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Plague in potato field, farmer hangs himself

Burdwan, Feb. 20: A disease that destroys acres of potato in a matter of days and has struck Bengal this year because of the unusual late-winter rain has claimed its first human victim.

Sheikh Karim, who returned home broken yesterday having discovered that potatoes on most of his 5-acre plot had been destroyed, killed himself.

Karim, 55, owed Rs 30,000 to traders from whom he took seeds, fertilisers and pesticides.

The Burdwan administration has sought a report from the block development officer.

The zilla parishad chief, the district magistrate and agriculture department officials went into a huddle this evening to review the situation.

The district’s principal agriculture officer, Sukumar Ghosh, said: “I don’t know how the farmers will cope with the damage to the potato crop this year. Nearly 50 per cent of the crop has been affected.”

The situation could be as bad in the other south Bengal districts.

Blight, the deadliest fungal infection in potatoes, only got worse because of the rain spell early this month. “In humid and rainy weather the potato plant loses its immunity against the blight fungus. The disease can destroy an entire field of crop in five days,” said an agriculture expert.

In other years, though, potato farmers are often ruined by a glut. About 10 lakh farmers in Hooghly, Burdwan and Bankura grow almost double the state’s requirement of potatoes every year.

“We have told the farmers repeatedly not to grow only potato on their land but they wouldn’t listen,” an agriculture official said.

“About Rs 8,000 spent on potato cultivation can bring a profit of over Rs 20,000,” the official added.

Last year, the state produced 80 lakh tonnes. In Burdwan, potato was cultivated across 75,000 hectares this year. In Hooghly, farmers cultivated potato on 100,000 hectares.

“The blight has damaged potato crop on over 61,700 acres. We fear the farmers will lose about 75 per cent of the crop,” said Rajat Pal, principal agriculture officer, Hooghly.

Karim’s son Mantu, 24, who assisted him in the field, said: “My father was devasta-ted yesterday morning after he found that dhosha (the local name for blight) had ravaged most of his crop.”

The veteran farmer inspected his crop till about 3 pm and then walked towards his house without informing his son. His wife Saira Bibi was not at home. He went into the cowshed, bolted the door and hanged himself from a hook.

“When I returned home in the evening, I called my father but there was no response. I started searching for him. Neighbours found him in the shed,” Mantu said.

“I borrowed Rs 31,000 to grow potatoes. My crop has also suffered but not as badly as Karim’s,” said Sheikh Nasiruddin, another resident of Jamalpur, 145 km from Calcutta.

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