The biggest issue relating to farmers in the eight-phase West Bengal assembly elections 2021 is that they are caught between central and state welfare schemes. Most are frustrated the schemes are but a bait to woo their votes.
Hooghly, West Bengal
Anand Mohan Ghosh has had some sleepless nights for the past week. The 60-year-old farmer had cultivated potatoes in four bighas (0.53 hectares) of land at Patra village in West Bengal. But he’s plagued by financial troubles — increased input cost and poor revenue on the one hand and loans taken from private lenders on the other.
“I took a loan of around thirty five thousand rupees for potato farming, hoping to make a good profit. But the high cost of seeds and low price for potato crop have finished me. Most marginal farmers like me have no alternative but to work as farm labourers to repay our debts, or to end our lives,” Anand told Gaon Connection, all teary-eyed.
Anand lives in Hooghly district, around 65 kilometres from state capital Kolkata. “The state government has been giving us five thousand rupees a year under the Krishak Bondhu [farmer’s friend] scheme, but we are yet to get the six thousand rupees under the PM Kisan [Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi]. Both the governments are passing the buck to each other. It’s politics at play at farmers’ expense.”
This is a sentiment shared by farmers across the state who blame the state government of depriving them of the benefits from the central government’s PM Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojna.
“She [Mamata Banerjee, the present chief minister] has deprived us of our rights. We need both state and central benefits, as we face severe losses due to rising production costs. But, politicians are busy sowing and reaping their harvest of politics. The state government should have allowed us access to the central scheme much earlier,” 32-year-old Santu Das, a farmer in Maliya village of Hooghly district, told Gaon Connection.
During the 2019 interim budget, the central government had announced the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme under which farmers with land holdings were entitled to Rs 6,000 a year in three equal instalments as minimum income support. The money was to be directly deposited into their bank accounts.
In 2019-20, around 145 million farmers were covered under the scheme, and the Centre allocated Rs 872.175 billion for the same. However, the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal did not implement the scheme.
Meanwhile, the state government claimed it had already started the ‘Krishak Bandhu’ (friend of farmers) scheme in December 2018. Under this, farmers were annually paid Rs 5,000 for one acre (0.4 hectares) of land in two instalments — during the kharif and rabi seasons — for a single crop. Farmers with less than an acre are paid Rs 1,000.
The state also announced a life insurance cover of Rs 2 lakh in case of death, irrespective of the cause, of an earning family member (farmer) between 18 and 60 years of age. Farmers were not required to pay any premium for availing this cover. The scheme aimed to cover 7.2 million farmers and share-cropper families in West Bengal.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is seeking to make inroads into West Bengal in this election, which is underway, turned the non-implementation of the PM-Kisan scheme as a major poll plank. It began to criticise the state government, particularly Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, for ignoring the plight of the farmers.
Severe criticism from the opposition saw the state government allow implementation of PM-Kisan in January this year, months ahead of the West Bengal Assembly elections. Banerjee said her government had sought details of farmers who had registered on the Union government’s portal for the assistance. She claimed that around 2.17 million farmers from Bengal had already registered themselves to avail the benefits of the scheme, and said the state government had no problem if the money was directly transferred to farmers.
However, farmers are far from pacified.
Potato farmers in Hooghly district are an angry lot this year. “Good quality seeds from Punjab cost about five thousand rupees for fifty kilos. Fertiliser costs two thousand rupees a bag. Labour is about two hundred to two hundred and fifty a day,” 60-year-old Ajit Ruidas, who cultivates potatoes in two bighas (0.26 hectares) at Baganbati village in Hooghly, told Gaon Connection.
“We spend around thirty thousand rupees to cultivate potato on one bigha [0.13 hectares], and harvest around three thousand five hundred kilos. The government has set an MSP of six rupees a kilo, which means we make only twenty one thousand rupees from our harvest, a direct loss of nine thousand rupees in every bigha,” added Ruidas.
Besides this, farmers also bear the additional expenditure of transporting the potatoes to the warehouses. They said they could have mitigated losses to an extent had the state government green-flagged the central government’s PM-Kisan for Bengal’s farmers.
On the other hand, some farmers also censured the central government for not doing anything for them, and hailed the state government for providing them with some relief. “The state government is giving us five thousand rupees, but we are yet to receive anything from the central government despite filling up the form for PM-Kisan Nidhi over one-and-a-half years ago,” Seekhdendu Ghosh, a farmer at Patra village told Gaon Connection.
He also complained that the price of fertilisers has increased from Rs 1,175 to Rs 1,975, which had directly hit farmers.
While the farmers in West Bengal find themselves caught between the state and the central schemes, chief minister Banerjee made another promise to the state’s farmers while releasing the election manifesto on March 17 this year.
She announced doubling the annual aid for farmers to Rs 10,000 if voted to power. Farmers claimed this is an election gimmick. “She [Mamata] is promising to double the monetary benefit if she wins. If she doesn’t win, then? It means she wants to get votes with this promise,” said Sudhanshu Shyamal, a farmer in Durbachoti village, off the Sundarbans in South 24-Parganas district.
A section of farmers opined that both the central and state governments should help increase productivity by providing low-cost seeds and other benefits, instead of offering doles to win the election.
“The nominal money would hardly offer any benefit to us. Instead, the government should aim to increase our income. We are not getting the proper price for our produce, and it’s all going to the middlemen. The government should look into this,” 32-year-old farmer Gourango Maity in Durbachoti village in South 24 Parganas, told Gaon Connection.
“They are not giving us any monetary benefits, and are trying to buy our votes,” Maity added.
Politics analysts, however, believe the incumbent Trinamool Congress government might not face any major impact due to non-implementation of the central PM-Kisan scheme for farmers. “It may have some impact, but elections in Bengal are rarely fought on economic issues. If that was the case, the Left Front would have been out of power much earlier,” Kolkata-based analyst Sibaji Pratim Basu told Gaon Connection. The non-implementation would not matter much if farmers receive agricultural aid and benefit from the other social welfare schemes of the state government, he added.
In the middle of this battle of one-upmanship, the farmers suffer. They are hemmed in from all fronts — low returns on yield, debts to repay, and governments using them as a vote bank. All they seek is to be allowed to do their job, with their dignity and self-respect intact.