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Maharashtra farmers fight attack of the pests

41 lakh farmers in Vidarbha, Marathwada affected as 84% of Maharashtra’s area under cotton cultivation hit; officials indulge in blame game

mumbai Updated: Feb 15, 2018 17:55 IST
Ketaki Ghoge
Ketaki Ghoge
Hindustan Times
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Usha Pandey, 39, a farmer from Maharashtra’s Amravati district, inspects her damaged cotton plants. In December 2017, the state’s cotton crop was devastated by a pink bollworm attack, the worst since the state adopted BT (Bollgard cotton) or genetically modified (GM) seed technology in 2002. The pink bollworm, native to Asia has now been proven resistant to the BT gene in India. (Anshuman Poyrekar / HT Photo)

Thirty-nine-old Usha Pandey, a farmer from Amravati district of Vidarbha, is not someone to give in to despair easily. After her husband died in an accident in 2000, Pandey took to tilling her eight-acre land in Fattepur village, 125km from Nagpur, transforming overnight from being a homeworker to an agricultural labourer-cum-farmer, who cultivates cotton and soyabean.

Over the past seven years, she has fought off the vagaries of climate, fluctuating market prices, unending debt to make sure her son, Suraj, complete his Bachelors in Computer Science, while living with the sorrow of losing her 18-year-old daughter to brain tumour.

Pandey, however, now feels she has almost reached a breaking point.

The pink bollworm outbreak – the worst since Maharashtra adopted BT cotton (genetically hybrid seeds) in 2002 – hit nearly 84 per cent of the state’s area under cotton cultivation in 2017.

It also ravaged Pandey’s two-acre cotton field, leaving her with just one-third of her average yield and setting her back by Rs25,000 (net loss).

“When I start thinking about farm accounts, I can’t sleep at night,” said Pandey. “Going ahead, I have several questions, but no answers. How do I fund my son’s education this year [he is now pursuing MCA] or pay off my loan of Rs4 lakh? How do I get money to undertake sowing in June? Who can I borrow money from, or what else I can sell to survive?”

In the agrarian-distressed Vidarbha and Marathwada region, the ground zero of farmers’ suicides, 41 lakh farmers have incurred losses, just like Pandey.

In Vidarbha, 14.16 lakh farmers are facing losses and overall 14.91 lakh hectares of sown cotton has been hit by the pink bollworm attack. In Marathwada, 26.90 lakh farmers and nearly 17.25 lakh hectares of sown cotton has been affected. (Data as per to the survey reports sent by divisional commissioners of Vidarbha and Marathwada regions to the state government in January).

Why farm economics goes against farmers...

The pest attack reduced Pandey’s average produce to just 10 quintals, from the usual 30 quintals, on her 2-acre irrigated plot. After spending for six months on seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, labour cost (Rs15,000 this year for just picking), weeding and tractor rental, she has been left with an annual income of Rs35,000, which is a loss of Rs25,000.

Her notional loss, meanwhile, is nearly Rs90,000 (The average rate for a quintal of good quality cotton is Rs5,000).

The weather gods haven’t been too kind to her either. Pandey’s soyabean yield on her 6-acre land has depleted to 8 quintals (fetched her Rs22,400, after she spent Rs90,000 on cultivating this land) owing to untimely and poor rain last year.

The slim and outspoken Pandey says she is now left with no other option but to sell a portion of her land to earn a living this year.

Usha Pandey, 39, a farmer from Amravati district of Vidarbha, has been left with just one-third of her average cotton yield from her two-acre field, which was attacked by pink bollworm. She has suffered a loss of ₹25,000. (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT Photo)

Pandey is not alone – she is one of the many farmers this HT reporter met in Vidarbha and Marathwada who are staring at one of the biggest agrarian crisis in recent times. The worst hit are those involved in dryland farming. Most have failed to recover even the cultivation cost from their main cash crop.

With little or no agriculture income, many plan to mortgage ancestral gold, sell agriculture land or borrow from moneylenders to survive 2018, until the next harvest, which begins in October.

“I had pawned my wife’s gold last year. I have a bank loan of Rs3 lakh, so institutional credit is out for me. I have no option but to sell a portion of my land to fund my son’s college education and take up sowing in June,” said Suresh Chaudhary, a cotton farmer from Manchanpur village in Akola district of Vidarbha.

While some families will have to sacrifice their children’s education, others may push ahead weddings and some will even suffer long-term losses. With the worst far from over, there are indications that the state may witness a rise in farmer suicides.

“This is an unprecedented attack [pink bollworm]. As per my information, 40 lakh hectares of cotton area has been affected. Farmers have lost crop worth around Rs10,000 crore,” said Kishore Tiwari, chairman of the state-appointment Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavlambam Mission and a veteran farmers activist.

