Farmers Suicide in West Bengal

Aditya Dash

Around 25 shrimp farmers committed suicide in West Bengal.

They did not end their lives due to a drought or other calamities leading to the destruction of their crops. Their calamity was that there was no one to sell to and the market price for shrimps had crashed. Most others are currently selling at 30 percent below their cost of production.

The reason for this market outcome is that there has been an increase in global supply compared to last year while the global demand has decreased. Last  year, global supplies were hit by various calamities such as floods in Thailand and Vietnam and disease outbreaks in Vietnam and Indonesia. This was the main reason why a lot of shrimp farmers in India made extra money, as more shrimp was sourced from India. This year, no such disaster occurred in any major shrimp producing area and hence there has been a steady increase in the supply of shrimp. As far as the demand is concerned, most developed markets have high inventories from last year so the demand has been fairly low possibly due to the global economic slowdown.

For West Bengal things have been particularly bad. Majority of the produce is meant for export and specifically to Japan. Shrimp processors in West Bengal did not think about hedging their exposure to a single country of origin. Some of you might have read about the rejection of Indian origin shrimps in Japan due to the presence of Ethoxyquin. Ethoxyquin apart from being an unappealing term to be found in a food item is a food preservative used as an anti-oxidant in fish meal and fish feed to prevent rancidity. We feel that this year the detection of Ethoxyquin might have been due to the usage of imported shrimp feed of Malayasian and/or Vietnam origin. What is curious about the Japanese regulations is that the tolerance level of Ethoxyquin for shrimp is 0.01 PPM while the tolerance level for fish is 1 PPM. So as per Japanese regulations, it is acceptable for fish to have 100 times the amount of Ethoxyquin as shrimp. All the containers that have been detained in Japan are in compliance with WHO’s CODEX standards.

Although shrimp is not an integral part of the Indian diet, at such low prices clearly an arbitrage opportunity exists. However arbitrageurs will be constrained by the availability of cold chain infrastructure. Most shrimp processors have already bought plenty of raw materials and have no space left. Maybe things would have been better if there was 100 percent FDI in retail. Walmart and other similar entities would have leaped at this opportunity and stocked up on frozen shrimp.

Apart from the demand constraints one should also focus on the West Bengal shrimp farmer. Their cost of production is higher compared to the farmers of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. The primary reason for that is the lack of awareness and education amongst the farmers. They tend to indiscriminately use Probiotics and other chemicals for maintaining adequate water conditions. Feed is given in a non-scientific manner which leads to higher Feed Conversion Ratios (amount of feed required for 1Kg of growth). Part of the blame lies on feed and shrimp farming input manufacturers and their marketing tactics. We have mostly illiterate and ignorant farmers operating in a highly technical field without any knowledge about quality parameters and basic economics. State governments should invest in translating and disseminating freely available technical information amongst the farming community. Steps should also be taken so that technical knowledge could be imparted at the matriculate level. West Bengal’s infrastructure is not as good as Andhra Pradesh, which has produced a record high number this year. Better road connectivity combined with regular electricity supply would drastically reduce their cost of production and improve product quality too. Conditions in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha are not very good either, however since the cost of production was highest at West Bengal the first round of suicides took place there. Although the financial strain will be felt by Odisha and Andhra cultivators, due to their lower cost of production things should not get that desperate.

Maybe the trade diplomacy team of the Indian government will resolve this matter as soon as possible. Maybe a screening of Ikuru to Japanese health authorities might awaken them to rationalise such a norm which has had such far reaching consequences. In Ikuru a lifelong bureaucrat comes to know that he has a year to live and tries to give his life a sense of purpose. He does so by taking responsibility of a project to transform a malarial swamp into a children’s’ playground. A senior bureaucrat once explained to me that the following are given importance in descending order cereals, horticulture, diary, animal husbandry, poultry and finally aquaculture.

While the suicides have been tragic, a silver line amongst such dark clouds is that aquaculture might get some more attention from the government.

Aditya Dash is a shrimp exporter.

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