As A Genetic Revolution Collapses, Vidarbha’s Cotton Farmers Dread Coming Season

Farmers of water-starved Vidarbha are getting ready to sow cotton. But they’re struggling to get insurance.

A worker sits on a pile of cotton while talking on a mobile phone at a ginning mill in Wankaner, Gujarat (Photographer Dhiraj SinghBloomberg)-
A worker sits on a pile of cotton while talking on a mobile phone at a ginning mill in Wankaner, Gujarat (Photographer Dhiraj SinghBloomberg)-

With the onset of a steady monsoon, farmers of water-starved Vidarbha in north-eastern Maharashtra are getting ready to sow cotton. But Tejrao Bhakre, 57, of Goregaon Budruk village in Akola district, has no means to start treating seeds or putting together the seed drill to plough his 4-acre farm.

The tall farmer, clad in the white pajama-kurta-topi ensemble typical of rural Maharashtra, is saddled with a bank loan for Rs 80,000 which is three years overdue. He can’t seek fresh credit.

“All my bank and cooperative society accounts combined, my savings right now are just about Rs 1,500,” he said, sitting in his tin-roofed, brick house which has no proper lighting and cooling systems. Only one room has a table fan and a CFL light.

Bhakre, like most farmers, uses Bt cotton, a genetically modified seed that was engineered to be pest-resistant. Bt cotton dominates 99.53 percent of the cotton cropped area in Maharashtra. But last year, the larva of a small, greyish brown moth, called the pink bollworm, ravaged cotton fibre and bolls on Bhakre’s 2-acre cotton farm during the 2017 kharif (monsoon crop) season, slashing his yield from 17 quintals out of 0.75 acres in 2016-17 to 7 quintals from 2 acres in 2017-18.

Farmers in the region are now worried about a repeat of last year’s pink bollworm attack. The kharif season of 2017 witnessed the worst crisis in the history of Bt cotton since the seed technology was approved in India in 2002. In Maharashtra, which has the largest area under cotton, more than 80 percent of the crop was destroyed. The same year, poisoning during pesticide spraying killed over 45 farmers and farm labourers; over 1,000 others fell ill.

What happened to the seed technology that was supposed to revolutionise cotton farming in India?

“The primary basis for introducing Bt cotton was to reduce pesticide use and protect crop from bollworm attacks, thereby increasing yields. But, both have not happened,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, former member of a central government task force on organic and non-chemical farming. “On the other hand, insecticide use has risen, cotton diversity has been wiped out and there is a monopoly of one proprietary technology.”

Wearing out of Bt cotton’s resistance to pest has been gradual, according to experts. A January 2018 study released by Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) showed how the proportion of pink bollworm on green bolls of Bt cotton plants in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh rose from 5.71 percent in 2010 to 73.82 percent in 2017.

“Pink bollworm has not only reappeared as a major pest but has also taken just about 5-6 years to develop resistance to Bollgard-II,” said Keshav Kranthi, former CICR director and one of the scientists who undertook the study.

Bollgard-II (Bt-II) is a technology wherein two Bt proteins (crystal toxins- cry1Ac and cry2Ab) contained in a cotton seed have enhanced capacity to ward off three types of bollworms–American, spotted and pink bollworm.

The 2018 study warned that pink bollworm “if left unchecked” can cause “serious implications for the cotton sector in India”.

“The 2017 fiasco was not unexpected,” said Kranthi, who is currently the technical information head at International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), an association of cotton producing countries. “The pink bollworm problem will persist and is likely to worsen over time as long as cotton crop is cultivated for a longer season beyond 180 days.”

He, however, pointed out that the failure of this technology is unique to India. None of the 14 other Bt cotton-growing countries have faced the problem because they follow pest management strategies such as short-season crop, pheromone-based monitoring and so on.

“China has been growing Bt cotton with only single gene (Cry1Ac) since 1997, but pink bollworm is not a problem there,” said Kranthi. “Pakistan also reported resistance last year but the pest does not multiply as the crop is not extended beyond 6-7 months due to cotton-wheat rotation.”

Bt Cotton: The Revolution That Failed

The Bt cotton crisis comes less than 20 years after it was talked about as the harbinger of the next green revolution. In 2003 and 2006, the government spoke of Bt cotton’s efficacy in bollworm control and reduction of pesticide use.

