Piles of raw cotton at a mill in Vidharba look like snow-covered mountain slopes, as the machines separating seed from the fibre hum non-stop. The mills are likely to run longer this year: extra rains have prompted an additional late flush, which means one more round of harvest.
In cotton-grower Pradeep Chivane's brick-walled house, a room holding surplus harvest of the fluffy, white fibre resembles a merry ski resort. His four-year-old daughter rolls and somersaults on the spongy stockpile, as the father dumps heaps of raw cotton on her.
A mammoth loan waiver called the Agriculture Debt Waiver and Debt Relief Scheme worth Rs 65,000 crore — announced in 2008 and still being disbursed — has instantly pulled thousands of farmers out of debt. Chivane is one of them.
Currently, he owes no debt, written off by the government. And any farmer in Vidharba who doesn't have outstanding dues can only count himself as lucky. Starting life on a clean balance-sheet, Chivane has been finally able to leverage the economic benefits that comes with growing Bt cotton. "From about 10-15 sprays a season, my pesticide sprays are down to two or three. My net income this season is almost Rs 80,000 because of surplus yields," he says.
Had he been in debt, much of his income would have gone into repayment. Left with little cash, he would have borrowed again, moving in and out of poverty in a vicious cycle.
Vidharba's farmers have long juggled debt and failed crops, and committed suicides, pushing their families deeper into poverty.
Three things have effected a turn-around — the government's loan waiver, its increasing by 40% the minimum price at which cotton sells, and the switching to more profitable Bt cotton varieties by a majority of cultivators. This is the best time in many years for Vidharba.
Soft credit in stressed farmhands, higher prices and better seeds seem to have helped slam the brakes on farmer suicides. According to figures reported in Parliament this month, suicides in Maharashtra are falling: from 627 in 2008 and 503 in 2009, they have come down to 234 so far this year. In most other states, suicides seem to have levelled off, the figures show (see box).
The switch in 2002 to Bt cotton — genetically modified (GM) to repel pests — has made India the second-largest producer and exporter in the world, outstripping China in just seven years.
In 2007, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Ltd launched Bollgard II, with stronger pest protection, reducing the need for pesticide sprays to one or two per season.
Opponents of GM crops have tried to blame Bt cotton for renewed suicides because of increased seed costs, a claim not proven. Labour and pesticide costs far outstrip seed cost, which is largely government-controlled.
"Yet, farmers increasingly took to Bollgard II, cultivating it on 60% of India's cotton acres this summer, an increase of 261% in two years," says Monsanto India director, Dr. Gyanendra Shukla.
According to Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh's statement in Parliament last week, Bt cotton acreage has expanded from 29,000 hectares in 2002-03 to 80 lakh hectares in 2009-10. The average yield has also increased from 308 kg/ha in 2001-02 to 560 kg/ha in 2007-08.
Another set of data cited in Parliament said Bt cotton has resulted in 31% increase in yield, 39% reduction in pesticide usage and more than 80% increase in farmer earnings.
A 2007 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that Bt cotton is "neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition" for suicides.
What can help India end the poignant suicides? Better seeds surely help drive farm incomes, but seed is just one of the inputs farmers need, the others being assured irrigation, fertilizers and training. Farmers who borrowed from private lenders at punitive rates are still outside the debt waiver scheme and the government hopes to cover them later.
Bt cotton has done far better in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh than Maharashtra because of better irrigation facilities. "Even in states that have poor irrigation, Bt cotton is still a better driver of farm income than traditional hybrids," Prof. S. Mahendra Dev, who was member of the Andhra government's probe into a wave of suicides by cotton growers between 2001 and 2003.
However, Dev says long-term success requires market support and value addition through local processing units. This means it is not enough for farmers to grow more of the white gold. They also need to have a stake in the garments we wear.