Wardha (Maharashtra): In the winter of 2005, a sleepy village in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra served a wake-up call to the nation when its villagers said they were putting the entire village, roughly 600 acres, up for sale.
The act of desperation by 40 debt-laden families of Dorli village, barely 20km away from Wardha, became one of the most poignant symbols of Vidarbha’s agrarian crisis. Vidarbha, the eastern part of Maharashtra, poses a stark contrast to the prosperous cotton-growing region of south Gujarat and also to the sugarcane belt of western Maharashtra. Dominated by resource-poor cotton farmers, the region has been notorious for farmer suicides since the nineties.
“Our lands are worth far more than what we owed in farm loans, and it seemed reasonable to sell off that land and move to the cities instead of committing suicide,” said Chandrashekhar Dorlikar, a 45-year-old member of Dorli’s panchayat (village council). “Increasing costs and low returns were making farming unsustainable.”
There were no takers for Dorli though. No one even bothered to ask the price, said Dorlikar, an agriculture graduate whose family owns 35 acres.
Since then, one major change in the village and across the region has been the advent of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton varieties, which most farmers started cultivating in 2006. Yields and farm profits have increased since then, although increased costs of inputs such as fertilizers, labour and pesticides along with non-remunerative cotton prices have reduced profits in the past couple of years, villagers said.
“After Bt cotton’s success, almost everyone has stopped cultivating traditional varieties,” said 41-year-old Rashtrapal Zarunde, who owns 12 acres of land in Dorli.
A decade after India’s first and only genetically modified (GM) crop was approved, the technology remains mired in controversy. In Maharashtra, the second largest cotton growing state in the country after Gujarat, the state government plans to review whether agricultural technologies such as Bt are suitable in rain-fed or non-irrigated regions such as Vidarbha.
By protecting against bollworm attacks, Bt saves yields and reduces the use of pesticides, raising profitability. But anti-Bt activists question its safety and economic feasibility, arguing that the variety is costlier and more input-intensive, and therefore an undesirable burden on resource-poor farmers.
Scientists say much of the criticism is misdirected. The Bt technology only inserts one trait, of bollworm resistance, in cultivars and several alleged failures of the technology actually arise from improper choice of cultivars. A cultivar refers to a particular plant or plant variety, selected for cultivation for certain desirable characteristics.
“Bt technology has done its job,” said K.R. Kranthi, one of India’s leading cotton scientists and director, Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR). “But the problem with Bt in India is that it is available only as Bt hybrids and not as straight varieties.”
Two different cultivars are crossed to develop a hybrid, often to boost yields. Cotton hybrids are late-maturing, requiring water for a longer stretch and are more responsive to fertilizers. The proliferation of approved Bt hybrids has led to the introduction of inappropriate hybrids, many of which are susceptible to sucking pests and other insects, said Kranthi.
Companies such as Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB), which own the licence for the Bt trait, and seed companies find it profitable to sell hybrids because farmers have to purchase seeds every year, Kranthi pointed out.
The right inputs as well as knowledge and education about farming practices to manage unpredictability caused by a varying environment provides optimal yield and income, a Monsanto spokesperson said. While farmers have received better seeds, much needs to be done in the area of soil fertility through testing and education, so they know what to use when by way of right nutrient applications, water use, and during pest attacks, he added.
Hybrids accounted for around half the cotton acreage 10 years back but with the advent of Bt, nearly all cotton grown in the country is using hybrids. In states such as Gujarat, where the soil is deep and water is assured, the spread of hybrids and technologies such as Bt have played a key role in driving up yields (see the first part of the series). But the results have not been as favourable in rain-fed regions.
Maharashtra, where most of the area under cotton is in Vidarbha, saw a 59% jump in cotton yields over the past decade while yields doubled in Gujarat over the same period. As in Gujarat, farming here has become more input-intensive over the past decade, but the lack of a commensurate increase in availability of water, worse soil, high credit costs and the absence of effective state interventions have made cotton farming less remunerative.
Still, as Dorli’s tryst with Bt indicates, Bt cotton has brought some benefits even in suicide-prone Vidarbha.
Profits increased after Bt’s introduction as yields nearly doubled compared with earlier varieties in the initial years, said Dorlikar, who also works as the field coordinator for a Secunderabad-based non-governmental organization, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) that promotes alternative farming practices and is opposed to GM crops such as Bt cotton.
The biggest change in the past decade has been the reduced use of bollworm pesticides, which farmers were spraying indiscriminately earlier, said Atul Sharma, entomologist and dean of extension, Shiksha Mandal, Wardha. Bollworm attack has fallen partly because of Bt and partly because of more innovative pesticides.