“The phenomenal achievements made through deployment of large number of private sector Bt cotton hybrids in the cotton production scenario have brought in a welcome change as regards production gains are concerned (sic),” stated a 2007-08 report of the All India Coordinated Cotton Improvement Programme set up under the ministry of agriculture and farmers’ welfare.

Constructed in a US laboratory more than a quarter century ago by splicing in a family of proteins–toxic for many pests–from a soil bacterium, Bt cotton was supposed to be science’s answer to falling crop yields and growing use of pesticides.

From 2002 to 2009, cotton production, productivity and acreage grew steadily across India. In Maharashtra, production rose from 2.6 million bales in 2002-03 to 6.2 million bales in 2008-09; yields surged from 158 kg per hectare in 2002-03 to 336 kg per hectare in 2008-09. The increase in yields was commended despite “major cotton-growing area remaining under rainfed conditions”. From 2010, however, productivity oscillated in Maharashtra with a significant decline of 17 percent in 2011-12 and 13 percent in 2017-18.

Indian government scientists first revealed that transgenic Bt cotton was failing. Studies between 2013 and 2015 of Indian Council of Agricultural Research and CICR concluded that pink bollworm had developed resistance to Bollgard-II.

Then, it all rapidly went wrong.

How Should Farmers Deal With Pest Attack? Government Has No Plan, Advice

In a decade to 2015-16, insecticide on cotton rose 79 percent–from 0.67 kg per hectare to 1.2 kg per hectare, as FactChecker reported on March 6, 2018.

Kranthi, in another paper in March 2016, blamed the government’s “casual approach in handling” of the technology for its susceptibility to pests. “At least six different Bt events (specific sets of transgenes) and more than a thousand Bt cotton hybrids were approved in four to five years without a roadmap for sustainable use,” he wrote.

In Vidarbha, cotton farmers like Seema Dhore, 42, from Goregaon Budruk, are waiting for some information and counsel on what to do if they have to tackle another year of pest infestation.

“Some people from a (seed) company visited our village and took down details of when the bollworm had attacked and how the crop was affected,” said. “But, that’s it. We are not informed about or equipped in any way to keep our cotton crop from being infested again this year.”

An alert for the oncoming kharif season was raised by the Panjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth (PDKV) in Akola in the June 2018 edition of its agriculture periodical: If no precautionary measures are taken, there could be an intensified bollworm attack and a greater loss of yield.

However, the government does not appear to have plans to address potential hardship. To start with, the three components of the Rs 30,800 per hectare compensation package for each dryland farmer on losses suffered in 2017 have not been implemented.

In the case of one compensation package, many villages did not get past the preliminary stage of filling up complaint forms. In another, farmers alleged that the methodology to determine compensation was flawed.

Although Maharashtra ranks second in cotton production in India and Vidarbha is the highest producer of cotton in the state, the region suffers from agricultural distress caused by successive droughts and a high suicide rate in recent years.

Between 2001 and June 2018, 15,186 farmers in Vidarbha have killed themselves–an average of 868 suicides every year and 72 every month–according to the state’s revenue department data. (Data relate to six districts; exclude Nagpur, Chandrapur and Gadchiroli.)

Compensation For Bollworm Disaster Caught In Red Tape

In February 2018, the Maharashtra government brought out the first set of guidelines delineating eligibility criteria and reparation amount for cotton farmers who suffered crop loss in 2017-18 due to bollworm attack.

Then, in May 2018, a notification was issued on how the amounts were to be disbursed in three instalments. The grant was decided to be first sent to divisional commissionerates which would then be passed on to district collectorates which would then eventually credit the farmers’ bank accounts.

So far, Rs 929.23 crore–28.6 percent of the allocated Rs 3246.77 crore for 25 pink bollworm-affected districts in Maharashtra–has been transferred to district collectorates.

On administering the first instalment, collectors were instructed to submit a fund utilisation certificate, display beneficiary information on their website and place a demand for the next instalment.

In Akola, for instance, from a total demand of Rs 135.51 crore for 133,668 affected farmers, only 23 percent–31,866 farmers–had received the money, according to data furnished by the collectorate.

Farmers in four of the six villages–Goregaon Budruk and Goregaon Khurd in Akola taluka, Takali Khureshi in Balapur taluka, and Dewarda in Akot taluka–in Akola district we spoke to had not received compensation.

