In the southern fringes of the agriculturally-dense district of Purba Medinipur, more ponds are being dug than farms nurtured. Over the next six months, most of the landscape would be dotted with saline water bodies. However, by October once again, a panoramic view of swaying paddy fields would reappear. That's the brief cycle of events which is driving the economy of Purba Medinipur to new heights. The district, now boasts the second highest per capita income (Rs 38,354, 2009-10 and constant prices) among the 19 districts in West Bengal.
As large tracts of lands in Purba Medinipur is steadily getting converted into saline ponds for shrimp farming, an economic boom is benefiting farmers, traders and the government. Interestingly, of the nearly 25,000 shrimp farms in the district only 500 have legal grounding. Every year West Bengal earns close to Rs 1,500 crore foreign exchange through shrimp exports.
With the largest pool of brackish water in the country, nearly 30 per cent of the total resources, West Bengal is the second highest producer of shrimps at 33,685 MT, according to the last available data published in 2009-10. This accounted for nearly 35 per cent of the total shrimp production of India (95,919 MT).
Aditya Ganthai , known for his wealth, clout and brazenness, is a familiar name in Moyna, a block 115 KM away from the sea coast. Entangled in multiple legal battles, Ganthai started shrimp farming by illegally channeling salty waters of the river Haldi to his village. A landless laborer ten years ago, today, he is one of the richest men in the area.
Those who leased out land to Ganthai too made money, but those who did not are left with almost barren tracts of land. What followed was a legal battle between Ganthai and a group of farmers, unwilling to lease out land to him.
Dilip Samanta, who owns land in the middle of Ganthai's shrimp farms, could earn as much as Rs 50,000 a year by selling betel leaves a couple of years ago. Today, he earns not more than Rs 20,000 on the same land, as salinity is seeping into the fertile land. Tapas Mondal, another farmer, is left with nearly-barren paddy field surrounded by shrimp farms.
In 2012, a group of aggrieved farmers moved court against shrimp farming in Moyna. The court gave a verdict that it was necessary to convert farmland into brackish land, through approvals from relevant authorities, before shrimp farming.
"Political support sustained the shrimp farming, even with court orders. Also, those farmers who had filed cases against shrimp farming were the ones who failed to get adequate compensation," points out a local, tracking the shrimp boom in Purba Medinipur.
Certainly, the prosperity brought about by shrimp farming in Moyna is hard to be ignored.
In the best of years, the profits from paddy farming hardly exceeded Rs 5,000 per bigha (1/3 of acre) of land. Today, farmers by leasing land to shrimp farmers can earn as much as Rs 40,000 for a bigha. In addition, with each farm employing five-ten workers, jobs came along with the shrimp boom. For traders, profit margins in shrimp export had been between 50 and 100 per cent, or even more.
Legalising the trade
Yet, more a livelihood and a political issue, a recently-formed government panel is now finding ways to legalize this flourishing trade of shrimps in West Bengal, even as salinity is spreading thick and fast in these hinterlands.
Recently, West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, ordered a two-member committee to look into the matter.
According to government officials, the state would refer to a 2006 amendment in the Coastal Aquaculture Authority Act 2005, which stated that "area of land within a distance of two kilometers from the high tide line of seas, rivers, creeks and backwaters," would be classified as a coastal area.
Thus, the West Bengal government is planning to amend its own land reforms act, which will reclassify the existing land within 2 KM of coastline as 'coastal land' from 'agriculture land'.
"At present, in our own land records, areas near the coastal region are marked as agriculture land. The amendment would classify the regions as coastal land, which would legalise a large number of shrimp farms," said a government official.
Even though at face value, shrimp farming looks like a money minting mechanism, inherent risks can hardly be ignored.
Dependent on global demand, shrimp farming in West Bengal has come up as an unorganised sector, requiring astute cultivation skills.
In 2012, Japan, a key importer of Tiger Shrimps from Purba Medinipur, rejected almost all exports on account of high antioxidant content in shrimps.
Purba Medinipur is known for exporting Tiger Shrimps, which has select buyers as it is costlier than the commonly exported variety of L. Vannamei, cultivated mainly in Andhra Pradesh.
"In 2012, there were cases of farmers' suicide as there were no buyers of shrimp," said a government official.
However, the wheel of fortune turned for the farmers in 2013, when a large amount of L. Vannamei shrimps were infected with virus. In general, of the total shrimp exported from India, 80 per cent is of the L. Vannamei variety. Last year, with the outbreak of disease in L. Vannamei, Tiger Shrimp exports surged by more than 150 per cent and profit margins exceeded 100 per cent for farmers in Medinipur.
Despite uncertainties, India's $1,800 million shrimp exports to the US, EU, Japan and China are adding to the nouveau riche in West Bengal and elsewhere, like never before. Quite logically, defying the all the risks, as of now, farmers in West Bengal seem to have found a treasure trove in shrimps, even as farmlands in rural Bengal, are slowly fading.