Farooq Mondal points at a cauliflower plant and says, “I earn two rupees per cauliflower. I invested two rupees to grow it. What is the point?” asks the 47-year-old physically challenged farmer from Mathurapur village. He cultivates his own four bigha (one bigha is 0.33 acre) as well as another 1.5 bigha of leased land – growing potatoes, mustard, rice, brinjal, carrot and beetroot – in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal.
He says it is almost the same story with mustard. A kilogram of mustard seeds costs around Rs. 50 and planted in a bigha yields 2.5 quintals (250 kilograms). Farooq says he spends around Rs. 3,000 on fertilisers and pesticides and can earn double that if the price stays around Rs. 45 for a kilogram, as it did last year.
Farooq says the family’s annual earnings from agriculture are around Rs. 30,000, barely enough to run their household of four. His two sons left school in Class 8 and 11 and found work in a garage and butcher’s shop respectively and now each contributes around Rs. 4,000 a month.
“When we start the process [of planting], prices of fertilisers and other necessary items are high, but when we go to sell the crop, there is no price. There is no point in farming,” says his wife, who did not wish to be named.
In neighbouring Jioldanga village, Pradip Kumar Das explains why he stands in solidarity with farmers who are protesting the new farm laws: “We have hardly any choice of when and at what price to sell [perishable] produce in local markets.” Pradip Kumar grows brinjal, green bean, spinach and different gourds on his 3.5 bigha of land, roughly around one acre.
“I don’t want prices to be at Rs. 50 or Rs. 100 [one day] and fall to five rupees [the next day], for a kilogram of brinjal. I want a fixed price set by the government. Currently, the brinjal price is 15 rupees a kilogram. If we tie-up with a company, we will have to sell to them no matter what [low] price they offer. If there is no mandated minimum price then we will be at risk,” says the 30-year-old vegetable farmer from Habra block I in the North 24 Parganas district.
His neighbour Sukumar Das, 50, grows brinjal, cauliflower, banana and bottlegourd on his 1.5 bigha land. He travels to the nearby Habra supermarket or the ones in Guma, Bodor and Bira to sell his produce. “Today I sold all my cauliflower at one rupee a head, brinjal went at 14 rupees a kilogram and ladies fingers sold at 20 rupees a kilogram. We are in loss,” he says, adding, “I have no choice, I know only farming. If you bring in middlemen, I will end up earning even less.”
In West Bengal, along with the protests against the union government’s new farm laws is a demand for the state government to ensure minimum support price (MSP) for paddy is the benchmark for paddy prices. As Pradip Kumar points out, “in West Bengal, paddy prices in the open market are 950 rupees, almost half the MSP of 1,868 rupees. Many small farmers find themselves shut out of the mandi.”
Farmer unions in the state, like the All India Krantikari Krishak Sabha (AIKKS) are demanding counters in each gram panchayat so that farmers don’t have to travel more than five to ten kilometres to sell their produce.
“I cannot go to the mandi as it’s not my land and I don’t have the documents to trade at the mandi. I will sell my rice in the local market,” says Farooq. “I have watched on television that the farmer’s movement is happening across the country. I support the movement.”
“Small farmers don’t even reach the mandis because of middlemen and brokers. West Bengal does not have many mandis – there is only one mandi per block here,” says Pradip Singh Thakur, General Secretary of AIKKS. According to the state agricultural marketing department, there are a total of 186 Krishak Bazaars (mandis) in West Bengal.
The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) 70th round data for 2012-13, found that across the country, only six per cent of farmers reach the mandi to sell. The remaining 94 per cent of farmers sell their crop in the open market, and hope to get prices determined by MSP.
Since the bills were passed in September 2020, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) and other unions have been organising rallies, dharnas and gatherings.
On November 27, 2020, a Grameen Bharat Bandh or Gram Bangla Bandh was called by the All India Kishan Mahasabha (AIKM), West Bengal to protest against the new farm laws and worker issues. Following it, on December 8, 2020, a Bharat Bandh was called for. Jayatu Deshmukh, secretary of AIKM, says: “We received a good response. Even on the streets [of cities], the new farm laws are being discussed by people. Farmers [in West Bengal] are aware of the crisis. They are upset with the high cost of fertilisers, poor sale price for their crops and the rising price of petrol and diesel.”
The new farm laws, that farmers are protesting against are: The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. They were first issued as ordinances on June 5, 2020, then introduced as farm bills in Parliament on September 14 and hastened into Acts by the present government on the 20th of that month.
The protestors see these laws as devastating to their livelihoods because they will give even greater power to large corporates over farmers and farming. The laws have also been criticised as affecting every Indian as they disable the right to legal recourse of all citizens, undermining Article 32 of the Indian Constitution.
Dulali Das, 47, when asked about her expectation from the Assembly election 2021 says, “We want the government to look after us and see all the problems that are there in the lives of farmers which in many ways the last government couldn’t do, the new government should protect the farmers and their families.”
Farmer Suparna Das on the same question says, “We are poor, we want to avail the government schemes freely and fairly… the government should ensure that we get Krishok Bhata (farmers allowance).”
Sumanta Roy is a research scholar at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. This is his second story for PARI Education; his first story – Railway Hawkers: derailed lives, was published on October 30, 2020.
Sumanta wanted to cover the farmers of West Bengal and learn about the local situation in relation to the new farm laws. He says: “PARI has covered the farmers' movement from day one and it inspired me to do a story based in West Bengal. Researching details and learning about the movement was an enriching experience.”