A recent report titled “Farmers’ Welfare: An analysis across states of India,” by the National Bank for Agriculture & Rural Development (NABARD) has pointed out that West Bengal’s farming sector is lagging behind other states on two crucial counts.
The first area is that of the average monthly income of a family in the state totally dependent on farming. As per the NABARD report, the average annual income of such a family from farming is Rs 92,072 which means the average monthly income is Rs 7,573. As per the NABARD report only six other states — Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh — are behind West Bengal on this count. Punjab with an average monthly figure of Rs 23,133 is the topper among all Indian states, followed by Haryana at Rs 18,496 and Kerala at Rs 16,927.
The second area as pointed out in the NABARD report is the quantum of agricultural loan granted per hectare of farmland in the state. West Bengal’s rank among all the states on this count is 15th with the agricultural loan per hectare of land standing at just Rs 55,000, which when translated into loan per acre is Rs 22,000. Kerala is the topper with the per hectare agricultural loan there standing at Rs 3,68,000, which when converted into acres is Rs 1,47,200.
The Trinamool Congress leadership has expressed doubts over the authenticity of the findings of the report. According to state agriculture minister Sovandeb Chattopadhyay, although he is yet to study the report in detail, he has doubts over its findings. “As per the records of the state government, the average annual income of a farming family has increased three times since the Trinamool Congress came to power in the state in 2011. In 2018 the annual figure on this count was around Rs 3,00,000. Agreed that there might be some decline in the last two years because of the pandemic, but the situation cannot be so alarming,” he said.
Economic observers and experts in the field feel that lack of administrative efforts to reduce over-dependence on agriculture for livelihood is a major reason for this pathetic picture in West Bengal.
According to economics professor Santanu Basu, in a state like West Bengal with extremely fragmented land holdings which means that extremely small plots of farmland are owned by farming families, the average monthly income of each such family is bound to decline gradually considering the rising cost of farming. “This happens when too many people are dependent on a single plot of fragmented land. I have not gone through the NABARD report but I am sure that states where the average monthly income of a family from farming is high, there the average income of a family from non-agriculture avenues is also high. So, the West Bengal government should take the initiative for improving the sources of non-agriculture income and for that what is necessary is to create a proper ambience and infrastructure for industrial development both in manufacturing as well as the services sector,” Basu said.
In fact, the NABARD report itself has findings that complement Basu’s logic on non-agriculture income reducing dependence on agricultural income. The report states that Kerala, which has the third highest average monthly income figure of Rs 16,927 per month per family from agriculture, has the highest average per family monthly income of Rs 14,863 from non-agriculture sources. In the case of Punjab, which has the highest average monthly income figure of Rs 23,133 per family from agriculture, the average figure of non-agriculture income per family is also quite high at Rs 10,935.
In the case of West Bengal, the figure is barely Rs 6,383.
As regards the extremely low figure of agricultural loan granted per hectare in West Bengal, former national secretary of the State Bank of India Staff Association, Ashoke Mukherjee, said that because of the fragmented nature of farmland in the state, traditionally the Kisan Credit Card ticket size in the state has been quite low at around Rs 47,000 which is well below the national average of around Rs 62,000. In almost all meetings of the State Level Bankers’ Committee, the representatives of the state government had been emphasizing on the improvement of the ticket size. But there had not been any improvement on this count, he said.
In fact, as per the records of SLBC, West Bengal, in most districts, including those considered as granaries like Hooghly, Howrah, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas and East Burdwan, the credit to deposit ratio is either below 50 per cent or has barely crossed the 50 per cent mark. In fact, in Hooghly district, which is considered as the rice-cum-vegetable belt of West Bengal, the ratio is just around 39 per cent.
Economist PK Mukhopadhyay feels that big ticket investment both in the manufacturing and services sectors is the answer to both improving the credit to deposit ratio as well as supplement agriculture income with non- agriculture income. “But that needs a thorough overhaul in the existing state government policies on land acquisition for industry as well as a special economic zone policy. But whether the political goodwill and courage to bring about those policy changes are there or not remains to be seen,” he said.