With assurance of good prices from tobacco companies, Lalmonirhat farmers are dedicating more land this year to the cultivation of the harmful crop to cover up the losses they incurred from paddy in the last cropping season.
Six tobacco companies, including two multinationals, are tempting farmers with incentives including free seeds, fertilisers and technical support. The multinational companies even cover health expenses of the farmers on their list.
Afzal Hossain, 67, a farmer of Saptibari village in Aditmari upazila, said he has prepared tobacco seedbed on one acre of land for cultivating tobacco on five acres of land this year. Last year, he produced tobacco on three acres of land.
“As I didn’t get fair price from farming paddy during the last season, I have used more land for tobacco this year,” he said, adding tobacco company assured him that all of his produce would be purchased at fair prices.
Afzal’s wife Ambiya Begum, 58, said, she along with her husband take care of the tobacco seedbed, hoping to earn a good amount this year.
“Tobacco company’s representatives always visit us to provide technical support on seedbed maintenance and care,” she said.
Azahar Ali, 65, a tobacco grower at Madanpur village in Aditmari, said “I received tobacco seed free of cost, and I will even get free fertilisers from the tobacco company.”
Taher Ali, 62, a farmer at Sarpukur village in the same upazila, is also planning to increase his production this year.
“As tobacco company promised to purchase our tobacco, we are cultivating it on more land,” he said.
Unlike last year, Taher is using three instead of two acres of land this year to sow the saplings from the seedbed he had prepared on 30 decimals of lands.
Sekandar Ali, a high schoolteacher of Saptibari village, explained the attraction of tobacco farming.
He said, about six to seven maund (approximately 261 kilogram) of tobacco can be produced in 0.4 acres of land and a farmer can earn Tk 20,000 to Tk 24,000 from selling that yield.
“In most cases, family members including children do the farm work in tobacco fields, so labour cost is zero. As a result, they earn profit by cultivating this harmful crop,” he said.
Because tobacco is being cultivated at all the fields adjacent to Sekandar’s, he too had to choose that crop instead of planting spice and vegetables on six acres of his land.
“Tobacco plants require a lot of fertilisers and insecticides, If I cultivate anything else in my field, all the insects from the adjacent fields will come to mine,” he claimed.
Sources at different tobacco companies in Lalmonirhat informed this correspondent that they have targeted about 20 thousand farmers for farming tobacco on 30,000 acres of land this year.
Last year, around 15 thousand farmers produced the crop on 25,000 acres of land in Lalmonirhat, according to the sources.
The company high-ups directed the local agents of the company to increase the number of farmers, they claimed, adding that the targeted farmers are provided with cards by the companies, and the identified tobacco growers enjoy different facilities including health expense coverage from the companies.
According to Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) in Lalmonirhat, tobacco was cultivated on 13,000 acres of land in five upazilas of the district in 2014, 18,000 acres of land in 2015, 23000 acres in 2016, 15000 acres in 2017, 25000 acres of land in 2018.
DAE officials are concerned that this year the production is likely to rise further.
Aditmari upazila Agriculture Officer Ali Noor said they only conduct awareness campaign to discourage farmers from farming tobacco but never pressure farmers to stop cultivating the crop.
“Farmers are not interested to respond to our request, as they are trapped in the attractive offers of the tobacco companies,” he said.
He suggested, “If tobacco companies stopped working in the field motivating the farmers, and stop ensuring tobacco marketing facilities, the farming of this poisonous crop could be decreased gradually.”
Meanwhile, a policy drafted in 2017 by the health and family welfare ministry to rein in tobacco production and minimise its negative impact on public health and the economy, is at the final stage, said a health ministry official seeking anonymity.
Smoking kills nearly one lakh people every year in Bangladesh. It alone causes an estimated economic loss of Tk 16,000 crore per year, equivalent to about 1.4 percent of gross domestic product, according to the World Health Organisation.
The draft policy wants to restrict companies from providing tobacco growers with subsidies, loans or other supports, and plantation and processing of tobacco products within 500 yards of homesteads, and its cultivation within 150 yards of the slopes of rivers, canals and lakes.