Cotton has been both a bane and a boon in the Vidarbha region. Much was expected of Bt cotton’s ability to beat the American or green bollworm and reduce the cost of pesticide sprays, when it was approved in 2002 but over the years, the pink bollworm has developed resistance to both types of Bt cotton (Bollgard 1 and 2) and secondary pests have increased the spraying of insecticides. In 2017, an alarming number of farmers were poisoned by the toxic fumes of the same organophosphate compounds they sprayed on cotton. How has Bt Cotton exacerbated Vidarbha’s location-specific vulnerability since 2002? 


By- Meena Menon, EPW 

Vidarbha has another cross to bear. While farmers and labourers have been committing suicide by consuming pesticides and through other means, in 2017, the numbers poisoned by the toxic fumes of the organophosphate compounds they sprayed on cotton rose to alarming levels.  Public healthcare services in this area are ill-equipped to handle such a load of cases and the state is equally apathetic to both kinds of deaths. Apart from this, nearly all 40 lakh hectares of crop, both in Vidarbha and Marathwada, was devastated by the pink bollworm, a pest that did not cause much grief earlier. The suicides continued with 221 farmers killing themselves in the two regions, from January to March 2018, according to Tiwari who heads the Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavalamban Mission in Maharashtra.


Cotton has been both a bane and a boon in this region and much was expected of Bt cotton’s ability to beat the American or green bollworm and reduce the cost of pesticide sprays, when it was approved in 2002. It worked at first but over the years, the pink bollworm has developed resistance to both types of Bt cotton (Bollgard 1 and 2) and secondary pests have increased the spraying of insecticides. Despite the increase in crop area and production, suicides have not stopped. In Vidarbha and Yavatmal, the situation is especially complicated by illegal herbicide-tolerant cotton, which has not been approved for sale in India. Widespread damage was reported in the 2017–18 this season due to the pink bollworm in Vidarbha and Marathwada.


 In 2002, Bt Cotton Was Already Failing 

It was a year after Bt cotton, India’s first transgenic crop was introduced in 2002, that I first went to Nagpur while researching organic cotton. Kishore Tiwari, an unknown activist then, was already pointing to the failure of Bt cotton in its very first season. I had already seen crops of Bt cotton in Madhya Pradesh which had not survived due to various reasons and heard complaints from Andhra Pradesh as well. Even before Bt cotton was approved, illegal Bt cotton supplied by the Ahmedabad-based Navbharat Seeds company was rampant in Gujarat in 2001. In Gujarat, I saw fields of illegal Bt cotton.  Farmers were happy they did not have to spray a lot of insecticides. The company Mahyco, which got the Bt patent from Monsanto and had a joint venture with it, complained to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). In spite of the GEAC  ordering the illegal cotton fields to be burnt, they were not. Sixteen years later, such is the dismal state of regulation in India that Bt cotton seeds, sometimes without labels and approvals, are found in the market and are sold to gullible growers with disastrous consequences in some cases. Though Monsanto, which holds the patent for Roundup Ready Flex (a herbicide tolerant cotton), withdrew its application for clearance in 2016 from the GEAC, the seeds seem to be available illegally and in Vidarbha, they have been planted by farmers who bought them from “agents” at Rs 1,200 for a packet of 450 grams.


This time around, this illegal herbicide-tolerant cotton, suspected to come from Gujarat, is being pushed in cotton-growing states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Vijay N Waghmare, acting director, Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) says that since no company name was on the packets it was difficult to ascertain if the seeds were hybrid or contained the Bt gene. The CICR estimates that 34 lakh packets were sold this year to cotton growers, double that of last year. Yet there is no action to curb this illegal sale or investigate where it is coming from and stop it. However, earlier this month, the CICR detected the presence of the herbicide-tolerant gene in the Bt cotton seeds of five companies against whom cases have been filed. It is not approved for sale in India. The Maharashtra government has asked the centre for a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry since this cotton is growing in other states as well. Some farmers who planted this spurious seed complained that it drew excessive pests but that claim needs a deeper inquiry. This spurious seed is one more player in the complex situation in the cotton fields of Vidarbha. The region has once again come under scrutiny, this time for the number of deaths (over 60) due to toxic pesticides in 2017.


Why Are Farmers Spraying so much Insecticide on Bt Cotton When it Was Specially Developed to Resist Pests?


