In an unusual development, the West Bengal Government has retracted its response to a Right to Information (RTI) query where it had said 122 farmers had committed suicide in a single district in the State.
The State Government has told the RTI applicant that the report, which was sent earlier to him, was “erroneous and not correct”.
The new response to the RTI query states that it is “clarified that in the year 2021, the figure of farmer suicide in Paschim Medinipur was NIL and also in 2022 till date, the figure of farmer suicides is NIL”.
Interestingly, the government posted the retraction days after several media houses reported on the RTI response which stated 122 farmer deaths in Paschim Medinipur in 2021 and 34 in the year 2022. While the letter posted by the Additional Superintendent of Police (Headquarters), Paschim Medinipur, retracting the earlier data bears the date of September 9, it was dispatched from Midnapore by registered post on September 13. The RTI petitioner Biswanath Goswami received it on September 16.
“Not only it is strange but it is also very surprising that the government provided false data in response to an RTI application. The data had police station-wise break-up of farmer suicides. I have been an RTI activist for more than 10 years and in thousands of replies I received from different agencies of the State and Central Government, I never come across a government stating that its response was erroneous,” Mr. Goswami said.
He added perhaps this could be the only instance in the country where the government had retracted its response. The activist also added that the earlier response reached him in two days whereas it took eight days for the retracted reply to reach him.
“The retractions of the RTI are a clear attempt to cover up after the data manipulation of the government stand exposed. Providing false information under the RTI Act is a criminal offence and I demand that a thorough inquiry should be initiated,” he claimed.
The matter of RTI query pointing at farmer suicides in Paschim Medinipur was raised by BJP MLA Hiran Chatterjee in the West Bengal Assembly on Thursday. Responding to the MLA’s query, Agriculture Minister Sovandeb Chattopadhyay said the information of the MLA was based on false data.
“The information about 122 farmer suicides is based on an RTI by Biswanath Goswami. In response to the RTI, some erroneous information was provided by the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Paschim Mednipur... On September 9, 2022, the Additional SP Police [HQ] has said the information was erroneous and not correct. So the BJP MLA had raised the issue based on false information,” the Minister said.
Mr. Chattopadhyay also told journalists that if so many deaths of farmers had taken place then the local newspapers and media would have covered it. The Trinamool Congress Government had maintained that there had been no suicides of farmers or agricultural workers in the State since 2011 after it assumed power.
Mr. Goswami added that he also got information of one farmer suicide each in the years 2021 and 2022 in Islampur police district through RTI queries but the NCRB report for 2021 says no farmer died of suicide in 2021.
“Is the State Government going to say that the data on farmer suicide in Islampur police district in the year 2021 was also sent erroneously,” he added.
West Bengal recorded 13,500 suicides in 2021 as per the NCRB data, which is the fourth highest in the country but the number of deaths due to suicides of farmers or people engaged in agricultural activities has been declared zero.
The ADSI report 2021 highlighted that certain States including West Bengal have “reported zero suicides of farmers/cultivators as well as agricultural labourers”.
The rate of suicides in West Bengal is 13.7 which is high among bigger States in the country