“I had gone to seek help from my father. Every day money lenders would come, shout at us in front of the children. It was humiliating … but I didn’t think he would do this so soon,” she said.
By the time Chaitali returned, Subhash had already passed away leaving behind his mother, wife and two little children. Today, Chaitali runs the family by working in farms. The work is available only four months a season, and pays Rs 150 a day. She had to spend the last two years running around to get her husband’s death certificate and avail of the Rs 2 lakh compensation promised by the West Bengal government to the kin in case of the death of any farmer in the 18-60 age group. “I went to Kolkata four times, but I did not get anything. And, we are still paying off the debt,” she said.
At Bhatar in Purba Bardhaman, the largest paddy-growing district of the state, allegations of rampant corruption and agrarian distress are rampant. In Purba Bardhaman, once a bastion of the CPI-M, the Trinamool Congress had won 14 of the 16 seats in the last assembly election. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the TMC led in 14 assembly segments. Eight of the 16 seats vote on Saturday.
Doles to the farmers has been a focal point of both the TMC and the BJP. While chief minister Mamata Banerjee has expanded the Krishak Bandhu scheme to Rs 10,000 annually per farmer, BJP leaders have repeatedly said farmers would receive Rs 6,000 under the PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi. The BJP has also accused the TMC government of denying the central scheme’s benefits to the state’s farmers.
Political optics over farmers have been sharp too. The TMC has blamed the Centre for the farmers’ protest in Delhi while the BJP conducted a month-long farmers’ outreach programme, starting with the region. The BJP publicly reached out to eight farmer households, with its leaders sharing meals with them in January, but the TMC managed to get the same farmers to endorse Mamata Banerjee’s policies the very next day.
Moloy Das, a potato farmer in Jamalpur, said he doesn’t know of any farmer who has received the state government’s aid. “…many of us are falling deep into the debt trap, and to get out of it we need at least the market price for our produce,” he said. “The cost of production has gone up significantly as a packet of seeds cost at least Rs 3,800 now. We were paying about Rs 1,800 for the same packet two years ago.”
Nazrul Haque, the Left Front candidate from Bhatar, said the farmers were at the mercy of the mill owners and local TMC leaders. TMC leaders said the state government, by bringing in distribution coupons for mills and increasing the maximum paddy a farmer could sell to a mill at 90 quintals, has addressed the problem of middlemen in the region.
But farmers said they were ending up selling a significant amount of paddy to middlemen though the prices were much lower than the Rs 1,830 per quintal the government had fixed.A local farmer, Jyotikamal Mondal, said the BJP was growing in the area mainly because people were angry with the way they were at the mercy of local money leaders. “Mostly they are from the ruling party who give us the advance for the seeds, so one cannot upset them,” he said.