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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Amid anger over middlemen, Bengal’s rice bowl keeps ear out for Delhi farmer protests

With 2.5 crore metric tonnes of paddy a year, and almost every family engaged in farming, East Burdwan district is the rice bowl of West Bengal.

Written by Atri Mitra | Burdwan |
April 17, 2021 2:10:06 pm
Amid anger over middlemen, Bengal's rice bowl keeps ear out for Delhi farmer protestsPrime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Burdwan. (PTI)

AMID much fanfare, in January this year, BJP president J P Nadda visited Mushali here to have lunch at the house of a marginal farmer. Following the meal, he announced the launch of the BJP’s ‘Krishak Suraksha Abhiyan’ and ‘Ek Mutho Chal’ campaign, asking households to give the party a handful of foodgrains each.

With 2.5 crore metric tonnes of paddy a year, and almost every family engaged in farming, East Burdwan district is the rice bowl of West Bengal. Politics here has long revolved around the land, helping the CPM gain a foothold following its government’s land reforms in 1977, and the TMC to make its way in with its Ma, Maati, Manush campaign. In the 2016 polls, the TMC won 13 of East Burdwan’s 16 seats, and retained support in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

However, in this election, the TMC is fighting allegations of corruption by local leaders even as its sitting Bardhaman Purba Lok Sabha MP Sunil Mondol, and two of its MLAs, Biswajit Kundu from Kalna and Saikat Panja from Manteswar, are contesting on BJP tickets.

Eight of the 16 seats vote on Saturday, with the remaining going to polls on April 22.

Struggling to make ends meet, the paddy farmers allege irregularities in distribution of coupons through which they sell rice to mills and low remuneration for their crops. The BJP’s refrain that the Mamata Banerjee government delayed the benefits of the Centre’s PM-KISAN scheme in the state, raised by Nadda during his January visit, has gained traction, though farmers are uncertain due to the bits and pieces they have heard about the protests on at Delhi’s borders against the Centre’s agricultural laws.

Anwar Hossain Mondol (55) runs a small tea shop at the junction of constituencies Khandoghosh and Galsi. His 10 acres don’t yield enough for him to sustain his family, Anwar says. “The price of everything is up… just farmers appear to live in a world apart. They cannot sell their products at higher prices,” he says.

Another farmer, Alauddin Mollah (48), a customer at Anwar’s shop, says, “This year the government announced Rs 1,830 per quintal as MSP for paddy. One farmer can sell a maximum of 45 quintals against one coupon to a rice mill. I got 360 quintals from my 8 bigha land but I had three coupons and could sell only 135 quintals. So, I had to give 225 quintals to a phorey (middleman) for Rs 1,100 per quintal.”

While the TMC government first fixed the maximum paddy a farmer could sell to a mill this year at 90 quintals, the constraint of covering all the farmers meant this was cut to half later.

S K Jahar Ali says getting a reasonable price is a task. “Corruption starts from the concept of the token itself. The phorey close to the ruling party use fake names to get tokens issued. Then, after buying rice from us at Rs 1,100 per quintal, they sell it to mills at MSP. The Bengal government is not interested in breaking this nexus.”

TMC Minister Firhad Hakim says they have not heard such complaints. “If there is a specific issue, the administration always takes proper action. Mamata Banerjee doesn’t allow such things.” On the 45-quintal limit, Hakim says, “We fix this ceiling every year so that the maximum number of farmers can sell at least some of their paddy to rice millers at the MSP or higher rates.”

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Ali is among those who has heard of the Punjab and Haryana farmers’ protest now on for months. “We have heard the BJP government wants to abolish the MSP system,” he says.

A BJP leader says the only issue is the TMC’s “cut money” practice. “This is a part of it. After coming to power, we will run a transparent administration.”

In Galsi, the paddy farmers faced another setback this season, with an unknown disease affecting production. Dhananjai Snai (57), who got just 40% of his average yield, says rice mill owners told him his paddy was not of good quality. “They excluded 8 kg from the money they paid us.”

Aware of the complaints of middlemen nexus, rice millers say it is impossible to exclude phorey from the process or to expect mills to pick up all the paddy that farmers produce. Of the 750 rice mills in West Bengal, 510 are in Burdwan alone. Approximately 2.5 crore metric tonnes is procured by the mills every year, with the government share around 52 lakh metric tonnes. A rice miller points out that the quintal limit is set by the agriculture department annually depending on the production.

One of the biggest millers in Burdwan, Subrata Mondol, says, “When we need 1,000 hectares of paddy in one day, that can be arranged only by a middleman. We can’t go door to door. That will increase our costs and the price of rice too.” He adds, “We call paddy a political crop. Every party claims to talk about the farmers, but no one about us or the middlemen. We are also here to run our families, pay our employees. We have to make a profit.”

Adds the convenor of the West Bengal State Rice Merchant Association, Biswajit Mullick, “The middlemen are not the culprit, nor is it true that there are widespread irregularities in coupons. In fact, the government has set up farmers’ committees in every panchayat to distribute these coupons.”

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