Whitefly menace: No more sold on white gold

Most farmers in the region have suffered badly owing to an onslaught of the whitefly pest as it has eaten into the cotton crop as well as farmers’ savings; spurious pesticides have only aggravated the problem. Agriculture minister Tota Singh says they had supplied only 10% of the pesticides and they were effective. Special correspondent Gurpreet Singh Nibber visits the cotton belt in the Malwa heartland to get the lowdown.

punjab Updated: Sep 23, 2015 23:33 IST
Gurpreet Singh Nibber
Gurpreet Singh Nibber
Hindustan Times
Women farmers working on the cotton farms at Karamgarh Satran village in Mansa.

Partap Singh Brar of Daulatpura village in Fazilka district has ploughed his 13 acres of cotton crop after it suffered severe damage owing to the whitefly pest attack.

Losing the crop doesn’t make much difference to Brar as he has 30 acres of paddy crop and a kinnow orchard to support his family. But Jagjit Singh and brother Jagdev Singh of Singhewal village in Lambi assembly segment are not so fortunate. The family is in gloom as their crop was eaten by the pest, which this kharif season has taken the shape of an epidemic.

“We had no option but to plough our field; we could not have recovered even a quintal of cotton from an acre,” says Jagdev, his voice choked as he tries to hold back tears. The brothers stand in the middle of the ploughed field; the pest has severely affected even the kinnow trees grown in the same field. “We had grown cotton to supplement our income but never thought it would harm our orchard too,” says Jagdev. Brar’s son is settled in the US, but Jagdev and Jagjit have small kids to support.

Cotton belt in north India

In Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, there are a few farmers like Brar but most have a story similar to that of Jagdev and Jagjit; their losses are huge and the suffering unending. This season, in Punjab and Haryana, cotton has been grown on 10.5 lakh hectares (Punjab 4.65 lakh hectares and Haryana 5.85 lakh hectares). According to an estimate by agriculture department officials, over 80% cotton farmers in Punjab and Haryana have suffered severe damage due to whitefly. There is likely to be a fall in yield by 40%-50%.

“Since the last week of July, we have been seeing our crop being eaten by the pest, but nobody turned up to help us,” says Navtej Singh of Karamgarh Satran village in Mansa. “Farmers have spent Rs 15,000 on every acre to grow and save the crop. Some have sprayed pesticides no less than 35 times, but to no avail,” Navtej says, sharing the grouse that no one from the agriculture department or Punjab Agricultural University came to their help.

Farmers fleeced

Once the pest spread like epidemic, the hapless farmers were fleeced by pesticide sellers, who asked them to try different formulations. “It was a kind of hit and trial but nothing worked and farmers who tried to save the crop at any cost were defeated less by the pest and more by pesticide sellers,” says Navtej. As a knee-jerk reaction, the state government registered five cases for alleged sale of spurious pesticides, made two arrests and also seized the pesticide.

The American bollworm destroyed the crop in late 1990s, the mealy bug in 2005 and now it’s the whitefly’s turn to do the damage. “I did not sow the crop for years, but this year my attempts to diversify have failed,” says Sajjan Singh of Rori village in Sirsa. “There was a time when our entire house used to be filled with cotton during harvest, but it’s no longer the white gold,” he adds. “In this distress situation, what can a farmer do; isn’t it a fit situation to take one’s life?” he wonders.

Information gathered by experts says the fly has caused much damage to the BT variety whereas the desi varieties have withstood the attack. But the damage has been done and farmers are in distress. Around 11,000 acres of crop has been ploughed in Punjab and about 4,500 in Haryana. The Punjab government has announced `10-crore compensation (about Rs 9,000 per acre) but Haryana is yet to take a call.

Cultivation cost per acre

The estimated cultivation cost this year for growing cotton on an acre is seed Rs 2,000, fertiliser Rs 2,000, insecticides and spray Rs 2,500 to Rs 5,000, ploughing and irrigation Rs 1,000, picking Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 depending on yield. A quintal of cotton would sell for Rs 4,000 to Rs 4,500 but the yield per acre has crashed to just three to six quintals.

Expert view

Food security analyst Devinder Sharma says, “Around 50% of pesticide in the country is used on cotton, so pesticide manufacturing companies don’t want any research to be successful which makes cotton grow without pesticides. This time, the BT variety has suffered more damage, so the seed manufacturing companies should also be held accountable. The state governments are now recommending non-BT varieties. Why can’t we have a mechanism for making pesticide and seed companies accountable for the losses?”

Same story on university farms at abohar

The cotton grown in the fields of the research centre of Punjab Agricultural University at Abohar has also been damaged owing to the whitefly pest, which is contrary to the recent comments by university vice-chancellor BS Dhillon, who had blamed the farmers for their inability to control the whitefly pest.

Centre director PK Arora says the damage is not severe. “Moreover, ours is a research field where different varieties are grown for testing purposes,” he says, adding that the farmers who have sown late varieties of cotton have suffered more while the crop sown early has resisted the pest attack.

Politics on the issue

As most farmers suffer, some are doing politics over it. Raja Ram Jakhar of Bhagu village in Abohar managed to save his 40 acres of cotton crop from the pest attack. But he could be seen in the protests organised by the Congress against the state government for crop failure.

First Published: Sep 23, 2015 10:06 IST