Bipodey more roksha koro, e nohe mor prarthona,
Bipodey ami na jeno kori bhoy.
This is an excerpt from a Rabindra Sangeet that resonates with every inhabitant of Bengal. It can be translated as:
Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers,
But to be fearless in facing them.
Written in 1906-07, this ever-relevant song summarises Bengal’s attitude even today when the entire state is reeling under immense pressure due to the Amphan super cyclone.
Bengal has witnessed the fiercest cyclone in 200 years leaving its trail in 14 of 23 districts, affecting crores of people, while the financial losses have been pegged at ₹1 lakh crore. Mainly an agrarian state, agriculture accounts for 21% of Bengal’s GSDP, and when that sector is damaged by a cyclone, it indeed gets challenging for the state, especially when an enemy like Covid-19 is already blocking the revenue streams.
But this is not the first time Bengal has witnessed such a catastrophe. There was a cyclone coupled with a massive earthquake on October 11, 1737—which is claimed to have resulted in the loss of more than 300,000 lives—making it one of the three most disastrous earthquakes in history. Wellington Square (now called Raja Subodh Mallick Square) was known as Dingabhanga after the 1737 storm after a boat crashed there during the cyclone.
The region has also witnessed The Bengal Famine in 1943, which historians suggest was a man-made famine and Winston Churchill was the architect. In recent times, Bengal witnessed another cyclone, Aila, which had a calamitous impact on the state.
Bengal has weathered all these calamities and the people have rebuilt the state every time with their perseverance. After years of slow momentum, Bengal had finally found its tempo and was on an upswing in terms of development. The state was doing very well in GDP growth and had finally found the deserving position in contributing to the country’s growth when the pandemic and Amphan struck.
The people are again working together to get back to normal. At a time when the state is under immense pressure, people across districts and every strata of life are coming together to restore normalcy. We have people who are braving the risks of Covid-19 but still carrying out relief work.
Amphan’s effect on agriculture
Mainly an agrarian state, betel leaf, paddy, jute, and mango are a few of the major crops cultivated in Bengal. Amphan ravaged around 8,500 hectares of betel-leaf farmlands in two districts—East Midnapore and South 24-Parganas, with losses mounting to ₹4,000 crore. In Burdwan, the state’s largest paddy-growing district, the losses are estimated at ₹300 crore.
In the Sunderbans, where people are largely dependent on crab-farming and fishing, the saline water from the Bay of Bengal is believed to have killed all the fishes in their ponds. Most of the farmlands have also been damaged due to the saline water. Many farmers had taken loans at high rates from private moneylenders for survival. The cyclone has added to their misery.
The Coronavirus outbreak has caused a severe disruption to the economy. Now the extensive damage wreaked by the severe cyclone has added to the woes of the people of Bengal, including farmers who were looking to harvest and sell their crops. In this grim situation, farmers need fresh lines of credit to resume their economic activities as most of them have exhausted their savings in the absence of any economic activity during the lockdown.
While a moratorium is being offered to the farmers to reduce the immediate impact of the debt burden, this may not be the only solution as the interest keeps accruing on the loans, and if the economic cycle is not resumed then it could lead to further stress. This also exposes the people to the risk of being trapped by moneylenders.
While the government is trying to put more money in the hands of farmers, it is high time to devise multi-pronged strategies bringing together a proper mix of easy financing, best quality seed support, use of advanced technology, skill-driven knowledge, etc. to support the agri sector. Because in the post-Covid era, the rural economy led by agriculture would be the best bet to revive growth. Reports also indicate that this financial year could well be the year of agriculture.
From a farming perspective, the major problem that farmers in the bay area are suffering from is of salinisation of land. This can call for a change in farming techniques where salinisation is used in their favour. Due to a rise in the sea level, salinisation is fast eating up agricultural lands; but a new farming technique has emerged, called saline agriculture.
In this method, it is possible to grow crops on even salt-affected lands and it just requires the right crops to be used and combined with saline irrigation. With the growing scarcity of fresh water, traditional farming techniques further add to the problem. Various studies suggest that the amount of saline water is almost equal to fresh water. So, if saline water can be used as a resource, this can greatly reduce the amount of fresh water used by agriculture and decrease water stress in many areas.
Bent, not broken
A place is not a mere geographical area; it is the people that make it. Bengal is not just a place. It is an emotion that we all relate too. Compassion and resilience are the two primary characteristics for any state to pick itself up after such a setback. And with the temperament that the people of Bengal have shown, I am confident that the state shall overcome these difficult circumstances, as it has done time and again.
We are a part of this soil and we believe in the inclusivity of every sector to grow together to make a positive impact. We believe that together, we will reform, rebuild, and rejoice in the growth of Bengal soon. We shall get back to our deserving position as the growth marker of the economy.
Amra korbo joy nishchoy...
[We shall overcome some day...]
Views are personal. The author is chairman and managing director of the Kolkata-based Keventer Agro.