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Crisis simmers in Bengal’s rice bowl

- Poor rain hits sowing, exposes slogans

Calcutta, July 24: Seedbeds are not yet ready in vast stretches of Bengal’s rice bowl because of poor rainfall, raising the prospect of a slump in production and showing up the inability of catchy slogans alone in making farming less of a gamble in the monsoon.

Rainfall in the four major rice-producing districts of Bengal till Monday was around 50 per cent less than the normal average, officials in the agriculture department said.

The four districts — Burdwan, West Midnapore, Birbhum and Murshidabad — account for around 36 per cent of the grain output in the kharif (monsoon) season.

Latest data available with the department reveals that only 16 per cent of 42 lakh hectares — the total target area for cultivation in the kharif season in Bengal — have been sown till July 22.

“Theoretically, there is a possibility of heavy rain in the next seven days and the deficit getting covered. But that won’t be of much help in kharif cultivation,” said a scientist in the agriculture department.

Officials said if seedlings are not sown before August 15 in Bengal, production will suffer. “It takes three weeks to get the seedlings ready for sowing. If sowing has to be completed before the cut-off date, work for seedbeds need to start by the third week of July. But this year, seedbeds are yet to be ready in vast areas,” the scientist added.

In 2010-11, Bengal was hit by a drought and production of rice had come down to 133 lakh tonnes from 155 lakh tonnes in 2009-10. The possibility of another drought within three years is casting a shadow on the rural economy as nearly 70 per cent of the population in Bengal depends on agriculture as the primary source of income.

The bulk of Bengal’s total rice production — 110 lakh tonnes out of 150 lakh tonnes — is dependent on monsoon rain as the state does not have the necessary irrigation network to facilitate rice cultivation in the boro (winter) season when rainfall is almost nil.

“Rice production in Bengal has dipped from 155 lakh tonnes in 2009-10 to 140 lakh tonnes in 2012-13. If we face a drought this year, the production will decline to around 130 lakh tonnes,” said an agriculture department official.

The dependence on rainfall alone has again underscored the structural deficiency of agriculture in Bengal, where only 15 lakh of the 42 lakh hectares of total cultivable area are covered by river-based irrigation.

Senior officials blamed the 34-year-rule of the Left Front for the lack of irrigation facilities in Bengal, adding that the new government, despite swearing by farmers, had not done much to change the situation.

“Only about 30 per cent of the total cultivable land enjoys irrigation facilities. Bengal should have learnt from states like Punjab and Haryana where nearly 70 per cent of the total farmland is covered by major irrigation systems,” said an official.

Major irrigation systems include dams and laying canals or pipelines that can carry water from rivers to farms.

“Like the Left regime, this government is also laying stress on minor irrigation. But proper use of minor irrigation, based on underground water or water tanks, also depends on a good monsoon,” said the official.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who won elections on the Maa, Mati, Manush plank, has been laying stress on “jal dharo, jal bharo” (collect water, fill water).

But the sowing season crisis has proved that such solutions cannot be a substitute for capital-intensive initiatives which require money — something Bengal does not have.

Officials are now keeping a close watch but if the worst forecasts come true, the political leadership will have to intervene.

A drought is declared when the average rainfall in the state slumps by 33 per cent or more during the monsoon. If the average rain deficit is less than 33 per cent across the state but more than 33 per cent in some districts, “a drought-like situation” will be declared in such districts.

The classifications, declared by the Centre after a request by the state government and an inspection by a team, will help farmers secure compensation as well as assistance for the subsequent winter cultivation.