For decades, around this time of the year, farm labourers from Murshidabad and adjoining areas leave their villages to take part in the sugarcane harvesting operations in Uttar Pradesh and bring home some much-needed extra money. This time, however, they wont be doing so.
Following the communal flare-up, a large number of the farm hands here have decided against going to Muzaffarnagar and other parts of Uttar Pradesh for the harvesting work this year.
Rahman Mollah, a 65-year-old from Loknathpur in Murshidabad who has been working in the farms for the past 50 years, says this time of the year gives sugarcane farm labourers here lucrative opportunities to work outside the state. He knows because he too had made several trips in the past to different places across the country although now he says he is too old for that.
There are labour contractors who take people from our village to several places across the country. One such place is Uttar Pradesh. I have grown up seeing every season people from the village and even some of my family members going for a few weeks to Bulandshahr, Muzaffarnagar, Azamgarh and Sitapur districts in Uttar Pradesh. Of late, these people are also in demand in different areas of Jammu and Kashmir, he says.
But, Rahman says, this year not a single person from the village has volunteered to go there and the elders have also dissuaded the youngsters from going to Uttar Pradesh because of the riots that claimed the lives of several Muslims. He says he too has told his three sons not to venture out this year.
A days work outside would fetch over three times of what labourers are paid in the village but I would still say it is not worth risking your life, he says.
Shukrullah Sheikh, another farm hand from Murshidabad who is in his 50s, says it was better to stay with family and earn a little less. From the time the riots broke out, many of us decided that our family members would not go there for the money. The price of life is much more, he says.
The fear of death is clear on the faces of these people who have decided to give priority to family during this crucial period. It makes sense as well. People who work here get Rs 150 a day as against the ones who go to other states which fetch them at least Rs 500, plus food and accommodation. But a closer analysis will show that those here work for at most four hours but outside they are made to work for 12 hours, from 6 am to 6 pm, says Mantu Mollah.
He says if someone went out in search of better income at those risky places, it would mean constant anxiety for their families which is not worth any amount of money.
There was no dearth of work here and the employment opportunities generated by the sugar mills here is good enough to absorb all the unemployed youths here and the adjoining places, he says.
Youngsters too have expressed disinterest in going out. The riot stories that we heard, read and saw on TV were horrifying. We cant even think of going to Uttar Pradesh any more. It is better to be among people who are family than go away like a mercenary, says Md Anwar Mollah.
The sugarcane belt of Murshidabad including Beldanga, Rejinagar and Amtala has seen sugarcane cultivation over hundreds of acres of land, providing employment to thousands and producing expert hands in the process. The cutting process looks easy, but needs some expertise. It is for this reason that Uttar Pradesh, which is one of the leading sugarcane-producing states, has looked at labourers from Murshidabad for harvesting work.
Canes are cut just above the ground level with the help of machetes and after the harvest, the cane sends up new stalks. So one has to be careful, says Hasem Seikh, a farmer at Rejinagar.