GOSABA, 22 MAY: Hunger is an uninvited guest to every household in Aila-hit villages. Farmers have to manage on one or two meals a day as they have to buy rice at Rs 20 a kg; vegetables are a seldom-consumed luxury. After saline water inundated their field during Aila, salt-tolerant rice varieties introduced by the government have failed to produce a decent yield and farmers are now scrambling for indigenous varieties to plant. Meanwhile, the skyrocketing prices of food items have hit them hard.
A shopkeeper in the Sunderbans shows this reporter hay strewn across the passage next to his shop: “This is all that has come out of our land,” said Mr Gopal Nashkar. He used to depend on the crop in his fields to make a living; now, he barely survives, and only because he also owns this small shop. But that is not enough for his family. “My son is in his 3rd year of college studying microbiology and my daughter is in Class XII. I am no longer able to buy them their books; both of them are thinking of dropping out and helping me run the shop.” In fact, most able-bodied residents of the Sunderbans have left for the city in search of jobs.
The land has turned saline, crops don’t produce a yield and even the ponds have become brackish pools where fish just don’t breed. The government has promoted what it terms “salt-tolerant rice” but the farmers claim it hasn’t worked. “Officials came and they told us to harvest a new sort of rice. The paddy was costlier and we didn’t have money. Yet, some took loans and tried the new variety that was claimed to be salt-tolerant. But the yield was very poor ~ it was mostly hay which even the cattle would not eat,” said Shambhu Mondol, a farmer in Satjelia. Since the devastation wrought by cyclone Aila last year, there has been a frantic search for indigenous paddy varieties such as Patsari, Rupshal, Malabati, Khejurchhari, Talmugur and Benimadhab. But after years of promoting hybrid seeds, indigenous varieties are hard to find. Prof. Arun Kumar Sharma, chairman of West Bengal Biodiversity Board, said: “Many hybrid varieties of rice have been promoted in the region but indigenous, salt-tolerant varieties should have been preserved. This was not done and now residents are suffering the consequences.” And the search for food in 21st century Bengal continues.