Story of debt-ridden Vidarbha farmers in one of the India's richest state, Maharashtra, has been told many times. The burdening figure of quarter of a million farmers buried in the region’s ‘cotton-field graveyard’ since 1995 tells how an agriculturally productive region can turn into a death-trap just because of the government's ill-conceived policies and inaction. But, capturing a disaster spread over almost two decades of time wrap is not easy.
Nandan Saxena and Kavita Behl took on the arduous task in 2009 to tell the world about the 'mute genocide' taking place in white cotton fields of Vidarbha through the lives of three native families. “It gave us a window into drama and despair that forms the wrap and weft of life at Vidarbha,” Saxena said. The documentary talked about the trap of private money lenders and rising cost of growing genetically modified cotton.
The painstaking effort and pro-active narrative on how a farmer lands in the honey trap of investing in BT Cotton got the government’s recognition in 2012. The 45-minute documentary “Cotton of my Shroud” received National Award (Rajat Kamal) for the best investigative film.
Laxman Mohurle (62) of Yavatmal district in Vidarbha region has no idea what “cotton of my shroud’ means and is clueless that a film on their miseries has received a national award. For him, life is in turmoil since his only son, Kisan (38) committed suicide in November last because of failure of his cotton crop.
Kisan succumbed under monetary pressure after banks turned their backs on him and he failed to repay R75,000 loan borrowed from a private money lender at an exorbitant rate. “Crop failure, abysmally low return for his little cotton produce and mounting pressure from the money lender forced him to take the drastic step,” Mohurle recalled.
The British had identified Vidarbha as India’s cotton belt because of its close proximity to Mumbai, from where bales could be transported to Manchester in United Kingdom. It remained so till early 1990 when the government introduced BT Cotton. Farmer distress started and suicides became rampant in the second part of the decade.
Nobody can exemplify the horrifying transition better than 81-year-one year-old Bapuraoji Gurnule, who received Maharashtra government’s “Krushibhushan award” in 1987 and lost his 33-year-old son to the cotton grave-yard a few years back.
“Till early 1990s, everything was all right. Suddenly, the government suggested use of the American BT cotton for increasing yield. Once used, the land became unfit for using Indian variety of cotton. In a way the farmer was trapped,” he claimed.'Cotton for my shroud' amplify the transition and Saxena, a former television journalist, successfully highlights the farmer despair it had caused through their voices impressing the national award jury, which found the documentary an outstanding for its ground reporting.
The voices were backed by testimonies from scientists to drive home the point that Vidarbha farmers are victims of government’s faulty paradigm of development. “One cannot blame only BT Cotton. It is a complex multi-faceted problem with no one stop solution,” said Abhijit Sen, agriculture economist and member of the planning commission.
The 45 minutes of catches a part of the problem and Saxena agrees that 45 minutes is not enough to tell a story of over a million poor aggrieved farmers."Will this documentary bring any change in our life?" asks Mohurle.