South Bengal farmers struggling to produce paddy due to low rainfall Difficulty in seedbed preparation, planting saplings; livelihood impacted

12, Oct 2022 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

Farmers in South Bengal have been facing an extreme crisis after rains played truant this year. The lack of water has made it difficult to prepare even the seedbeds, where saplings are grown before they are replanted in paddy fields. This is bound to adversely affect the income and lives of farmers and agricultural labourers in the region where a vast majority of people depend on agriculture to make a living.

Normally, during the monsoon months called ‘Ashadh-Shravan’ in the local language, the rivers are full of water due to the abundant rains but this time the situation is starkly different. The soil is cracked like it’s peak summer. Though there has been heavy rainfall across North Bengal, several districts of South Bengal like Malda, Birbhum, Purulia and Bankura have seen little to no rainfall.

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Meanwhile, the Aman paddy cultivation season has already started for the farmers. Ordinarily this means the preparation of seedbeds, where rice seedlings are first grown before being replanted in the paddy fields. In some places, these seedlings have also grown several inches tall, and they ought to be picked and planted in the paddy fields in a few days.

However, the cultivation cycle has been disrupted due to lack of rains. While in some places, the condition of seedbeds is very poor, in other areas, farmers are struggling to keep the rice seedlings alive by using other irrigation methods.

An estimated 80 percent of the people in Birbhum district depend on agriculture for their livelihood. While some cultivate their own fields, others work as agricultural labourers in other people’s fields. However, everyone is facing a hard time today.

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What is also significant is that climate change is stark and equally destructive, both when it rains and when it doesn’t. Previously there have been instances of Aman paddy cultivation being damaged due to heavy rains and river water flooding over embankments. This year, it just hasn’t rained enough for any cultivation activity to begin properly.

Farmer Semim Sheikh of Birbhum told us, “We depend on agricultural work. Every year heavy rainfall turns our river into a rushing torrent and we farm happily. But this time we are unable to farm.” Elaborating on his financial distress, he says, “We have taken loans from various banks to purchase seeds and other agricultural inputs, but due to the lack of rains we are not able to plant the seeds. I am very worried that if we do not cultivate paddy seeds, we will be in great distress. If we can’t grow paddy, we won’t be able to repay the bank loan. We will be left with no choice but to die.”

He further explains the impact on food security. Sheikh says, “If rice is not cultivated, there will be a shortage of rice in the market. The price of rice will increase. Common people will become helpless.” He keeps looking at the sky as he speaks.

We also spoke to agriculture expert Sher Jahan Sheikh. He says, “In the previous years there was flooding due to rain but this time it’s a drought. The reason for the lack of rain is climate change. We are thinking of how to offer people alternatives. We need to think of alternatives to climate change.”

The grim reality of farmer suicide also worries him. “Many people who farm by taking loans from banks, feel they have no other alternative to death by suicide, when the crops don’t turn out according to projections. Hence, hundreds of farmers commit suicide every year. The number of deaths by suicide of people involved in agriculture is increasing day by day. We need to think about this properly and give it a lot of importance. Proper counselling and government initiatives are required for farmers in rural areas.”

This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by aspiring journalist and student activist Ripon Sheikh from Birbhum in West Bengal. In these reports Ripon looks at the people around him – migrant workers, the families they leave behind, agricultural labourers, women who do housework, rural artisans and young people, with a keen sense of compassion.

Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

Ripon 2022

This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.

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