Bumper crop kills farmer

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By OUR BUREAU in Calcutta
  • Published 23.03.08

Burdwan/Calcutta, March 22: A debt-ridden potato-grower killed himself in a Burdwan village before dawn today hours before the state government announced a support price for the crop.

A bumper crop in the district had forced Lalan Mullick Sheikh, 45, into distress sale of his potatoes at about a third the cost of growing them in Someshpur, near Memari, about 90km from Calcutta. His body lay beside an empty bottle of pesticide near his three-acre field this morning.

Despite his land being well below the 4.89-acre ceiling for the Union finance minister’s complete loan write-off, the sharecropper wouldn’t have qualified for a waiver. He had borrowed from a private moneylender, his wife said.

“My husband had borrowed Rs 15,000 but couldn’t repay it because of the distress sale,” wept Nisira Bibi, 35, clutching son Basir, 20. “He had spent over Rs 230 a quintal to grow the crop but was selling it at Rs 85. He was tense and depressed.”

At several places in Burdwan, Bengal’s second-highest potato producer after Hooghly, the price of potatoes has fallen to Rs 85-90 a quintal from Rs 300 after production outstripped cold-storage capacity.

Officials said the district has produced 13.5-lakh tonnes of the crop this year but its 98 cold-storage units have room for only 12.25-lakh tonnes.

The state’s agricultural marketing minister, Murtaza Hossain, told the Assembly this morning the government would buy potatoes at Rs 250 a quintal from farmers. A few hours earlier, around 8am, Lalan’s body had been found.

Another potato-grower had drunk pesticide yesterday at neighbouring Bankura’s Bhatra, 180km from Calcutta, but was recovering in hospital. Madhusudan Nandy, 25, was selling at Rs 130 a quintal because of the chock-a-block cold-storage units.

Ainal Sheikh, 47, who has also grown potatoes on his 1.5-acre land in Someshpur, said many more farmers were in the same situation as Lalan. Last year, three potato farmers had killed themselves in Memari and Bhatar of Burdwan after distress sale.

The tragedy in Bengal comes as farmer suicides have accelerated in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha, with nine killing themselves since Thursday when the state budget disappointed hopes for a higher support price for cotton.

Nisira said Lalan was supposed to repay the loan in weekly instalments of Rs 250, but had been able to pay only thrice in the six months since borrowing the money.

“We had a fight yesterday when I asked him for Rs 12 to buy mustard oil and spices. He gave me only Rs 3.50 saying he couldn’t afford more, and I scolded him without realising he would end his life.”

“The distress sale in Burdwan is alarming,” agriculture minister Naren De admitted.

Ramchandra Nayak, assistant secretary, West Bengal Cold Storage Association, said potato farmers were queuing up before cold-storage units. “But we have no space left.”