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'DNA' investigations: Bt cotton behind Marathwada’s bitter harvest

Sunday, 4 March 2012 - 10:15am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Declining yields, higher input costs, and crop failure caused by delayed monsoon pushed farmers into debt and suicide.

Blind monocropping of Bt cotton in a drought prone area, a bad monsoon and the bad state of irrigation projects are why farmers’ suicides in Marathwada and Khandesh spiked last year, overtaking Vidharbha — the symbol of distressed Indian farmers — in that regard. In 2011, the southwest monsoon was delayed and there was no northeast return monsoon. “The distress just peaked,” said Nileema Mishra, 2011 Magsaysay winner, who is immersed in agricultural issues.

“We have agitated and brought the situation of Vidharbha’s farmers to the fore, but the plight of Marathwada’s farmers is actually worse,” said Kishor Tiwari, president of Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti.

DNA toured districts of both Marathwada and Khandesh and found farmers with debt running into crores of rupees due to crop failure. “This year alone the total losses are about Rs2,000 crore, by a conservative estimate,” said Tiwari. Traditionally these regions are draught-prone and have a low per capita income. But now, the situation has worsened. Things started when Bt cotton was aggressively introduced in 2005-06. Farmers were assured that this variety would yield a much larger crop. It did initially, interviews revealed; but with time, production declined and the crop failed.
Since these are dry land areas, 60 to 70 per cent of the cotton depends on rain and thus on the variations in monsoon, resulting in erratic productivity. Experts say growing cotton in such areas is always risky. And according to the irrigation department, only 12 per cent of the area in Marathwada is irrigated, six per cent less than the state average. Even this 12 per cent figure is doubtful, as we shall see.

“The state government failed to learn from Vidharbha’s experience,” said Dr RP Kurulkar, retired economics professor and chairman of the Marathwada Statuary Development Board at Aurangabad. “The crop was encouraged ignoring the reality of water availability.”

DNA found that the input cost for BT cotton exceeds the output generated. So, if the crop fails, the debt is staggering. The meteorology department analysed the rainfall data for 2011 and found at least a 20 to 25 per cent below-normal rainfall in Marathwada.

Chunilal Marathe, a BT cotton farmer from Jalgaon, borrowed Rstwo lakh from a money-lender and dug two borewells. He counted on a large crop to enable him to repay the loan. “Two years ago we had a bumper crop and thought BT is the way forward,” he said. “So I bought a motorcycle and a colour TV. But during the past two years the yield has declined dramatically.”

Crop failure meant failure to repay the loan. “I am in a state of shock,” Marathe said. “By growing BT, I made a mistake.” Many others, in his predicament, unfortunately took the drastic step of killing themselves.

It’s not as if indigenous crop has never failed before; so why this misery? BT cotton made most farmers concentrate on mono-cropping instead of a varied production. In Khandesh and Marathwada, 90 per cent of the land is under BT cotton and the remaining is for grains (jowar and bajra) and pulses. A quintal of summer bajra costs Rs1,200; it was Rs400 three years ago. Jowar, the poor man’s staple, is now Rs4,000 per quintal.

“The price increase confirms that crop production has decreased,” said a Parbani agricultural college professor. “The sad part is that farmers are now completely dependent on BT cotton.”

Intermittent spells of drought are common in July-August; the monsoon usually ends by mid-September. This leads to inadequate moisture and nutrients in the crop’s later development, usually in late October. This year’s monsoon, as mentioned, was delayed. The Central Institute of Cotton Research says that in the event of a delay, farmers ought to opt for short-duration legumes and cereals, including green gram, black gram, soybean, cowpea, jowar and bajra, instead of cotton.

However, this practice just does not exist, as DNA found, simply due to the government’s aggressive selling and promotion of BT cotton. DNA witnessed this at seed-selling centres in Parbhani, Hingoli, Aurangabad, Jalgaon and Dhule, where BT cotton seeds ruled.

Even those who support BT call for crop rotation. “A refugee plant should be planted along with BT cotton seeds,” said Dr Nandkumar Dalvi, agrology professor at Dhule’s Agriculture College. “Farmers need to be trained about BT cotton and its planting methods.” Just dumping BT seeds and talking of higher yields is a wrong practice, he added.

His counterpart at Parbhani’s Marathwada Agriculture University, Dr SS Bhatade, agreed that farmers are not following rules and that is causing crop failure.

BT input cost is higher than the output. Marathwada farmers told DNA that per hectare, their expenditure was now Rs10,000 to Rs12,000, but the yield is only two quintal (at Rs3,500 per quintal). “In some cases, the difference is more than Rs5,000 per hectare,” said an agriculture university professor, demanding anonymity. Thus, the debt for even small land-holdings is also in the thousands of rupees.

Pesticide use has further driven up the cost. A survey by Navdanya in Vidharbha showed that pesticide used went up by 13 per cent since BT cotton was introduced. Another study recently published in the Review of Agrarian Studies showed a higher expenditure on chemical pesticides for BT cotton. “The farmers of Marathwada also have to shell out several times more for inputs,” said Navdanya founder and renowned environmentalist, Dr Vandana Shiva.  “And productivity is on the decline.”

When contacted, agriculture minister Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil did not respond even after repeated phone calls and text messages.

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