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After shortfall, boro rice challenge

Calcutta, Feb. 8: Threatened with a rice shortfall, the Bengal government faces the challenge of persuading farmers to grow more winter rice despite the scepticism last winter’s poor procurement will have generated.

The Mamata Banerjee government wants rice grown on an additional one lakh hectares this boro (winter) season. A projected 10-lakh-tonne shortfall in kharif (monsoon) production is threatening to cost the state its self-sufficiency in rice.

However, senior Writers’ Buildings officials admitted that poor procurement and the rising costs of farm inputs had made farmers increasingly uninterested in boro cultivation. (See chart)

But they added that Mamata had herself taken up the task of encouraging the farmers to grow more boro rice and announced several initiatives, which are being seen also as a way of wooing farmers ahead of the rural polls.

In the past few years, the coverage target for boro rice — sown between end-December and early February — had been fixed at 14 lakh hectares but much less was actually cultivated. This year, the state has set the target at 15 lakh hectares.

The state agriculture department had first pegged the 2012 kharif rice production at 92 lakh tonnes, way behind the target of 110 lakh tonnes, but later revised it to about 100 lakh tonnes, a department official said.

“Nearly three lakh hectares were left uncultivated during monsoon because of poor rainfall during the sowing season (July 1 to August 15) and the poor irrigation facilities in the state,” he explained.

With Bengal’s estimated annual consumption requirement for rice being 143 lakh tonnes, this means at least 43 lakh tonnes must be produced this boro season. If 15 lakh hectares are indeed cultivated, 45 lakh tonnes can be produced.

But officials admitted it would be a challenge to persuade the farmers and cited how the state had failed to meet a lower coverage target in the past three years, and produced only about 34 lakh tonnes last winter.

Last year, the state had been slow to procure the farmers’ produce during the peak season (end-November to February) because of lack of funds.

“Last year, we started the procurement process with only Rs 75 crore because of a financial crunch, so procurement was slow initially,” state food and supplies minister Jyotipriyo Mallick said.

“We won’t let it happen this year. We have decided to take a loan of Rs 300 crore from Nabard this year for this purpose.”

Last month, the state cabinet approved a Rs 70-crore loan to cooperative society Benfed to procure paddy from farmers. The government has also promised to provide Rs 8,000 each to 31,000 farmers this year to switch from diesel pump sets to cheaper-to-use electric sets.

“The chief minister has touched the right chord,” an agriculture department official said.

“In the boro season, farmers have to lift underground water as only about 68 per cent of the cultivable land can be brought under the irrigation network. Since diesel has been getting costlier over the past couple of years, many farmers stopped cultivating in the boro season.”

The official estimated that a farmer needed to spend Rs 60-75 to run a diesel pump for an hour but only Rs 15-20 to run an electric pump for the same period.

A minister said: “We learnt a lesson last year. We won’t take any risks this year as the panchayat polls are approaching.

“If the farmers are not happy with the government, it is impossible for us to achieve our target of capturing the majority of the zilla parishads.”