Betel vines in the Tamluk block of Purba Medinipur district. Photo: Sreenita Mondal
Betel vines in the Tamluk block of Purba Medinipur district. Photo: Sreenita Mondal

COVID-19 and Cyclone Amphan: Betel vine farmers struck by double blow

West Bengal's Purba Medinipur district was the worst hit

The betel farmers of West Bengal were reeling financial distress propelled by the nationwide novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown, when super cyclone Amphan struck and made matters worse for them.

West Bengal’s Purba Medinipur district is well-known for betel plantation, a highly specialised commercial cropping activity. Betel farmers put in considerable efforts to adopt a suitable layout as well as financial resources, for betel plants are sensitive to soil and climatic conditions. The tropical plant requires proper maintenance of soil moisture, of soil aeration as well as sufficient humidity.

These betel vine farmers faced huge financial losses during the lockdown period due to lack of demand in the market. Though the state government allowed them to access the market in April, the move did not prove to be of much help.

“It is not possible to export products these days and traders are not buying betel leaves from farmers. The stock is piling on but the price is falling. It used to fetch us Rs 2,000 — these days we get only Rs 200-300,” said Ganesh Khatua (58), a farmer from Purba Medinipur district.

He added if the situation continued for the next two months, 50 per cent of vines will not survive. Due to lack of demand, many farmers had to destroy their produce, he claimed.

Several farmers had invested a big amount for the quarterly maintenance of the betel vine in February-March, 2020, with the hope of earning it back during summer.

Ekadashi Bhuiya (50), a betel vine farmer in Ramnagar block of Purba Medinipur, said, “I have already spent Rs 20,000 for maintenance of betel vine in February. I don’t know how I will make up for the loss”.

With the ease in lockdown restrictions during phase 4.0, many farmers hoped to sell the betel leaves in the market to repay loans taken for the maintenance of the betel vine. However, Cyclone Amphan smashed all hopes.

Betel vines of the coastal districts were hit hard by the tropical cyclone. The strong winds battered thousands of betel vines. Villagers in blocks such as Ramnagar, Saheed Matangini, Nanda Kumar, Tamluk of Purba Medinipur District are heavily dependent on betel plantation.

But the betel vine farmers are not the only ones on the receiving end. Cyclone Amphan also destroyed a thousand hectares of cropland of the district.

Around 70 per cent population of Purba Medinipur is dependent on subsistence agriculture. The district essentially gets a majority of its rice production during the winter season (rabi crop) from a particular variety of paddy called ‘Taichung’.

On the other hand, cultivation of the Amon paddy during monsoon season is quite uncertain owing to excessive rainfall, submergence of agricultural field and very poor drainage facilities, especially in the coastal blocks.

The harvesting of rabi crop was delayed in 2020 as West Bengal experienced continuous rain during the pre-monsoon period. Bhuiya said: “Many Boro farmers could not harvest their paddy due to continuous downpour during the harvest season. Farmers were harassed. The paddy field was full of water and we could not harvest the crop.”

Many farmers could not harvest the crop, and those who could, could not stock it properly.

A report stated that in Purba Medinipur alone, around 30,000 ha of paddy crop; 12,000 ha of Sesame and 5,000 ha of vegetable land was lost to Cyclone Amphan. South 24 Parganas, one of the worst-hit coastal districts, recorded a huge agricultural and associated loss of livelihoods as well.

Down To Earth