Economy

COVID-19: Losses stoke fear among Bengal’s betel leaf farmers

More than 1.5 mln betel leaf farmers stare at losses in the state

 
By Gurvinder Singh
Last Updated: Thursday 23 April 2020
Betel leaves farmers in Bengal's Howrah district. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

Betel leaf farmers in West Bengal have found themselves in a fix in the wake of nationwide lockdown imposed to curtail the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.

The farmers plucked and stacked leaves hoping to sell them off for a profit, but more than a month-long lockdown meant that leaves got destroyed before they could be sold off.

Mondal (50), a farmer in Howrah district, stacked 30 bundles for auction at the wholesale market. Restrictions, however, dashed all his plans. He now fears losses.

“The leaves will have to disposed of or they will start losing flavour. Losses have already started. We were expecting to get around Rs 6,000-Rs 8,000 per basket before the lockdown. Now, nobody wants to buy a bundle for more than Rs 1,000,” he said.

Sunil Chandra (34), a betel leaf farmer in the same area has 15 bundles of leaves stacked in his house.

“The situation is terrible. I earn around Rs 2 lakh per annum by selling betel leaves. But it is a loss venture this year. The unplucked leaves can survive for at least two months, but the stacked ones have a shelf life of one week,” he said.

The duo are not alone. Over 1.5 million farmers involved in the betel leaves business in Bengal are facing a similar predicament.

Betel leaves are extensively grown in Bengal’s Howrah, South 24 Parganas, Purba Medinipur and Uttar Dinajpur districts.

The leaves are plucked and stacked by farmers. They are passed on to middlemen, who bring them to wholesale markets for auctioning. The highest bidders get the leaves. 

Around 30 varieties of paan are found in Bengal, including Bangla, Sanchi, Mitha, Kali Bangla and Simurali Bangla. Betel leaves are grown for local consumption and also exported to countries like Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, Bangladesh and Malaysia.

Traders, too, are on the receiving end of the lockdown; the peak season lasts till April.

Exemption: Not really

The West Bengal government on April 7 exempted betel leaf farmers from lockdown purview. Traders, however, termed the move an eyewash.

“The exemption is hardly of any use as all markets and transport network are closed. Where does the farmer sell the produce and who is going to buy it? Police are baton-charging those venturing outside their houses,” said Amiya Shaw, joint secretary, Howrah Paan market.

Rajkumar Bhagat, a paan trader in Howrah, estimated daily losses at Rs 2 crore in Bengal.

“Traders from various parts of the country come to buy the leaves and clear old payments on the occasion of Bengali New Year in mid-April. The lockdown has dealt a severe blow to the industry,” Bhagat said.

Rains wreak havoc

Heavy rains and hailstorms in the last few days have added to the woes of farmers.

The current situation is prompting distress sales — farmers are selling a bundle of betel leaves for as less as Rs 1,000. Meanwhile, farmers have urged the state government to fix a minimum support price for their produce.

“We seek immediate government support to fix a minimum price, as our realisation is far below our costs. The crisis has hit one lakh families associated with the trade,” said Kartik Das, secretary, All Bengal Betel Leaf Farmers Samiti.

But some fear the worst is yet to come.

According to Priyanath Haldar, a retired educationist from Sidho Kanho Birsa University, farmers may face severe cash crunch and losses may prevent them from going for plantation next year. 

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