Chuadanga district of Bangladesh despite the presence of a fence.

“Every day, farmers cross over for farming plots that happen to be on Bangladeshi soil through the gates and across the BSF screen. BSF does not check whether farmers are taking seeds or bringing them back,” said Halder.

“Despite the border, we live like a single society, where we exchange food items and even goodies during festivities. In many regions, the mobile tower signals from Bangladesh are stronger than those on Indian side,” said Biplab Biswas, a farmer from Chapra area of Nadia district.

The exchange of seeds has been happening for years, either for money or through simple barter, he added.

Minister Asish Banerjee said that cattle that stray across the border on either side to graze are also carriers of the disease. Wheat blast is caused by a fungus and can travel easily through seeds and even wandering cattle.

Around 800 hectares of land have been affected by the wheat blast.

Wheat blast devastated the wheat production of Brazil for the first time in 1985. In 2016, the fungus entered Asia, creating havoc in Bangladesh where crops of over 20,000 hectares in six districts had to be burnt.

Bangladesh has a 4,096-km border with India of which 2,217 km is with West Bengal.

“Last year, the state government paid a compensation of Rs 4.10 crore to farmers for the wheat that we had to burn in the fields,” said the agriculture minister.

A district officer of the state agriculture department in Murshidabad district said on condition of anonymity that in certain pockets in Domkal subdivision, some wheat was cultivated last year despite the ban. “We are trying to prevent it, but it is impossible to check it everywhere due to shortage of manpower.”

First Published: Sep 09, 2018 18:54 IST