“Bt is an effective tool to control pesticide use but activists are unwilling to acknowledge that,” said Sharma.
The battle against Bt cotton in India is a part of a larger battle between the biotech lobby and an international alliance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), some of which have an interest in promoting organic non-GM alternatives, according to Cornell University political scientist Ronald Herring, who has extensively researched the politics related to GM crops.
Despite lacking evidence for systematic conclusions, a small number of anti-GM activists have succeeded in shaping policy debates across the world although a large number of cotton farmers are against their agenda and numerous scientific studies attest to Bt’s performance, said Herring, over email. He added that the standing committee report is not unique in bypassing scientific evidence; politicians in other countries have done likewise.
Claims that Bt cotton is causing farmers to commit suicide or cattle are dying after ingesting Bt cotton plant parts serve to raise attention and mobilize opinion against GM crops, Herring has argued in his writings.
The spurt in farmer suicides in Vidarbha occurred in the late nineties, preceding Bt, but haven’t stopped since then. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows average suicides per year in Maharashtra between 2006 and 2010, when the Bt adoption rate in the state rose from 22% to 96%, was 3,701. The average was marginally higher at 3,828 in the preceding five years when Bt cotton was either absent or accounted for a small fraction of the crop.
Vidarbha suffers from two key natural disadvantages: Soils are shallow and rains are erratic, making farming a risky business. Cotton, considered a hardy crop, is among the few that can survive these conditions.
The lack of state support, either through investments in micro-irrigation projects or in effective extension support to farmers, has compounded Vidarbha’s woes. Bank credit continues to be scarce, forcing farmers to take loans at exorbitant rates from moneylenders, exacerbating the risks.
Indebtedness to moneylenders seems to be a common thread in the suicides of Donoda village, in Yavatmal district. Around 60km from Dorli, the village is infamous for farmer suicides, with 12 between 1998 and 2008.
The impact of Bt has been more mixed in Donoda, compared to Dorli.
“We gave up cultivating cotton for soyabean four years back as it was no longer remunerative,” said Rambhau Shamraoji Patil, a 70-year-old farmer whose son committed suicide in 2005. Daughter-in-law Bharti, in her mid-thirties, manages the seven-acre farm and also works as a farm labourer.
Patil said his decision has little to do with Bt cotton seeds, and the family is unlikely to grow cotton even with non-Bt varieties.
Another widow from the same village, 42-year-old Godavari Bhoyr, who has been managing the family land since her husband committed suicide in 2001, seems to have had a brighter experience with Bt. Bhoyr said yields and profits have improved since the mid-2000s, after she started growing Bt cotton and used more fertilizer.
Still, Bhoyr continues to depend on relatives and moneylenders for most of her loans. So does Bharti, at rates of interest that vary 20-30% per year.
“The banks neither give us adequate loans, nor do they give loans on time,” said Deepak Kadam, Donada’s sarpanch (village headman).
Kadam said profits have declined over the past couple of years as costs of key inputs such as labour and fertilizers have shot up while the procurement price has not kept pace.
“The government has failed to support us either with adequate prices or by ensuring credit,” said Kadam.
It is wrong to blame just seed companies or Bt, said Dorlikar. “The real problem is the lack of guidance for farmers, who tend to over-spend on inputs, and end up in debt.”
Extension workers who are supposed to fill that role are often poorly trained, and their numbers are often inadequate to cover a majority of farmers.
Most farmers instead depend on input dealers for advice. They tend to mis-sell products such as insecticides and herbicides, said Sharma.
The distress in Vidarbha is also due to the withdrawal of the state from its role supporting agriculture, said Vijay Jawandhia, Wardha-based farmer leader and a founding member of Shetkari Sanghathana, one of Maharashtra’s most prominent farmer groups.
“Even in the so-called developed economies, farmers survive because of huge state support,” said Jawandhia. “How do you expect farmers to survive with declining state support in these rain-fed regions then?” The state has never bothered to formulate special policies for rain-fed regions or invest in research to develop technologies appropriate for these regions, although more than half of the country’s agricultural lands are rain-fed, said Jawandhia.
Rain-fed regions such as Vidarbha need innovative strategies to use straight varieties, which are more appropriate, said Kranthi. CICR is currently testing a model of high-density farming of straight varieties, the so-called Brazilian model, which aims to compensate their lower yield by planting more of them on a plot. Kranthi promises a “revolution” in rain-fed cotton farms if the experiment succeeds. The excessive focus on Bt has detracted attention from other issues in cotton farming so far, said Bhausaheb Barate, head of Wardha’s agricultural department, who is helping Kranthi test the high-density model.