“Of the Rs 36-crore grant that we received, 99 percent has been distributed,” said district collector Astik Kumar Pandey. “We have already placed a demand (for funds) for all phases. It is the system that is releasing money in phases.”

Farmers in Dewarda village of Akot taluka, Akola district, said they had neither received compensation for losses due to bollworm infestation on their cotton crop nor insurance benefit under the Prime Minister’s Crop Insurance Scheme nor the in the 2017 kharif season. (Source: Poorvi Kulkarni/ IndiaSpend)
Farmers in Dewarda village of Akot taluka, Akola district, said they had neither received compensation for losses due to bollworm infestation on their cotton crop nor insurance benefit under the Prime Minister’s Crop Insurance Scheme nor the in the 2017 kharif season. (Source: Poorvi Kulkarni/ IndiaSpend)

Phased release of the fund was necessary to ensure that it didn’t lie unutilised at the district-level, said a senior official from the state relief team who didn’t wish to be identified.

Farmers explain that money delivered late wouldn’t help them tide over the current crisis. “It is now, in the next five-to-six-days’ sowing span, that we are falling short of money,” said Baldev Patil from Degaon village in Balapur taluka. “Sowing coincides with payment of school fees and other related expenses of our children. At a time when money is most needed, we don’t have it”.

‘Compensation Criteria Faulty’

Farmers contend that land area with each farmer was not correctly recorded in the panchnamas/surveys conducted to measure crop loss.

“The inter-cropped intermediate rows of moong (green gram) and udid (black gram) that we had sown in our cotton farms were not counted,” said Prashant Ghogre, a cotton farmer from Takali Khureshi village, Balapur taluka. Half of the cotton cropped land was left out as rows of moong and udid were deducted, added Ghogre.

Farmers were particularly peeved with the survey methodology as intercropping is an advised practice to control occurrence of pest on cotton crop.

Akola taluka agriculture officer Narendra Shastri, however, said that the agriculture department had not received any formal complaints: “The survey date was announced in villages a day in advance and every farmer was asked to be present during the panchnama of his/her farm.”

Physical inspections were jointly carried out by talathis (village-level revenue department officials), gram sevaks (village council secretaries) and krishi sahayyaks (village-level agriculture department officials).

“We put up lists of farmers along with their cotton cultivated area in the gram panchayat offices after the panchnamas (were made). Anybody who was left out of the survey had up to three days to register a complaint,” said Shastri.

Inadequacy of the pay-out was another sore point. “Going by Rs 6,800 per hectare, we would get just about Rs 2,720 per acre,” said Ramesh Bhakre from Goregaon Budruk. “This is less than the price of what one quintal of cotton fetches.” Each acre produces up to 10 quintals of cotton and pink bollworm reduced the productivity by four quintals, on average, on every farm, farmers said.

Seed Companies Not Penalised For Reduced Pest Resistance

Another vital compensation component that fixes responsibility on seed firms for reneging on claims of pest resistance was barely implemented. Drawn from the Maharashtra Cotton Seed Rules, 2010, this policy allows farmers to complain against seed companies if their crop fails. Section 12 outlines the grounds on which farmers can complain and lays down procedures for the inspection of affected crop followed by a hearing and issuing of compensation by the companies to farmers.

A format for the complaint form, with which copies of seed purchase bills and empty seed containers are to be attached when compensation is requested, is specified under the rules. This process would allow a farmer to recover Rs 16,000 from a seed company, the government had announced.

But, farmers in many villages were not even aware of this provision.

“Until now, we had not even heard that the government can recover any money from companies and pay it to us,” said Shivajirao Mhaisne, a farmer from Degaon village in Balapur taluka. “Most farmers do not save bills and packets because they have not been made aware of this redressal.”

Data with agriculture commissionerate indicated that around 1.34 million farmers covering about 1.16 million hectares had complained as per this provision and demanded compensation. This means that only about 32 percent of the 4.2 million cotton farmers in the state were included in this policy.

Of these, complaints of just 342,000 hectares have reached the hearing stage.

“No orders for compensation have been issued on any companies yet. Hearings are in progress,” said Vijaykumar Ingle, director of quality control, agriculture department, Maharashtra.

He admitted that the entire process was protracted and added that seed companies stress minute issues–delay of a few days in harvest, for example–to put the onus of seed failure on the farmer. “Since 2011 when the rules were enforced, the government has been able to issue orders for compensation to three seed companies, all of which had contested the order or moved court,” he said.

