Growing genetically modified Bt cotton hybrids is not the only way to bag high yields. Other agronomic methods have now emerged for reaping copious harvests of this natural fibre, even in the wholly rain-dependent areas where cotton is largely cultivated in India. An outstanding new technology is the "high-density cotton planting system", evolved by Nagpur-based Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR). This new system, which involves sowing a relatively higher number of plants a hectare, has been found to almost double the yield of cotton, even in an area like Vidharba, Maharashtra, which is infamous for farmer suicides owing to frequent failures of unirrigated cotton crops. Normally, farmers sow 50,000 to 55,000 plants a hectare. This number is increased to 200,000 plants a hectare, or even more, under the new production system, by planting seeds at closer spacing. A higher total count of cotton bolls in the field, as a result of larger plant population, leads to bulkier harvest. The relatively quicker maturing cotton varieties, which have dwarf and compact plants and do not compete with each other for sunlight and input uptake, are deemed ideal for such dense planting. Here, rainwater conservation could be of additional help. Vast stretches of rainfed cotton in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, besides other states, which face production uncertainties owing to recurring moisture stress, can benefit from this technique. CICR's cotton scientists maintain that the crop productivity is usually low in rain-reliant fields because of the post-monsoon moisture paucity, when the crop is normally in the boll-formation stage and needs water the most. The monsoon rains that normally begin in June usually cease by September, whereas the boll formation starts in October and peaks in November. The cotton bolls, therefore, fail to develop fully for want of water, especially in shallow soils with low water-holding capacity, adversely hitting the final crop outturn.
Obviously, cotton varieties with longer lifespan are the worst performers, since these suffer the most from moisture paucity at vital stages of crop growth. The shorter duration varieties, on the other hand, allow crops to complete their lifespan before the post-monsoon residual soil moisture dries up. Several cotton varieties have already been identified by CICR through field trials - that are deemed suitable for dense planting - owing to the compact architecture of their plants. These include varieties like PKV081 (released way back in 1987 by the Akola agriculture university), NH615 (evolved recently by the farm varsity in Parbhani) and Suraj (developed by CICR in 2008). Field experiments carried out in the last kharif, involving farmers at about 155 locations in Vidharba and the adjoining areas, produced encouraging results despite erratic monsoon rainfall and an outbreak of the cotton's most dreaded pest, boll worm, in some areas that had to be controlled by spraying pesticides. Cotton yields rose by at least 35 to 40 per cent at most of these sites. The overall average yield in the entire experimental area turned out to be between 15 and 18 quintals of seed cotton a hectare - almost double the normal productivity in Vidarbha district. The highest output was noticed in Chandrapur, Amaravati and Nagpur. Significantly, farmers pocketed a net profit of between Rs 12,000 and Rs 90,000 a hectare, against the estimated cultivation cost of Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 a hectare. The success of this technology has generated excitement among cotton growers, says CICR Director K R Kranthi. Some farmers have opted for trying out the concept of high-density cotton cultivation even for growing organic cotton. Going by the enthusiasm of cotton scientists and the response of cotton growers, it seems the new technology has the potential to trigger another cotton revolution of the kind that was brought about by Bt cotton in the last decade. More importantly, this technology has the potential to prevent cotton farmers' distress owing to frequent crop losses in unirrigated areas. Of course, the new technology will need to be promoted by the state agriculture departments in collaboration with the research institutes.