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Not cottoning on

EAR TO THE GROUND

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

The government seems to be oblivious to the farmers paying with their lives to learn about cotton farming in the times of open market.
Ask any US expert about suicides by cotton farmers in India, and you would find his innocence touching. There is no linkage between cotton and suicides, you will be told. Cheap subsidised US cotton has nothing to do with the deaths in Vidarbha. In any case, farmers are off cotton here. In Vidarbha, farmers are turning to soya, while in Punjab, where the Bt cotton crop has been invaded by the mealy bug, paddy is being planted.
Despite US subsidies of around $5 billion to its handful of 25,000 cotton farmers, cotton prices are steadying, thanks to subsidies of another kind. More lucrative subsidies are available for growing maize in the US as the country needs the crop for ethanol. Therefore, a large number of cotton farmers there are shifting to maize. The result of all this is that cotton exports from the US are going down and the prices up. However, the rising rupee keeps India from reaping the gains.
But, in Vidarbha, neither the prices nor the prime minister's relief package have inspired hope. Growers have turned their back on cotton. There was barely 30 per cent sale of cotton seeds this time, says Vijay Jaywandhia, one of the prominent farm activists in the region.
The region's farmers are turning to soya in a big way and GM-free soya cakes are likely to fetch them good prices in the European market, Jaywandhia points out. But the suicides have not stopped. About 50 were reported this month. The reason is said to be Nabard's decision to halve the credit this year in Vidarbha .
Even as the Vidarbha farmers are paying with their lives to learn about cotton farming in the times of open market, Bt cotton farmers in Punjab are already staring down the brink. Bt cotton crops in at least four districts of the state have been destroyed by the mealy bug.
At least 40 per cent of the crop has been razed and paddy sown instead, says Bhaskar Goswami of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security. Farm organisations in Punjab confirm this.
The village of Badal, the birthplace of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, is one of the sites of Bt disaster. Bhatinda, Muktsar, Ferozepur and Faridkot, all cotton districts, have been equally affected.
The price the Bt farmer pays goes something like this. He invests Rs 6,000 on an acre of cotton. He destroys it, as local newspapers are reporting daily, and sows paddy again at a price of Rs 6,000.
Now, these are usually the lands taken on lease, after paying a rent of Rs 15,000. So, the production price goes up by Rs 6,000. With Rs 27,000 spent on an acre, he needs to sell rice at Rs 10 a kg to break even. The minimum support price is a mere Rs 600 a quintal.
The response of the central government to all this has been casual. The Union agriculture ministry has been telling the Punjab newspapers that agriculture is a state subject and it cannot do anything. But the fact remains that 135 varieties of Bt cotton have been cleared in the last three years, not by the Punjab government but by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Union environment ministry. It has to explain why seeds immune to primary bug infection were not tested for secondary pest manifestations like the mealy bug.
The losses are steep in terms of scale as 61 per cent of Punjab's cotton farmers have gone for Bt cotton this year. This is double the national average, say experts. But this concerns none.
And given the combined stony gaze of the commerce, environment and agriculture ministries to the Indian farmer, why should anyone blame the US or seed companies like Monsanto and Raasi if they protect their own interests?

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First Published: Sun, July 22 2007. 00:00 IST
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