Mhaisne dismissed this aid as an announcement to mislead farmers.

“When the rules were framed in 2010, such a large-scale collapse of Bt seeds was not foreseen,” said an agriculture department official requesting anonymity. “There is a need to make the laws more stringent without heeding to the powerful seed lobby.”

With redress severely lacking, worries mount for the approaching season.

How Outreach/Awareness Programmes Floundered

A text message from the agriculture department in December 2017 to destroy all stocks and residue from the cotton crop was the only official communication on pest management that Bhakre received. In some villages, a further advisory was issued to plough and level the land after harvest to ensure complete destruction of bollworms.

But, these sporadic messages don’t seem to have instilled any confidence in farmers. “We are still afraid about what could happen to our crop,” said Ganesh Ghogre, former sarpanch of Takali Khureshi, Balapur taluka. “Cotton has been sown in our village for decades. But this time we can’t decide what to sow.”

Shastri claimed that the Akola taluka agriculture office had gone into an overdrive and conducted awareness meetings in 119 villages from May 25 to June 17, 2018. “Step-by-step guidance, right from purchase of seeds to the final stage of harvest, has been imparted to farmers,” he said. “We are also training krishi sahayyaks to conduct regular monitoring of the crop throughout the season.”

But, Prashant Gawande of Shetkari Jagar Manch, an Akola-based farmers’ organisation, described the current crisis in farming as a crisis of credibility. “Owing to its dismal record of implementation (of plans), farmers don’t trust the government at all.”

Some farmers have decided to shun cotton this year.

State agriculture department officials have estimated a 10 percent drop in cotton acreage, with farmers likely to switch to soybean.

Furthermore, precautions suggested by the government to save cotton crop were not practical, said farmers.

Scientists Advise Measures, Farmers Say These Are Unrealistic

PDKV, Akola, and CICR, Nagpur, have, time and again, published elaborate guidelines to monitor and control pink bollworm on cotton. PDKV, in its periodical, also laid out a seven-point preliminary action plan for farmers to deal with pink bollworm this season.

But, many of these had not reached farmers and at least three measures–use of pheromone traps, sowing of non-Bt seeds along the periphery and avoiding extension of crop–were found to be unviable.

For instance, Bhimrao Dhore, 52, from Goregaon Budruk, has never heard of pheromone traps that the university recommended on cotton farms 45 days after sowing. The traps snare male moth and contain the spread of the pest. Priced at Rs 55-60, these traps are supposed to be less harmful than insecticides.

“We have neither been told about these nor have we seen them at our krishi seva kendra (village-level stores that sell agricultural inputs),” said Bhimrao. TH Rathod, senior research scientist (cotton), PDKV, accepted that the traps were not widely available for sale.

Pre-monsoon cotton crop sown in the end of May on an irrigated farm in Bharatpur village of Balapur taluka, Akola district. Scientists had advised against pre-monsoon sowing this season to break the life cycle of pink bollworm pest. Sowing was recommended to be undertaken only after the sowing area had received 75 to 100 mm of rain.  (Source: Poorvi Kulkarni/ IndiaSpend)
Pre-monsoon cotton crop sown in the end of May on an irrigated farm in Bharatpur village of Balapur taluka, Akola district. Scientists had advised against pre-monsoon sowing this season to break the life cycle of pink bollworm pest. Sowing was recommended to be undertaken only after the sowing area had received 75 to 100 mm of rain.  (Source: Poorvi Kulkarni/ IndiaSpend)

The other recommendation to sow five border rows of non-Bt seeds, called ‘refuge’, to divert bollworms from the main Bt crop had not worked on Ganesh Mankar’s 6-acre farm in Goregaon Khurd village in 2017-18. Every 450-gram packet of cotton seeds includes an additional 120 gram of ‘refugia’ or non-Bt cotton seeds.

A CICR study conducted between 2014 and 2016, to examine the quality of non-Bt seeds in the market, revealed several violations. Of 30 seed packets bought from markets in north and central India, 12 of the non-Bt seed packets had Bt genes, and 21 of the 30 non-Bt seed packets had less than the stipulated 75 percent germination.

“There is an urgent need to develop proper testing methods in the country, especially to ensure compliance and monitoring of regulatory guidelines with reference to genetically modified crops,” the study stated.

