Nov 1, 2011 – I arrive in West Bengal when the state is at its festive best. It is chaturthi (fourth day of the new moon) and Mother Durga’s puja is set to begin from shasthi, only two days away. I am visiting Krishnanagar; about 118 km from the capital city of Kolkata.

The state had just ousted the Communist Party (Marxist) from power after nearly three and a half decades and I quickly get to understand what had led to the phenomenal victory for the Trinamul Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee. The land on all sides of the road is lush green with beautiful fields of paddy. Yet, this beauty is surface deep only. A brief chat with the farmers exposes the frustration over the lack of infrastructure, opportunities, options and the pathetic dependence on government dole outs.

The road is a nightmare even in broad daylight and, yet, this is the lone highway that connects the north-east of India to the rest of the country. Tales of farmland conditions that I hear are far more nightmarish though. The land ceiling is an abysmal five acres and 79 per cent of the holdings are less than 2.5 acres. The reduction in land ceiling has been counterproductive vis-à-vis improving living standards. The poverty is palpable and the living standards so very meagre.
This is not to say that small farming cannot be profitable but it is hardly the best route to prosperity. To my mind, it puts obstacles in the path of development; avenues of growth for a prosperous farmer run into obstructive government regulations. I wonder, why is it that farmers must be refrained from owning their principal resource while all other professions need be under no such restriction? A shopkeeper can have large and small shops; an industrialist many factories; but the farmer cannot grow in his area of core competence. This is how flawed the policy made by the urban elite and so-called intelligentsia is and why farmers are left with begging bowls.

Santimoy Dey of Kaikala village in the Hooghly district of West Bengal is my guide for the day. He is a potato farmer with a passion for principles of the cooperative movement, rather than the communist movement, as a means to an end. Dey is a prosperous farmer by Bengal standards. His extended family owns 10 acres of land on which he grows potatoes, paddy and white jamun; lovingly called gulab jamun. He is diversifying to horticulture and planting a combination of mango, lichi and papaya. Both his children are educated. He takes land on rent to enhance his profit. The economics of potato farming, he explains, runs thus: the rent per acre is Rs 9,000 and cost of growing potatoes is Rs 36,000 per acre. Therefore, on the sale proceeds of Rs 60,000, he makes a profit of Rs15,000 per acre.

Dey suggests that we interview a small farmer near Krishnanagar; Kalachand Mondal, a strapping 28 year old from the village Gaborkholi in Block Krishnagar-II, District Nadia. Gaborkholi has some 300 families and a sex ratio of 50:50. There are only five tractors in the three adjoining villages. Kalachand is not like other farmers though. He is not despondent but has risen to the challenge by taking others land on lease.

Kalachand’s parents owned around seven or eight bighas of land but due to fragmentation of holdings he owns only three bighas. He is enterprising enough to rent more land for agriculture and owns a mobile phone. The first thing that he tells me is that he is better off than his father’s because he is farming with a combination of traditional practices and modern inputs. Yet life is unfair to this enterprising man.

The deity he worships is Jagadhatri, another incarnation of Devi Durga but even the devout has to fend for himself. Kalachand tried to open a bank account but failed to do so or get a farm loan from a financial institution. He was forced to take a loan from a money-lender at three per cent per month; 36 per cent per annum! This, incidentally, is the same kind of interest that the micro-finance institutions charge, much lauded by the urban elite. Its ignorance is astounding.
With institutional credit all but absent, the small farmers generally hand over their land to a money-lender for between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 a bigha. The lender could farm the land himself but prefers a produce-sharing arrangement with other farmers whereby he, as the controller of the land, gets to keep a third of the produce. The tenant gets two thirds but must provide all the inputs.

If Kalachand takes land on lease, he has the option to take it separately for three different crops in one year. The small farmers in West Bengal have intensified agriculture to three crops in a year in a bid to keep their heads above water. The rent is between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000 per crop. For three crops a year, it is an annual Rs 9,000. Kalachand grows paddy for his own use and, with help of agriculture experts from IFFCO, has diversified to papaya, radish and banana. IFFCO provides the much required extension services to the farmer — an activity whose importance is little understood by the Planning Commission of India. Papaya grown on a bigha of land can sell for Rs 40,000 and Kalachand earns Rs 30,000. The cost of papaya cultivation is low and profit is high. Banana sells at Rs 60,000 per acre that, after an expense of Rs 15,000, nets him a profit of Rs 45,000.

Jute is a major crop, sown around April-May for three months whereafter it is harvested. It is time to sow paddy then. The Kharif crop is rice called Aman paddy, sown in July and harvested in November or December. Mustard, potato and vegetables are grown in winter. The summer paddy, called Boro paddy, is sown in January and harvested in May.

What is omnipresent in this scenario is the middleman; the worst kind of player in the farmlands of Bengal. He buys papaya from the farmer’s field at Rs 9 per kg and sells it the next day in Kolkata at Rs 20. I talk to a middleman, who tries to convince me that he is doing the farmer a service by buying his papaya in the first place. Had he not done that, the middleman explained, the farmer would only be growing rice. Rice is less profitable and farmers want to shift to vegetables. Kalachand tells me that he gets paid a little less than the Minimum Support Price as the West Bengal State Marketing Federation does not have a properly functioning purchase mechanism and no agriculture development officer has ever visited him. This reminds me of the agriculture marketing reforms that we desperately require across India. Like most other farmers, Kalachand buys his seeds and pesticides from the local shop, knowing little about them.

The labour charges have increased from Rs 60 to 70 per day to Rs 150 to 200 at a time of harvesting of crops (Rs 120 in the lean season). Work under MGNREGA is available on demand but not many people demand it. Kalachand says that only those who want to work less and earn less seek employment under MGNREGA. Kalachand would rather work on fields of other farmers when there is no work on his own. Kalachand’s wife does not work on the field but does job work; making garlands for flower sellers. She gets Rs 4 for every 20 garlands; a sorry state of affairs that she accepts because it allows her to stay at home, run it and look after her two and a half year old.

Kalachand is not educated because his parents could not afford to send him to school. There was work to be done on the farm. He is determined to educate his son and make him a doctor or an engineer though. He tells me, emotionally, that he would even sell his own blood to raise finances to educate his child. Education is free till class 12 and the medium of education is Bengali. There are no private schools in the area.

Trying to relate to Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s statement on value of food consumed by a rural family, I ask Kalachand about his daily cost of food. He says apart from rice, radish and some vegetables that he grows from time to time, he spends Rs 70 a day on his food for his family. A hard-working man, he can occasionally indulge his family with Rohu fish that comes for Rs 100 per kg. He owns a cow and the milk is used at home. The Bangladesh border is only 20 km and stealing of animals is rampant, thanks to the porous border.

What are his expectations of the new government, he simply says: roads and repair of the government tube-well called “Mini deep”; a submersible well. The government owns and operates the tube wells and supplies water to the farmers, charging Rs 500 for paddy; Rs 200 for oil seeds; Rs 500 for banana and Rs 200 for vegetables. Electricity is available for more than 20 hours a day but people usually steal electricity. Drinking water comes through hand pumps at home or in the vicinity. There is arsenic in the water and the IFFCO Foundation is doing research on mitigating the effects of arsenic by different farming practices. So there is progress perhaps; howsoever small.

Yet this small progress leads to higher expectations; higher expectations lead to unfulfilled expectations; and unfulfilled expectations lead to frustration that, in turn, leads to a change in the power structure. This is the West Bengal story. Devi Durga stands testimony to it.