In the southern fringes of the agriculturally-dense district of Bengal's 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, a panoramic view of swaying paddy fields would reappear.
That’s the brief cycle of events driving the region's economy to new heights. The district boasts the second highest per capita income (Rs 38,354, 2009-10 and constant prices) among the 19 in the state. As large tracts here steadily get 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 export. With the largest pool of brackish water in the country, nearly 30 per cent of the total resources, West Bengal is the second highest yearly producer of shrimps, at 33,685 tonnes, according to the last available data, published in 2009-10. This accounted for nearly 35 per cent of the country's total shrimp production (95,919 tonnes).
Aditya Ganthai, known for his wealth, clout and brazenness, is a familiar name in Moyna, a block 115 km from the sea coast. Entangled in multiple legal battles, Ganthai started shrimp farming by illegally channeling the salty waters of the Haldi river to his village. A landless labourer 10 years ago, he is now one of the richest in the area.
Those who leased out land to Ganthai made money, too; those who did not are left with almost barren tracts. 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 earlier. Today, he earns not more than Rs 20,000 on the same land, as salinity is seeping into his fertile land. Tapas Mondal, another farmer, is left with nearly-barren paddy fields, 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 any 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,” says a local who tracks the shrimp boom here.
Certainly, the prosperity brought about by shrimp farming in Moyna is hard to ignore. In the best of years, the profits from paddy farming hardly exceeded Rs 5,000 a bigha (a third of an acre). Now, 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 to 10 workers, jobs came 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
Having become a livelihood and political issue, a recently-formed government panel is now finding ways to legalise this flourishing trade, even as salinity is spreading thick and fast in these hinterlands. Recently, 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 the “area of land within a distance of two kilometres from the high tide line of seas, rivers, creeks and backwaters” would be classified as a coastal area. Thus, the Bengal government plans to amend its own land reforms law, to reclassify the existing land within two 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.
Yet, though shrimp farming looks like a money minting mechanism, the 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 shrimp from Purba Medinipur, rejected almost all exports on account of high anti-oxidant content. Purba Medinipur is known for exporting tiger shrimp, 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 an official. The wheel of fortune turned for farmers in 2013, when a large amount of L Vannamei shrimp was infected with a virus. In general, of the total shrimp export from India, 80 per cent is of the L Vannamei variety. Last year, with the outbreak of disease in the latter, tiger shrimp export surged 150 per cent and profit margins exceeded 100 per cent for farmers in Medinipur.
Despite uncertainties, India’s $1,800-million shrimp export, to the US, Europe, Japan and China are adding to the nouveau riche in West Bengal and elsewhere, like never before. Defying the risks, farmers believe they've found a treasure trove, even as farmlands in rural Bengal are slowly fading.