The third key advice, according to Rathod–to plant another crop post-November and avoid re-fertilisation and collection of a second cotton harvest from the same field–was infeasible, said dryland farmers.

”We cannot take any second crop. Cotton is the only productive crop for us,” said Balkrishna Sable who owns 4 acres of unirrigated land in Dewarda village, Akot taluka.

Only 12.5 percent of the cultivable land in Vidarbha is irrigated.

These ground realities coupled with the grey market for unlicensed seeds has left farmers vulnerable.

Poor Monitoring Of The Seed Market

“Many farmers travel long distances for cheaper, unlicensed seeds for under Rs 400 because they cannot afford legal seeds,” said Ravi Patil Arbat, former journalist with the local Marathi newspaper, Deshonnati. A registered 450-gram cotton seed can cost up to Rs 740.

Three 450-gram packets are required to plant an acre of cotton.

Farmers complained that seeds were sold at higher prices than stipulated. “But, the amount mentioned on bills is the stated price,” said Pralhad Patil, another farmer from Dewarda village, Akot taluka.

In a recent sampling and testing of seeds conducted by the agriculture department of Akola taluka, as many as seven varieties of cotton seeds were found to be of spurious quality. “They were being passed off as Bt in the market,” said Shastri. “We have put up a notice requesting farmers to not buy these varieties.”

This supply of illegitimate seeds was also stated by a Mint report published on July 10, 2018. Citing an expert panel set up by the Prime Minister’s office, it said: “Nearly 15 percent of the area under cotton farming in India was planted with illegally produced and unapproved herbicide tolerant seeds.”

The seed trade, owing to its seasonal nature, is extremely corrupt, said Srikrishna Gawande, a local journalist from Nandura taluka, Buldhana district. “We see many fraudulent companies in the market that trade in lakhs in one season and disappear the next,” he said. “The government is either short staffed or its seed inspectors turn a blind eye (to the corruption). Everybody earns their share. The farmer is the only victim here.”

However, the current market of Bt seeds of private companies is the only option available for farmers this season.

The Experiment That Failed

In 2016, the state government-appointed Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavlamban Mission undertook a sustainable farming experiment to revive indigenous cotton seeds. A group of farmers from the Kolam tribe in Aawalgaon village of Yavatmal district were given free indigenous cotton seeds on a trial basis.

“This would have reduced the burden of buying expensive inputs and also yielded equal output,” said Kishore Tiwari, chairperson of the mission, who had hoped to expand indigenous farming practices.

But, these crops caught pest too. “They could not survive in the prevailing environment of chemical farming as the neighbouring farms continued to sow Bt,” said Tiwari.

An alternative to the commercially successful Bt seeds seems difficult, conceded Tiwari. “Yield is a big issue for farmers. There continues to be a great demand for Bt seeds even if they cost more,” he said.

Shailesh Bhakre, 35, who owns 10 acres of farmland in Goregaon Budruk, said: “Only an upgrade in the Bt technology will combat bollworm and sustain our income.”

PDKV too has developed its own Bt varieties–four BG I and a BG II–in a bid to offer an alternative to the existing private Bt seed market. “Approval is granted by the union and state governments for our BG II variety–PDKV JKAL-116,” said Rathod.

These seeds, likely to be in the market by 2019 kharif and proposed to be priced within Rs 200 per packet, could become a reliable choice for farmers.

Crisis Compounded By Other Agri Policy Failures

The haphazard disbursement of crop loans and the flawed implementation of the loan waiver policy have added to the ongoing cotton crisis.

“Only four out of the total 400-odd farmers who took loans in our society had them waived,” said Mankar, who is also a director of Seva Sahakari Society, an agricultural credit society in Goregaon Khurd village.

The delays meant that farmers remained defaulters and could not take fresh crop loans. Records with the Akola district deputy registrar, department of cooperation, showed how the reach of crop loan had dwindled over the years.

Moreover, majority of the farmers also said that they were yet to receive insurance under Prime Minister’s Crop Insurance Scheme.

Mankar said that, yet again, only seven of the 400-odd members in Goregaon Khurd credit society had got insurance. Until end of May 2018, 7 percent of the insurance claims for 2017 kharif were paid to farmers.

Farmers like Tejrao Bhakre are now desperate with anxiety. “How do we manage a living? If I die at least I know the government will give Rs 1 lakh (suicide compensation) to my family,” he said.