“The government must deliver on its promise of compensation by getting seed companies and insurance companies to foot the bill, along with backing from the National Disaster Fund (NDF),” said Tiwari.

Who will pay for damages?

The Maharashtra government, in the winter session of the state legislature, promised a compensation of Rs30,800 per hectare to farmers hit by the pink bollworm outbreak. However, delivering on this promise is going to be an arduous task.

The compensation includes Rs16,000 per hectare from seed companies; Rs8,000 per hectare from insurance companies; and Rs6,800 per hectare from the National Disaster Fund (NDF).

Cattle is allowed to stray into an infested cotton crop field in Yavatmal district. The pink bollworm outbreak in Maharashtra has been the worst since the state adopted BT cotton (genetically hybrid seeds) in 2002. (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT Photo)

Getting the seed manufacturers to pay for the losses seems difficult, with these companies unwilling to shoulder responsibility in this case. The seed manufacturers on their part have blamed Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB), the firm that has patented BT technology, and a long litigation process seems to be on anvil.

“The Department of Agriculture of Maharashtra has not considered the problem in its right perspective. It is holding the seed companies and dealers responsible, leaving free the trait or technology provider (MMB), who collects the trait value on every seed packet and who is really responsible for the efficacy of BT trait,” said Dr Kalyan Goswami, director general of NSAI.

The department has issued show-cause notices to seed companies over the pink bollworm attack.

“The pink bollworm incidence in BT cotton in Maharashtra and other states of India is the case of insect developing resistance to the protein, produced by the BT cotton plants. In simple words, the technology is no longer effective against pink bollworm,” said Goswami.

The MMB has pointed out that some of the causes of the pest attack are not adopting recommended practices, such as planting non-BT seeds on the refuge of the farms; not following integrated pest practices; besides using non-approved BT seeds, early planting and prolonging the crop cycle past the termination date.

A spokesperson of Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Private Limited said: “Resistance development in insects is a natural and evolutionary process. While there are increased pink bollworm infestation, as reported by Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), in some parts of the country, BGII continues to fulfil its intended function of controlling a majority of Lepidopetran pests, including American bollworm, which is a primary pest, thereby providing farmers with greater relief.”

In an emailed statement, the spokesperson also said that some of “these claims [BT failure]” are made by member seed companies of NSAI who are in a bilateral dispute with MMB”.

The government, however, is firm that the companies should take responsibility.

“If the seed companies don’t want to accept liability, then they shouldn’t have claimed that the seeds can resist pink bollworm pest attack,” said Bijay Kumar, principal secretary, agriculture. “When they make these claims, they are liable to pay up. The insurance companies will pay as per the agriculture yield losses. There should be no problem with that.”

A farmer from Yavatmal district shows a cotton boll infested by the pest, which attacks the crop from inside while the outside remains green and unopened. (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT Photo)

Medha Gadgil, additional chief secretary for relief and rehabilitation, said the government has sent a memorandum to the Centre, seeking Rs2,425 crore as compensation under NDF. “This is for damages to cotton farmers, paddy farmers and victims of cyclone Okhi,” said Gadgil.

This amount, however, is unlikely to meet the losses if one decides to go by the ground-level surveys done in Vidarbha and Marathwada. Under NDF, compensation is given if more than 33 per cent of the cultivated cotton area has been affected, and it is at the rate of Rs6,800 per hectare for dry land and Rs13,500 per hectare for irrigated land.

In Vidarbha, farmers will need Rs1,070 crore only under this head, while Marathwada farmers will need Rs1,222 crore under this head.

The way forward

The bigger issue for many farmers is long-term reliability as they have been relying on BT cotton as their main cash crop for more than a decade. The crisis has raised fears of a similar pink bollworm attack in next year’s harvest too.

The agriculture department has sent bulk text messages to farmers, asking them to burn their standing cotton crop and harrow land to get rid of the pest completely.

“The only way to protect farmers from this vicious cycle of debt, failing market prices and disasters such as pest attacks is to ensure there is diversification of crops and allied farm income. Farmers will have to move away from mono-cropping and reduce their reliance on cash crops such as cotton,” said Anoop Kumar, divisional commissioner for Nagpur.

However, to take the farmers away from their cash crop is a challenging task, as no other crop promises similar returns despite the shortcomings. Farm-allied activities and income from dairy development, goateries, recently promoted aquaculture is yet to gain momentum in the Vidarbha and Marathwada.

Pandey, for one, despite losses will take up cotton sowing yet again this June, as will lakhs of other farmers, who have lost their crop last year.

“The one thing that keeps me going through all this is the surety that my son will not be a farmer,” said Pandey.

First Published: Feb 14, 2018 11:46 IST