A farmer in Kalihati, Tangail, frustrated with not being able to harvest his paddy, set fire to his rice field. News of this unprecedented act went viral on social media. Editorials, TV channels and even the foreign media took up the incident in full swing. Some college students went to stand by the farmer in a display of solidarity. This may not have been a publicity stunt , but even this was reduced to a farce. BBC reported that instead of making the so-called media wait idly, they began cutting the half-ripe crops to pose for the cameras.
Then when the UNO of Natore sadar took the initiative to stand by the farmers and procure paddy from them directly, this news too spread like wild fire in the media.
Some marched to the fields to cut the paddy, some go to the markets or even to the farmers’ home to purchase paddy. Members or parliament, police, ambitious student leaders, bureaucrats, UP chairmen and members, everyone became a part of this circus. The farmers are no fools and can see through this farcical display.
When the upazila nirbahi officer (UNO) of Belkuchi in Sirajganj tried to get to the root of the matter, he was harassed by the musclemen of the area. He had to go to the police before matters turned worse. He filed charges against seven persons for obstructing the government paddy procurement drive and threatening him.
A university student wrote a letter, “...I am A... Kumar of the village Isabpur, upazila Dhamuirhat in Naogaon district, I am a student of chemistry at your university. My father D... Kumar is a marginal farmer. The farmers of my area are not getting a fair price for their paddy. The government took the decision to procure paddy from 40 marginal farmers in each upazila, but the AL leaders have put their own names on the list and the farmers are not getting a fair price. The government has no right to treat them in this manner. The people of my area will no longer grow rice. It takes 4000 taka to cut 33 per cent of the paddy. Now the labourers take half the paddy and the farmers take half. The paddy is 500 taka per maund. How will they make money? One bigha of land yields around 15 to 16 maunds. Bumper crop, but not a bumper price. This is our independence” Will this third-year student A Kumar be able to return to university? If so, at what price?
The farmers simply cannot free themselves from this vicious cycle. They are struggling to survive, desperately trying to keep their noses above water.
A small child was despondently sitting with a goose at the Panchkatha market in front of Gangdharkanda Government Primary School in Kamalkanda, Netrakona. He stroked the goose’s head, whispering, “Don’t cry, Banu.” Banu wasn’t crying, the child was.
This little boy Masum was having to bear the brunt of the paddy losses. His father Alfat Ali couldn’t sell his paddy at a fair price and now Masum was having to sell his pet goose so his father could buy Eid clothes for him and his siblings. Masum has no clothes other than his school uniform. His younger brother doesn’t even have that. He wears an old torn garment. His sister Amena has her school uniform, but at home wraps herself in a torn piece of her mother’s old sari. The three of them just look toward the paddy and Eid. But paddy has yielded no price and so Banu is the only hope. If they sell their beloved pet, they can celebrate Eid, otherwise not. So Masum has crossed the river to come to the market to sell the goose. Before leaving home, Amena had lovingly fed Banu a last meal of rice starch.
Then there was a student of Kurigram whose father couldn’t afford to pay for his monthly expenses. He sent his son just 1000 taka, asking his son to forgive his inability to pay anymore. The boy returned home. Who knows whether he will ever be able to study in college again?
Everyone now knows about the woman farmer Mariam Begum of Tolorar union in Bogura because of social media. She couldn’t sell her paddy in the market and so paid her field labourers with her television set.
And so many students who recently passed the SSC exams are also victims of the low paddy prices. Around 250,000 of them haven’t even applied for admission to HSC classes. Experts point to the increase of fees at the higher level of education as the reason for dropouts. How can the poor farmer pay for his children’s education if he is not paid for his paddy?
* Gowhar Nayeem Wahra is a disaster management expert and researcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece, appearing in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir