In Bihar’s ‘lentil bowl’ region, farmers struggle for income and livelihood

Most farmland is underwater, and floodwaters no longer recede in time for farmers to sow their crops.

ByBasant Kumar
In Bihar’s ‘lentil bowl’ region, farmers struggle for income and livelihood
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“Do you have the mobile number of the prime minister’s office? Can we talk to them? Ask Modiji to speak to farmers here during his Mann Ki Baat, then we shall tell him all our problems. If a farmer from India has to commit suicide, then those farmers will be from this region.”

Shashibhushan Singh’s voice was filled with emotion. He’s a farmer from Ota village in the Mokama Assembly segment of Patna district, Bihar, part of the state’s Taal region, a local name for the area spanning several districts.

Mokama’s Taal region, home of political strongmen like the Lok Janshakti Party's Surajbhan Singh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Anant Singh, is popularly known as the “lentil bowl” of Bihar. The route from Nalanda to Mokama passes through several agricultural regions, but most of them are underwater.

This is the irony of Mokama: its residents are forced to purchase lentils instead of produce them due to severe waterlogging in their fields. The fields resemble vast rivers and lakes, a consequence of annual flooding.

Along the banks of the Ganga, about 1.06 lakh hectares of agricultural fields in Lakhimpura, Patna, Sheikhpura and Nalanda districts — called Kisan Taal — are annually submerged by flooding. Pulses are the crops of choice in these parts.

Typically, the receding waters leave behind fertile soil and farmers would then sow their crops. This generally happens before October 15, and farmers would get good yields, without much need for fertilisers or water.

But in the last three years, the floodwaters haven't receded in time. This October, for instance, the fields remained submerged, the water waist-high in some places, and farmers told Newslaundry that there will be no crop this year.

“Be it the state or central government, everyone has made a fool of us,” said Shashibhushan, 60. “Chief minister Nitish Kumar promised reforms and structure, he said farmers in the Taal region would reap three crops a year instead of one. Today, it’s difficult to get even one.”

The government has paid no attention to the Taal region, Shashibhushan said, despite “pushing and endorsing atmanirbhar”, or self-reliance.

“Had the government paid any attention to our region, the country would have become self-reliant for lentils,” he said. “The old people here will tell you that Taal has never been without a crop. But in the last three years, we haven’t been able to do it. The region is underwater and by the looks of it, we won’t be able to farm this year too. What other option do we have besides killing ourselves?”

Shashibhushan Singh.

Shashibhushan Singh.

Ranjeet Kumar.

Ranjeet Kumar.

Annual income of Rs 5-10 lakh lost

In Ota village, Ranjeet Kumar was worried about not being able to sow crops on time. For him, it’s a loss of Rs 7-8 lakh of annual income from his 50 bigha field.

If the situation doesn’t improve, he said, he won’t be able to get his children married because people here depend on the pulse crops for their livelihood. “Where would I get the money for my children’s education and weddings without farming?” he asked.

From Fatuha to Lakhisarai, Ranjeet said, fields have been submerged. “Every farmer is struggling. A farmer who used to make Rs 10 lakh in sales sells yield worth hardly Rs 1 lakh,” he said. “The best time to sow pulse crops in this region is October 15-30. If the crop is sown within this period, the yields are good. If the crop is sown after, then the yield becomes significantly less, or sometimes the crop doesn’t come to fruition.”

He said the yield now is “non-existent”. “I am just cutting grass from Taal to feed the cattle.”

Saket Kumar, 41, a farmer in the area, told Newslaundry that he used to farm his 50-bigha field for pulse crops like chana and masoor. “Every year, I used to get yields up to 800-900 mann (320 quintals) which we used to sell for about Rs 9-10 lakh. My savings were about Rs 5 lakh a year. But in the last three years, production has come down because sowing did not happen on time.”

Shishupal Kumar Singh, who has a field of 40 bighas, is also staring at a bleak future. His children will not be able to study and will be forced to work as labourers, he claimed, thanks to the government’s neglect.

“The prime minister and chief minister are responsible for us not being able to farm,” he said. “We read in every newspaper that Rs 5-10 crore came for the Taal project but what happened to it?...The farmers are dying here but no one cares.”

He said: “You are a journalist. Did you see any news of our destitution? Our children are dying from hunger but no politician came to ask us about our problems.” He added that school classes now take place online due to the Covid pandemic, but he hasn’t been able to afford to buy a phone for his child.

Shishupal Kumar Singh.

Shishupal Kumar Singh.

This year, the floodwaters haven't receded even by the end of October.

This year, the floodwaters haven't receded even by the end of October.

Not an election issue

But why aren’t the floodwaters receding on time?

“Due to the ever-increasing sludge, the height of the Ganga has risen,” said Sundaram Kumar, a local. “Because of this, the water in the Taal region is not flowing back into the Ganga quickly enough.”

But the increased height of the Ganga isn’t the only reason. Ranjeet Kumar said the government had built roads adjacent to the Taal as well as bridges at points that blocked the floodwater’s flow downstream.

Shashibhushan said he is furious with the government.

“Nitish Kumar gave a lot of money for the Taal region but no change is visible on the ground,” he said. “His officers sit in Patna and make these projects. But neither do they know the geography of the region nor do they consult with the farmers. If you ask anything, they say they have taken everything into account. If everything was taken into account, why isn’t the water flowing out?”

Adding to their distress is the fact that this waterlogging isn’t a new problem; it’s something the government has planned for many times. In 2009, Nitish Kumar had discussed the need for a “special scheme” to tackle the issue but 11 years later, nothing has changed. Media reports intermittently indicated that funds allotted for this purpose, but farmers told Newslaundry that the money was never spent properly.

And the farmers are now paying the price. Several of them cited Narendra Modi’s promise to double farmers’ incomes by 2022. When income has stopped, they pointed out, what is there to double?

Farmers also accused union minister Nitin Gadkari of “betraying” them, since he had once accompanied Modi for a series of functions in Mokama in 2017. At the time, Gadkari had acknowledged that flooding was a “big problem” in Mokama’s Taal region and said that a masterplan for the same was a “priority”. “We will ensure your security,” he had said.

Where is this security, farmers asked Newslaundry.

“Two days ago, Nitish Kumar came to campaign here for the elections,” said Sundaram, a farmer in the area. “In his meeting, he said that the Taal scheme is almost complete. But the reality is for everyone to see. Crores of rupees might have come from the government but no one knows where it was spent.”

However, the plight of thousands of families in the Taal region is not an Assembly poll issue in Bihar, despite politicians like Nitish Kumar mentioning it during their rallies. The current MLA Anant Singh has been winning from this Assembly seat since 2005, first for the JD(U), then as an independent candidate. He’s now contesting from prison on an RJD ticket.

This story was translated from Hindi by Shardool Katyayan. A version of this story first appeared on NL Hindi.

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