Ground Report: How farmers of Assam are staring at starvation

Ground Report: How farmers of Assam are staring at starvation

Tracts of farmlands cultivated by the small farmer growing tomatoes, chili, brinjal, lemons and watermelons are shrivelling up due to water supply being cut during Assam's lockdown, even while the urban poor are forced to buy vegetables at exorbitant prices; dealers in curd and cheese are in dire straits; the question then is, who is profiteering from the COVID 19 lock down?

Santhali Adivasis who walk 20-30 kilometres to Bongaigaon,clear the jungle for residents and earn money through this exercise are todayleft with no earnings after the  suddenlock down. Just days ago, a poor and marginalised labourer, Gopal Barman fromGoalpara district of Assam has already committed suicide due to acute scarcityof food. For the Santhalis, the indigenous people of Assam, the jungle was richin food but today, their food crisis is more dire than the horrors of Corona.Community volunteers with the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), in theBongaigaon district have alerted authorities about these dire conditions whilealso undertaking relief distribution through community resources.

Farms of tomatoes have been drying up, bigha by bigha, alsoas a result of the lock down with farmers not being allowed to care for the produce.  Ratan Majumdar, a farmer from Chatianguriunder the Bijni sub-division of Chirang district said that due to the lock downthe crops which are being cultivated on their lands are being systematicallydestroyed, especially which will cause a lot of real, human and financialdamage. Loss of vegetable-fruits like this is criminal at a time when peopleare hungry for food.

Majumdar also said that tomatoes are grown-produced in largequantities in many villages of this district including Chhatianguri, Maneswari.However all these villages have shown the tomatoes withering away due to thesudden shut down of water supply! Farmers in the villages of Matiyapara,Bagorgaon, Koptupuli, Kauwatika, Duturi, Baghmara etc are also helpless, seeingbefore their own eyes their crop dry up and wither away due to the failure towater the fields!

When interacting with farmers, CJP's wide network ofcommunity volunteers and district volunteers, asks, "Farmer how areyou?"(কৃষক তুমি কেমন আছো?/কৃষক তুমি কেনে আছা?)

The results of this empathetic exchange, at a time whenthere is none to turn to, are revealing. CJP volunteers have been active in thevarious villages of Lower Assam especially those in the Chirang, Bongaigaon,Kokrajhar, Barapeta and other districts.

CJP's volunteer from Chirang, Pranay Tarafder visited avillage called Kharampara. No farmers were allowed to talk to him or comeoutside their homes. This, while their fields and the produce shriveled up. Acriminal waste of produce.

Similarly, many villages in Kokrajhar district seeing theshriveling up of field upon field growing vegetables! Abdul Hamid, a small,marginalised farmer from the Hawriapet village under Gosaigaon police stationin Kokrajhar district, told CJP, "I cultivated cucumber  on 1 bigha of land this year. As the time wasripe to sell this cucumber, the lock down was suddenly declared. If we can'tsell vegetables, what we will eat? Will the government help us?"

Many other villages of Barpeta district are seeing thesimilar waste of all their ripe and grown agricultural produce due to absenceof a live supply chain open to the markets. Sale of vegetables in largequantities has been unilaterally shut down for the last twenty days. Katajharvillage grows large tracts of cucumber. "If the state's agriculturedepartment does not arrange for purchase and sales, then I too will be at aloss, " Gokul Ghosh of the village told the CJP team.  A similarly bleak situation faces almostfarmers in this district. A large number of corn crops are harvested in theDhubri region of Assam, especially in the Char region. Faced with theturbulence caused by the countrywide lock down, these farmers face a sudden dipin the prices of corn. What will this mean for their sustenance?

Bishnupur in Chirang District is known for it's famed lemoncultivation. This is the area from where the special Assamese lemon is suppliedto all over the state, other states in the north-east and even eastern part ofBengal. Many farmers from this area cultivate hundreds of bighas of lemon.Guwahati, the main city of Assam is also dependent upon Bishnupur as it meetsthe demands of 90% lemon. Though lemons have been harvested, the sudden shutdown in communications had ruptured the supply chain. Small portions are beingsold:  while the price was Rs 1200 perbag before the lock down, this has dropped to Rs 800 per bag, which means aloss of Rs 400 per bag.

The same is the case in Garogaon, Oxiguri, Bhawraguri,Batabari, Ballamguri, Kawatika, Bhetgaon etc villages which is the areas renownedfor tomato and chilli cultivation. Farmer Abdul Aziz told the CJP team that hecultivated green chilli on three bighas of land, and in better non lock downtimes he used sell this produce at Rs 40 per kg. Now the green chilli ready toeat, but there is no way to sell it. The supply chain has been broken.

Large quantities of water melon is grown-produced in thepastures of the Aie river in the Bongaigaon district. Locals have innovativemethods of sale: the lawn road at No. 31 National Highway, for one kilometer onboth sides of the highway becomes a temporary market for watermelon vendors.The Covid-19 caused lock down has meant a loss of sales and supply, leaving thefarmers stranded with the ready crop. A similar situation has arisen forwatermelon growers in Balughopa region.

In another part of Bongaigaon district, the Kirtanpara area,people earn their livelihoods on two kinds of occupation. The first isagriculture and the second is cheese and curd production from the fresh cowmilk, which is then sold in different cities. With the lock down, farmers'crops are being destroyed, and accumulation of curd and cheese is causing awasteful and desperate situation for these producers.

Many milk dealers in Chirang district are also in direstraits today. Particularly for those who sell milk in the sweet shops, thesituation is acute as shops are shut due to the lock down. No alternativearrangements have been made by the government to sell milk at this time ofcrisis. This has added to the despair.

Committed to its Citizenship related para legal andcommunity interventions since 2017, CJP's team that spans several districts ofthe has been now completely involved in providing food and ration reliefespecially to the most deisadvantaged and needy among the people. This workinvolves creating awareness about the COVID 19 virus, the need for intrepidsteps for public distancing, observing the lock down and administrative ruleswhile also at the same time, performing these public tasks: collecting anddistributing the relief materials, through our volunteers in different areas.

The results have been painful and worrying. Testimonies ofunspeakable hardship have emerged: the poorest people among the people in Assamare battling against hunger, searching for food rather than battling Corona.Food intake has been reduced to days long hunger or just a single meal in aday. The state of Assam is in a state of anarchy and faces worse in the daysahead.

Several persons and organisations are involved in the reliefand humanitarian aid operations. These aid workers and volunteers areco-operating with the administration. The administration is trying its best tosupply ration needs of those mainly in urban and semi urban centers. Ii is inthe most remote areas where the distress is acute: unimaginable dire storiesfrom widows, orphans, children come from there.

In the midst of this crisis, volunteers from CJP have beendistributing relief material while following the regulations laid down by theadministration for such work during the lock down. Difficulties remain,however. Some volunteers from Kokrajhar have complained of innocent personsbeing targeted by the administration when in fact they have not been guilty ofany violations.

Also, movement to aid workers and volunteers gets hamperedbecause of these very rules. The cries of the farmer in Baksha district isdesperate and acutely felt. To alleviate this suffering, CJP has started thisoutreach and our first step is to ask, "how are you dear farmer?"

Assam faces a double or triple jeopardy caused by COVID 19.Already the state was reeling under the self-inflicted citizenship crisis. Thenthe fears and precautions caused by the virus. The worst of all of this ishowever, the condition of hundreds if not thousands of marginalised farmers whocultivate on small land: the cultivation could be tomatoes, brinjal, chilli,watermelon, milk produce.

The refrain is an echo, from farmer after farmer, "Ourwar is against hunger, much more than Corona." What will they do? ThroughCJP they plead: the government takes some measures to waiver or sanctioning newfarmers' loans to protect their lives, must open water supply, must open supplychains of ready vegetable and milk produce to markets. Otherwise, they will dienot of disease but of starvation. And, ready to eat good vegetables and milkfoods are going waste.

The farmer's plight is a source of much frustration. As theAdivasis and farmers battle hunger in Assam, the middleman, the grocery shopowner charges exorbitant prices. Why doesn't the government not crack down onthis brazen hoarding and corruption? On the one hand, crops are being wasted orbeing left to wither and die while at the grocery store, people are compelledto buy vegetables at high prices. The distress of the suffering matches thepoor and marginalized that are compelled to pay higher rates for food.

The most heart wrenching sight witnessed by the CJP team wasto see, at many homes of farmers, cultivator families boiling brinjals,cauliflower and feeding these to the cows! In the small urban centres, with theacute rise in price of vegetables and other essential food items, the workingpoor people are compelled to eat rice only with salt.

What can be done? The government needs to step in proactively and not be paralysed in a state of lock down. The farmer is ready tosell and buy vegetables through a government regulated chain where the benefitsgo to him and the small consumer who needs to eat. For this the governmentneeds to step in and soon. This way the farmer will get some money as well asthe people will not have to bear the extra burden of price rise during thisfinancial downturn.

If the government begins the distribution of rice rationsfrom April 15, CJP volunteers are planning to actually vegetables from thefarmer and distribute them to those who need them. If other aid workers andagencies play the same role in a spirit of co-operation, marginalized sectionsof the Assamese people will be able to eat vegetables with rice.

Contributed by NandaGhosh, Photo Credit: Piyush Chakraborty, Riju Modak, Krishna Sarker, MuzammelHoque,  (The author is the Lower AssamVolunteer Motivator for CJP, Assam) Courstey:

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