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Wednesday, Oct 16, 2019

Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Polling a week away, but no loud buzz in Kishanganj

Kishanganj, where Muslims account for 70% of the population, is one of the poorest districts in India, having a per capita annual income of Rs 9,928 (as per figures of economic survey 2018-19) with a literacy rate of 57.04%. The total number of voters in the Kishanganj Lok Sabha constituency is 16.52 lakh.

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Apr 12, 2019 14:16 IST
Anirban Guha Roy
Anirban Guha Roy
Hindustan Times, Kishanganj
Dr Kalam Agricultural College, Kishanganj
Dr Kalam Agricultural College, Kishanganj(HT)

Sporting a “Tommy Hilfiger” T shirt, Qaiser Imam, 23, looks like any other youth you see in cities. But Alam, an intermediate pass out, has no employment, except tilling his father’s land at Gachipara, around 15 km from the town of Kishanganj, the bordering district of Bihar which also shares border with Nepal and Bangladesh.

Alam is not alone. Manzar Alam, 27, a graduate in political science, looked for a job, but failed. Today, he runs a small grocery shop and doubles as a marginal farmer for a living. “I tried for jobs, but did not get one. I have lost all hope now,” he says.

Kishanganj, where Muslims account for 70% of the population, is one of the poorest districts in India, having a per capita annual income of Rs 9,928 (as per figures of economic survey 2018-19) with a literacy rate of 57.04%. The total number of voters in the Kishanganj Lok Sabha constituency is 16.52 lakh.

The constituency goes to polls on April 18, but the voters are hardly excited about it. “We will remain poor, no matter how many elections are held. Nobody thinks of farmers,” is a common refrain.

And farm distress is visible as one travels into the interiors of the district. A hub of jute production till mid-80s, abundantly supplying fibre to jute mills in Kolkata, the district has seen a slow and steady decline of the patwa cultivation due to poor returns and high input cost. An attempt by former MP Syed Shahanawaj Hussain to start a jute processing plant in 2003 has come a cropper. The project never took off. Locals say the businessmen lobby scuttled the project as it would have given more money to farmers and cut the middlemen.

At Arrahbari, 22 km from Kisganganj town and located in Pothia block under Thakurganj assembly segment bordering Nepal, farmers admit they are no longer in jute business. They now sow maize as it is more profitable and easy to sell. Abdool Gafoor, 55, sitting in a small hutment, misses his days as a jute grower, having inherited it from his father.

“Now, I grow maize on my six bighas of land. It pays me more than jute, though the rates are not good for the cash crop,” he says.

“The central government does not pay attention to farmers’ needs. They talk big but never deliver,” he says.

“What have they done? The rate of paddy has not gone up. I barely managed to get Rs 800 per quintal as against the market price of over Rs 1,500. The same is the case with maize. I get only 700-800 per quintal whereas the input cost is heavy,” says Mazrul Haque, a small farmer also having around six bighas of land.

Haque, however, does acknowledge that PACS (primary agricultural credit societies) run efficiently and he and many others got their payments quickly by selling their produce in last couple of years. He also has good words to say about roads in the district and entire Seemanchal, also comprising Araria Purnea and Katihar, crediting Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for the improvement.

Incidentally, the Dr Kalam Agricultural college, a dream project of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar established in 2015 and named after India’s 11 President Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, stands as a new landmark just 5 km away..

The institute envisages to provide new agricultural knowhow to increase production of conventional crops, along with tea, pineapple and jute, to local farmers in Kishanganj. The district, once promised to be developed as tea hub like Siliguri in neighbouring West Bengal, has not yet become a big success though tea plantations have sprung up in large parcels of land.

“Prices of raw tea leaves did shoot up to Rs 18 per kg around five to 10 years back, but now it only sells at Rs 9-10 per kg. Tea is quite an expensive crop and plantations require big money,” said, Irfan Ali, who has a small plantation on three acres. Irfan lives near the institute at Arrahbari. Many farmers say higher government subsidy could promote the cash crop.

Across the district, sentiments among the farmers are gloomy, a reason perhaps why the district continues to witness mass migration to cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad. “Every household in this districts has one or two males living outside. There are no jobs and agriculture is not remunerative,” says Akbar of Chakla panchayat close to Bahadurganj , another assembly segment of Kishanganj constituency. The other segments are Baisi, Amour , Kochadhaman.

Congress candidate and sitting Kishanganj MLA Dr Mohammed Jawaid says, “The Modi government is anti-farmers. They have only compounded the woes of farmers by bringing in wrong policies leading to rise in price of fertilizers and other material while support price has been low. Poor areas like Kishanganj are facing the brunt,” he said.

Former MLA and candidate of AIMIM ( All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen) Akhtarul Iman is more blunt. “The BJP and Congress have never cared for Seemanchal, including Kishanganj. They only cared for votes of Muslims. Farmers here have been reeling under poverty for decades with illiteracy and migration rampant. Infant mortality is high and people here die of various ailments due to poor water quality. I am raising these issues,” he said.

However, JD(U)’s candidate Syed Mahmood Ashraf maintains that the BJP government at the Centre and JD(U)-BJP dispensation in Bihar had ushered in development by giving all help to farmers.

“Our government has taken many steps to ameliorate the condition of farmers, like setting up of Dr Kalam agricultural institute or strengthening the PACs. Farmers in Kisganganj and adjoining areas are now getting a good price for maize, with Supual becoming a hub. There will be more infrastructure in place for giving market to raw materials like jute, tea and maize in coming days,” he said.

As the election date draws near , farmers like Abdool Ghafoor appear to take the promises with a pinch of salt. “They will only seek votes just before the poll day and then they will vanish,” he says, showing the disinterest among common voters in the constituency, with a vast rural populace dependent on their farms battling poverty and backwardness amid a picturesque landscape with flowing rivers and Himalayas close by.

First Published: Apr 12, 2019 14:16 IST

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