Potato Farmers’ Suicides in West Bengal: A Preliminary Analysis

April 22, 2015

By Pradip Kar

Over the last 15 years more than 2 lakh farmers have committed suicide in the country due to debt related problem and an acute agrarian crisis [see a study in 3 parts by the Sanhati Collective: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]. West Bengal is no exception. Like other states, the West Bengal govt. also followed new economic policies, set up SEZs, and also introduced contract farming, and all these have impacts similar to other states.

A remote village – Amlasol – hit headlines when 5 villagers died due to starvation in 2005. Amlasol is located in Binpur-II block of Midnapur West District. This is scheduled tribes dominated areas (mainly ‘Sabar’ and ‘Lodha’ tribes). The village consists of 85 families with a total of 400-500 of adults and most of them are agricultural labourers. It is also worth mentioning that the starvation deaths in 2005 were not a new phenomenon, earlier also 20 starvation deaths were reported in this area. According to NCRB-2011, a total of 1246 farmers committed suicides in West Bengal in 2001 when the so called left was ruling in the state.

potato_farmer

Trinamool Congress led government came to power in West Bengal in May 2011, but this did not bring any change for better. Since 2011, a large number of farmers (see table-1) have committed suicide in the state due to debt related problems and non-remunerative prices of the crop. Most of these farmers were poor or marginal peasants and some of them were poor agricultural labourers. Most of these farmers are paddy and potato farmers who took loans to cultivate their land. But they did not get any remunerative price for their product which left them indebted. Without any prospect of repaying these loans, driven to desperation and social embarrassment, they took their own lives.

The pattern of the farmer suicides in West Bengal, in terms of indebtedness and non-remunerative prices generally follow the pattern of suicides in other states. Therefore, prima facie, the farmers are worse off in terms of prices, because their cost of cultivation has increased owing to globalization policy in India. The plight of the potato farmers follows a similar story. As a result, the farmers were forced to sell their crops under distress and in the process ended up making huge debts from local money lenders and banks. With bumper harvest of potato 120 lakh tones this year (2014-15) and the state government doing nothing to resist price crash, the price of potato has decreased up to to Rs.3 to 5 per Kg, which actually means zero return to the farmers on their investment.

The rate of suicide of the potato farmers has increased sharply recently. In fact, it has become almost a daily occurrence. So far, (Feb.-March-2015) 17 potato farmers have committed suicide. Hoogly district, the ‘tuber bowl’ of the state bore the brunt most severely. Potato farmers from Malda, Howrah, Bankura and Jalpaiguri district also took their life under the same conditions. A field survey from Hoogly district shows that last year farmers had sold a packet of 50 kg. potatos at Rs.300-350/- but this year, the prices came down to Rs.140-200/-. Laxmirani Das who lost her husband Tapan Das few days back narrated her story as below:

My husband cultivated poptatos in 2 bighas of potato leased in land. For this cultivation he took a loan of Rs.40,000. He had a good harvest. But the good harvest rather than bringing happiness, brought a curse to the farmers. Due to crash in prices the price of my husband’s crop was only worth Rs.8,000. These were the very difficult moments for him. We were left with nothing for our survival. He mortgaged my ornaments, but could not get enough money. Money lenders knocked on our door every day. The insult was unbearable. At last he killed himself.” She further added, “no one from the government came to help the farmers. Now, they have come forward to help the traders.

In Bengal, though potato farmers reaped a rich harvest, the state government’s decision to ban inter-state movement of crops has restricted their market. While the agrarian sector of the state is clearly under severe distress, the government is on a total denial mode. The present government echoing like erstwhile left government, on record they say that there has been no debt-related farmer’s suicide in the state.

Another phenomenon that is emerging as dominant tendency rural Bengal is the transfer of land from agriculture to non-agricultural purposes that also means recapturing of land forcefully by old owners at large. Kishan Sabha (a peasants’ organisation of Left Front), reported that the land to the tillers was realized through decades of struggle and now it is being reversed due to re-captured of land by earlstwhile landowners in many places. According to their estimates, over the last three and half months, land of 527 farmers amounting to 1000 acres of land has been snatched away. Additionally, 4700 patta-owners have been evicted from 2700 acres of land, 3710 bargadars have been evicted from 1587 acres of land while 14025 persons have been evicted from legally acquired land.

(Pradip Kar is a social activist in West Bengal, based in Kokata, and can be contacted by email: askpradipkar@gmail.com)