“I am Sougata Patra, 65 years of age. I live in West Bengal, in a village named Krishnaballavpur, about 200 km from Kolkata, the city of joy. My village is in Paschim Medinipur district and is in the border of three administrative blocks. There are good concrete roads but there is no public transport. Villagers do not seem to mind as some prefer bicycles; and nowadays almost everyone has a motorcycle.
Not only in my village but in the entire area of about 50 villages, you will not find many youths. Most of them have migrated to different cities, and are engaged in different kinds of work. After COVID-19 hit the country many of them came back, but eventually returned to the cities.
During the second wave, many did not come back. In cities there is work and income, but not here. Life in the village has changed in general. But the changes are different and happening in unexpected ways during the pandemic. More so for a farmer like me.
Different labor work
I own seven bighas of land or approximately two acres. In this region the lands are fertile. We grow paddy and vegetables in the winter season. The vegetables give good returns, if you have a few members in your family to work in the fields. Because finding labor is very difficult.
In my seven bighas of land we produce around 800 kg of rice and that’s my main source of work and income. It’s very difficult to cultivate nowadays.
I also hold a MGNREGA card. (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme under the MGNREG Act, and hence referred to as MGNREGA) During the coronavirus pandemic, the work under MGNREGA has increased. Since there is no road creation work, nowadays ponds are being dug. On some days, I go for MGNREGA work; not for the money but just to enjoy the work. Almost all my family members go for MGNREGA work.
Rich or poor, everyone goes for MGNREGA work. One of the reasons is that, without much effort and with a few hours of work, we can earn easy money. As most of the youths have migrated, it is easy to get MGNREGA work. Coupled with free rations, people are not interested to work in the field.
Everyone is interested in working in shops and markets in nearby areas, but not in the paddy field. The wages have increased to Rs 292 per day. As the workers come quite early, we provide them with breakfast and lunch, mostly their preferred panta bhat, a fermented rice dish.
If they are migrant laborers, they stay in the house of the land owner for a few days, depending on the work. Then dinner is also provided. Sometimes the land owner has to provide something during breaks too. Wages and meals together cost almost Rs 350 per worker.
In addition to this, we pay for water. In villages, large farmers have pumps with electricity connections. Marginal farmers’ lands are scattered and lack their own water source. So we buy water from large farmers. We pay Rs 2,000 per bigha for a season. During rainy season, this rate is almost half. After paying the high cost for water and pesticide and fertilizer, it’s very difficult to make a profit.
Production of 1 kg of rice costs around Rs 22 if I calculate my efforts and wage. But it sells for Rs 18 per kg in the market. Unless there are family members to take care of the work instead of hiring workers, a farmer cannot make any profit. That is why many farmers do not want to hold on to their land.
Producer as recipient
In my area there are many people who are not below poverty line, but are the beneficiaries of food grains from the public distribution system (PDS). The PDS is now providing wheat; people have changed and continue to change their food habits. Instead of rice which was our traditional food, people are consuming wheat roti at night. With increasing cases of diabetes, doctors are also prescribing wheat-based foods.
Also, there are many families who are getting PDS ration but do not consume. They sell the food grains in the local market at a very low cost, as whatever they get from the sale is profitable for them. But for farmers it’s a very difficult time. Because the food grains supplied through PDS are not procured from local farmers. As there is a lack of demand locally, the farmers are not able to sell their produce.
During the last wave of the pandemic, we received 35 kg of food grains from the government. Isn’t it ironic that those of us farmers who produce grains to feed the country get food as donation? I thought of rejecting the grains that the government doled out, but could not.
If I did not accept, I would be branded as anti-government or anti-ruling party. But what I strongly felt was that these food grains could have been provided to the families in need, the migrant laborers and the slum dwellers who cannot produce food and are dependent on the market.
Market at my doorstep
The market started coming to our door during COVID-19 pandemic. As my village and the neighboring villages produce vegetables and other valuable products, traders and businessmen started visiting our villages for procuring the produce, to sell in other places.
Now you will find everything in the village – fish, vegetables, clothes. Earlier we used to visit the haat (market) once a week, and mela (fair) during festivals. But last year, when lockdown was in place and there were restrictions, small businessman found it difficult to stay idle at home. They also have to feed their family. So they started coming to the villages. I observe this as a new pandemic trend.
Now many things can be done online. Over telephone. Like mobile recharge, TV recharge, booking of gas cylinders and even groceries. Cooking gas cylinders are not home-delivered in villages. We generally collect it from the shop around 20 km away.
We had to travel to pay the electricity bill too. But nowadays a few youths have taken up this work. They charge Rs 75 and deliver the gas cylinder at home. They also pay the electricity bill on my behalf. For that they charge Rs 15 per bill. They get some pocket money and the villagers also benefit.
Only thing is that they are not going to school for many days. In my age nobody went to college. But now many have enrolled in school and college. Some of them went to school for the first time this academic year. I hear that all of them will pass because of the lockdown. But they may not have learnt anything.
In my village, most of the youths migrate in search of work after completing class X or class XII. With what they earn, they encourage their sisters to study. You will find that in all secondary, higher secondary schools and colleges, the number of girls is higher.
But after the girls complete their education, it is difficult to find an educated groom with a decent job. But what we miss during the pandemic is the marriage ceremonies. Earlier the entire village or hamlet used to get involved.
For poor families we used to sponsor the expenses collectively and celebrate. After all, they are the children of our village. But now during the lockdown because of COVID-19, the marriages are being conducted without any guests.
The large play ground as one enters my village is now covered with bushes. The number of games and sporting activities came down in recent years. But now there is nothing. Without the players and the shouts accompanying a catch or a wicket during a game of cricket, there is silence around the ground.
The village has a primary school. Around 20 years back the school building collapsed. Since the government was taking its time to respond to our request, we, the villagers, collected donations and constructed a good building. Due to migration and parents’ preference for private English medium schools, the number of students reduced in recent years. But it does provide education to some of the local students.
The school was closed when the pandemic struck and lockdown was announced. But it has been reopened now. Not to function as a school. But for a different purpose. It has been converted into an isolation center for migrant laborers who return to our village.
In the meantime, almost everyone including me got fever and took medicine from the local quack. I have not stepped out of my house in the last one year. My son is employed in a city. I have told him not to come, because I do not want my small grandchild to be quarantined in a school without basic amenities. I am waiting for the pandemic to end, so I can see my granddaughter whom I met one-and-a-half years back.
As narrated to Shyamal Santra, Transform Rural India Foundation. Sougata Patra is a marginal farmer based at Krishnaballavpur in West Bengal. Views are personal.