Fear factor crushes farm hopes in Maharashtra
It was in July last year that Gopal Chaudhary, a farmer from Manchanpur village in Akola district, 237km from Nagpur, noticed the onset of the pink bollworm attack on seven-acre of his just-flowering cotton field.
Chaudhary said neither local officials nor fellow farmers took his complaint seriously then. By November, not a single cotton farm in his village was spared from the pest outbreak.
In Amravati division of Vidarbha, spread across five cotton-producing districts including Akola, 98 per cent of non-irrigated cotton fields and 93 per cent of irrigated fields were affected by the pest attack.
“Local officials, local seed company representatives, agriculture university officials all visited my farm. But I was told that my crop suffered from the pest attack because I used too many chemical fertilisers,” said Chaudhary, adding that unlike a majority of other farmers, he had planted non-BT (genetically modified) seeds around his farm and after he realised it was pink bollworm, he also used the specified chemical treatment for the pest and sprayed more pesticides. (It is recommended that non-BT seeds be planted around the refuge of BT cotton farm to counter resistance of the insect to the toxin in the BT variety. The refuge strategy is to divert pest to the refuge plantation).
“Nothing worked. My yield was all of 30 quintals across seven acres. In a normal year, I get a yield of around 160 to 170 quintals,” said Chaudhary, a post graduate in economics. His loss was around Rs50,000 and he suffered a notional loss of more than Rs8 lakh.
Chaudhary is in a better position than many other Vidarbha farmers, who are dependent on rain-fed agriculture and a single crop. An early adopter of technology, he started using BT cotton in 2003 and has had drip irrigation on his farm for more than 15 years.
“I have diversified my cropping pattern to even include some sugarcane on a patch of land. But, if nothing works for someone like me, you can imagine the plight of others. It’s like nature, market forces, input costs, pests, government all are against the farmer,” he said.
Chaudhary now stands with 41 lakh other farmers from Vidarbha and Marathwada whose income from their main cash crop has been slashed or reduced to nothing.
One of their biggest complaints has been lack of support and intervention from the government to deal with such crisis.
‘Where’s the support system?’
“We are now told that the attack happened because we didn’t follow certain practices like planting non-BT seeds on sides of our farm,” said Vilas Dhobale, a farmer from Wadgaon village in Yavatmal district. “That is true. Most farmers have not followed this practice despite advice for years. The pink bollworm, however, didn’t attack the crop for so many years. How are we to know this year it will cost us? Even after initial onset of the attack, we had no technical advice on how to deal with the outbreak.”
On his 20-acre cotton farm, Dhobale got a yield of 90 quintals instead of the usual 200 quintals. He failed to recover even his cost of production, which was more than Rs5 lakh, and suffered a loss of Rs1.20 lakh by the time he sold his crop.
Dhobale laments that until December, he struggled and spent substantially more (Rs5,000 per acre more) on pesticides and additional irrigation in the hope of a better yield.
“I destroyed my crop output more by such methods. But, who do we go to for advice or intervention in such cases. After everything is lost, we have been told all that what we did was wrong,” said Dhobale.
Devendra Ghatangkar, sarpanch of the village and a local BJP leader, pointed out just how officials within the same agriculture department can work at cross purposes, adding to the farmers’ woes.
“The agriculture department has been sending out bulk messages after the pest attack, to burn the standing crop and flatten the land, to avoid a similar attack next season. After some farmers followed this directive, the officials who came to survey the land pointed out that it would be difficult to survey the losses since the land had been flattened,” said Ghatangkar.
Another farmer from the same village, Pravin Pote, listed a common complaint over the methodology adopted to survey the land. “Officials have marked a portion of my cotton farm as having suffered more than 33 per cent loss and remaining as less than 33 per cent loss. How did they arrive at this difference?” asked Pote.
Kishore Tiwari, veteran farmer leader and chairman of state set-up Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavlamban Mission, said the anger against government machinery is because of the worsening of the ground-level agrarian scenario.
“Farmers are affected from all sides. In this case, for the past two years, the state government knew first hand that pink bollworm has developed resistance to BT cotton used by more than 96 per cent of our farmers. But, they failed to intervene at the right time and until November-end were in denial about the scale of the attack,” said Tiwari.
However, district level agriculture officers said despite running a campaign early last year, it was difficult to get farmers to adopt certain practices like planting of non-BT seeds at the refuge of their farms.
“We had sent text messages to farmers, warning about a possible pink bollworm attack in August. We also ran a campaign in July to encourage farmers to plant non-BT seeds around their farms. But, most of the farmers did not follow this practice. It is often a case of ‘seeing’ and then ‘believing’,” said A Maskare, agriculture officer in Amravati, adding that while farmers used pesticides, not many used pesticides specified for pink bollworm. “This will change going ahead. We have already started awareness drives along with seed companies.”
A senior bureaucrat from Nagpur, however, admitted that the agriculture department does not have enough manpower to reach out to every farmer or enforce recommended guidelines. He also admitted that initially there was an underestimation of the scale of the pest attack.
Trouble going ahead…
The biggest worry for these farmers, going ahead, is getting credit for the next sowing season in June.
“I have a bank loan of Rs3 lakh. Even if I get benefit of loan waiver of Rs1.5 lakh, I will be asked to make the settlement of the remaining amount before I get access to credit,” said Suresh Chaudhary, another Manchanpur farmer, who relies on rain-fed agriculture and monocrop cotton for survival.
“I have only incurred losses this year. How do I pay the remaining amount? I will have to raise money from private moneylenders and pay an interest of 5 per cent a month on that amount. And, I may have to sell a portion of my land.”
Over the past decade, he has sold three acres of his ancestral land to stay afloat during lean times.
He earned Rs12,000 from three quintals of cotton this year, but spent Rs80,000 on cultivating cotton on his four-acre land.
Like Chaudhary, Yogesh Bayaskar, a young educated cotton farmer from Raghunathpur village in Amravati, said, “If we don’t get compensation for our losses until May this year, we will be forced to go to private moneylenders or sell off household items or pawn gold to undertake sowing for next year. We have already been brought to a level of desperation owing to prevailing circumstances from falling market prices to natural disasters.”
Bayaskar lost half of his yield on his 2.5-acre cotton farm and some of the sub-grade cotton picked from his field still lies stacked in a room outside his home.
The compensation may not come anytime soon, with one component of the promised funds linked to seed companies forking out Rs16,000 per hectare for cotton losses of more than 33 per cent.
The National Seed Association of India (NSAI) has clarified that so far the state government has not even directly approached the companies with a demand for the compensation. But, some seed companies in Maharashtra have been sent show-cause notices.