Demonetisation Other States

Bengal’s potato growers hit by demonetisation

Chitra Bag and her family of six are eating less these days. They make do with one meal instead of the usual three meals, despite a gruelling 8-10 hours of work daily as landless farm labourers. Even though vegetables, grown around their mud-thatched house, are still available, Ms. Bag and her family have drastically cut back on pulses, salt, flour and oil they buy from the neighbourhood grocer. Because he doesn’t extend credit any longer. Chitra can’t pay in new currency notes as her employer paid her in old notes.

“Earlier, the six of us were consuming five kilogram of pulses and 10 kilogram of atta [wheat flour], every month, and about three litres of cooking oil and one kilogram of salt. No longer do we do so,” Ms. Bag told this reporter. “We are splitting one meal into two as grocers are refusing to give salt, sugar or pulses on credit,” Ms Bag said.

Nearly all workers, about 30 in number, in the swathes of farmland in the Bhabanipur village of Jamalpur Block, said they were now being refused credit by the neighbourhood grocer. The grocer — a middle-aged man — said he could not “extend any more credit” as customers were paying in old bank notes.

Jamalpur, adjacent to Singur town, on the banks of river Damodar, is known for its rich alluvial soil. But demonetisation has slowed down cultivation at the peak of the sowing season of potato, the main cash crop of Bengal, affecting the earnings of nearly 200,000 farmers and labourers in Jamalpur.

According to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, about 3,87,000 hectares of land — second only to Uttar Pradesh — was under potato cultivation in 2012. That amounts to five per cent of the State’s total area. Since Bengal’s industrial economy is not as healthy as most other States, it depends on agro produce, mainly potato.

Ms. Bag — who was last paid for MGNREGA work in May — had little option but to tender old notes as her employer, Chittaranjan Das, a small farmer, did not hand out pay in 100-rupee notes.

Mr. Das, like other farmers in rural Bengal, has just sold the harvested kharif crop (paddy) and taken the cash to the cold storage to pay for the potato seeds for the coming season. He found that all the 15 cold storages of Jamalpur had stopped accepting old notes.

He told The Hindu that neither could he go to the bank to deposit and withdraw the money as it was “a time-consuming affair” in the potato sowing season.

The potato seeds — which are tubers of the previous year — are preserved in storages by the farmers around March. In November, the storages are paid to take out preserved seed-potatoes, planted and placed in four-inch deep trenches with the help of labourers for harvesting in March. About 1.5 lakh tonnes of potatoes are produced in Jamalpur annually.

Crisis time

“Since stores stopped taking [old] notes, notes, all in white, are piling up and I had to pay [the labourers] those notes,” Mr. Das said. Moreover, November 30 is the last date to withdraw seeds from the cold storages. “If the farmers fail to take the seeds out by then, the store owners may destroy the seeds,” warned Sheikh Mehruddin, one of the more prosperous farmers. The consequence would be acute shortage of potato in the retail market.

‘We are helpless’

The officials of one of the largest stores of Jamalpur – Sethia Cold Storage – accepted that minor scuffles were breaking out. But, like Mr. Das, they pleaded helplessness. “We are instructed not to accept old currency notes,” an official of Sethia Cold Storage said.

Former president of Cold Storage Owners’ Association Gurupada Sinha held the Central government responsible for the situation. Indicating that it would be “difficult” for them to hold the stock after November 30, Mr. Sinha said the government “should intervene.”

Realising that the situation is spiralling out of control, the store-owners, merchants’ federation and Bengal’s Minister of Agriculture Marketing met on Wednesday.

The problem, however, remains “unresolved”, Baren Mondal, general secretary of the Merchants’ Association, said. He said they would meet again in the coming week. “But if it is not resolved, the lives and livelihood of crores of people in rural Bengal and potato-growing States will be affected,” he warned.


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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 8:09:41 PM |

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