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‘We Must Support Those Who Feed Us’: A Farmer-Poet’s Personal Account

Even after so many years of Independence and so many regime changes at the Centre, there is no relief for the farmers in the country. What the farmers desperately need is a minimum support price (MSP).

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The year was 2000 or 2001. One day, a teenager was plucking bitter gourds in her grandmother’s field. She was helping Halim, the farm labourer, who used to work for her grandmother. The teenager was stacking the plucked bitter guards in sacs and Halim was sprinkling water on them to retain their freshness.

Halim was constantly praying to Allah because she hoped to make good money by selling the bitter gourds. After all, she didn’t want to disappoint her nani (maternal grandmother). She wanted to buy her nani her favourite Ruhi fish from the money she was hoping to get after selling bitter gourds. Like all Bengalis, her octogenarian nani was fond of the fish curry.

The teenage girl still remembers that day. Halim waited and waited for the middlemen, but they were not interested in buying the bitter gourds. She couldn’t sell even one. She was sad and the teenage girl was very heartbroken. She told Halim, “Krishikaaj kori labh nei (farming does not yield any profit).” 

The teenage girl is now a woman. She has a job. But she is still that girl who laments loss in farming. The teenage girl is none other than me. 

In my village, Bakali, my nani is no more but the farmers still face the same predicament. For the first time in 15 years, we skipped potato cultivation this season. In the last five years, we have not yielded any profit in potato cultivation, the only profitable crop in the northern part of Bengal, especially in the Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts.

Bablu (40), who lives in my village, has six mouths to feed. He is the only bread earner. He has taken private microfinance loans. He hopes to repay the loans if he earns some profits from potato cultivation. The same is the condition of Harun (40), Fazu (55), Nazrul, Nuru, and Sahidul. They all have taken private microfinance loans. During the off-season, they migrate to places like Kerala or Bhutan to find odd jobs like plumbing or masonry. A loss in the seasonal crop means they have no choice but to sell or lease their bit of land.

In West Bengal, there are many small farmers after Operation Barga — a popular but controversial measure for land reforms that was launched in 1978 and concluded by the mid-1980s. The aim of the land reforms was to record the names of sharecroppers (bargadars) while avoiding the time-consuming method of recording through the settlement machinery. It bestowed on the bargadars the legal protection against eviction by the landlords and entitled them to the due share of the produce. Today, these small farmers are living the same lives as their parents did — it’s a constant walk on the tightrope.

In search of a better life, Ramzan, like many other boys, has left farming and switched to other jobs. Even though there is a generational shift in farming, in the last 15 years, people of my village have shifted to potato cultivation in pursuit of profits and avoiding cultivating bitter gourds, tomatoes, and cucumbers. This shift in farming in search of profit also came with a great risk. Potato cultivation needs more investment. So, the farmers are taking more loans from private microfinance companies. In terms of gross microfinance loan portfolio, on a district-wise basis, out of 10 districts, nine are in West Bengal. Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar are among these nine districts. The private microfinance companies take heavy interest rates in the range of 21-24 per cent.

Farmers have to navigate through a lot of factors to get a decent price for their produce. These include the volatility of the market, untimely rain or drought, no guarantee that the government will buy, and the hegemony of the market; that is the prices set by the middle-men-hoarder nexus. After so many years of Independence, and so many regime changes at the Centre, there is no relief for the farmers. What the farmers desperately need is the minimum support price (MSP) for their produce.

What I saw as a kid and then as a teenager still haunts me every farming season — the memory of dumped tomatoes and bitter gourds in protest of low prices in the famous Rajarhat market. The government keeps nudging industrialists as they are ‘job creators’, but why can’t those who feed us have a minimum guarantee of the price of their hard-earned products? 

Pushing them around and calling them names like Khalistani and anti-national won’t help. Farmers from Punjab are marching to Delhi. Well, they are not alone. Harun, Bablu, and all my neighbours are with them. In New India, where bulldozers are the new symbols of destruction, the tractors are the symbols of resistance, the resistance of the farmers who now refuse to be the invisible mass. The demand for MSP is not a demand for some charity from the government. The farmers are, after so many years, demanding their share of the pie known as development by some.

The teenage me coming back empty-handed after failing to sell the bitter gourds many years back is now a woman who has a voice. She demands MSP. Give us our rights, give us MSP. As a poet, I can’t walk with them, but I can send them some poems in solidarity with the farmers:

Farmer

      i

To be a farmer

one needs the courage to brave

cold, sun and rain.

And to die unnamed

not even as a number


       ii

They defeat cold

They defeat sun

They defeat rain

They defeat flood

To feed us

But…

They get defeated by starvation

They get defeated by poverty  

What is MSP?

You have been eating

God knows since when

But you never pay the bill.


Now those who have been feeding you

are demanding a share of the pie.

If you turn your eyes away from them

then you are either a coward 

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or a government.    

(Moumita Alam is a poet from West Bengal. Views expressed are personal.)

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