The CICR sent out a fact-finding team after the pesticide poisoning crisis became public. The team noted the cotton plants had in some cases grown over six feet, boosted by growth hormones and favourable weather conditions, and the insecticide sprays were absorbed by the skin, causing poisoning. In the first few years since it was approved, Bt cotton reduced the use of insecticides on cotton for the dreaded American bollworm and soon it was being planted all over the country. India is now the leading producer of cotton in the world and among the largest exporters. There are, approximately, 2,000 Bt cotton hybrids vying for space; no other country grows hybrids like India does.  A farmer wishing to opt for another variety of non-Bt seeds will be unable to find them in the market. Therefore, the choices are practically non-existent. Along the way several major concerns developed. The first signs that all was not well came in 2009, when Monsanto finally admitted that the pink bollworm developed resistance to Bollgard 1. A few years later Bollgard 2 was also threatened in parts of the country.  Since 2014–15 there have been severe white fly infestations in Punjab and Haryana and the pink bollworm has been harmful in the north and western states. Climatic conditions also play a major role in pest load as do cultivation practices.


Another alarming feature has been the rise of secondary pests notably the mealy bug, never before seen on cotton. After the initial reduction in pesticides, spraying increased for secondary pests. An analysis shows that while planting Bt cotton led to reduced chemicals for the American bollworm, the rise of mealy bugs and whiteflies hiked pesticide usage:

Introduction of Bt cotton in India in 2002 led to a significant decline in the insecticide usage on cotton from 1.0 to 1.2 kg/ha (prior to 2002) to 0.5 kg/ha by 2006. But, increased infestation of whiteflies in North India and whiteflies, thripps and leaf hoppers across the country necessitated intensive application of insecticides in the subsequent years, especially during 2013 and 2014. The rapid introduction of more than 1,000 new cotton hybrids after 2006 and the increase in the area of hybrid cotton from about 45% in 2006 to 95% in 2013 quite possibly led to increased infestation of sap-sucking insect pests and the concomitant insecticide usage to 11,598 M tonnes. (0.9 kg/ha) by 2013 (Kranthi 2014)


The Events of 2017 in Yavatmal Were a Tragedy Waiting to Happen

In Vidarbha, multiple factors worsened the situation. Like other rain-fed regions in central India, famers are at the receiving end of poor and erratic rainfall, poor extension services, dubious seed quality, inability to repay loans, not getting credit on time, and a lack of assured and continuous power or water. In 2017, during a visit to Yavatmal, I saw many cotton fields destroyed by the pink bollworm and farmers stood to lose their year’s crop.

The wretchedness is compounded by the fact that cotton in Vidarbha gets the lowest returns in the country as the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) calculated some years ago in a paper. The costs of cultivation have risen manifold and the returns are very poor. Year after year of crop failure, and lack of credit, drives farmers to despair and death. The paper said the low irrigation cover of 2.7% for cotton in Maharashtra, compared to 50% in Gujarat, is fraught with high risk. The productivity in Maharashtra is the lowest, almost half of that in Gujarat, while the production costs are the highest in the country—resulting in the lowest returns (Gulati and Jain 2011).


Even after the advent of Bt cotton, things got to a point where the farmers switched to soya bean, a crop with fewer pest problems but lower prices. Cotton cultivation has moved to other irrigated areas in the Maharashtra, according to studies (Sabesh et al 2014).  A decade after 2002, soya bean threatened to outstrip cotton but in 2017, nearly 16 lakh to 17 lakh hectares of cotton were planted in Vidarbha alone, after good prices for cotton last year. Changes in cultivation practices also led to the pink bollworm arriving early, Waghmare said. Since three to four years, some farmers had left the cotton crops standing in the field till March for more pickings instead of pulling them out in December which is the usual practice. This allows the pink bollworm, which makes an appearance in winter, to stay on in the soil since its cycle is not disrupted, allowing it to return early at the time of sowing. The problem is exacerbated in irrigated areas. It is unusual for intense spraying for pests to begin in July but in 2017, in Yavatmal, farmers reported that there was an increase in caterpillars and sucking pests. This called for immediate solutions so that the crop was not lost. The  first cases of farmers and labourers being affected came to public hospitals in July and the first deaths began in mid-August and by October this year, over 60 people lost their lives in Vidarbha and over a thousand at least were affected by the adverse effects of pesticide inhalation. Doctors at the government hospital in Yavatmal said this was not a new phenomenon; in 2016, there were six deaths and 170 hospitalisations. In previous years, too, there is evidence of pesticide inhalation cases between August and October but no attempt has been made to either document the cases or find ways to regulate and stop this.


Neither the Yavatmal district collector or the police knew what was happening and hospitals did not think this was extraordinary. The alarm bells finally rang after a newspaper reported 18 deaths due to pesticide inhalation on 27 September 2017. Under Section 26 of the Insecticide Act, 1968, the state government has to be notified about all occurrences of poisoning through the use of handling of any insecticide. It was only on 5 October, that the Maharashtra chief minister ordered an inquiry into the deaths, and a special investigation was formed. In many ways, the events in 2017 in Yavatmal were a tragedy waiting to happen. The excessive spraying of pesticide, the eagerness of farmers to spend less on wages and get labourers to spray as many tanks as they quickly could, the lack of protective gear and steps to wash off the residues after spraying—all contributed to this situation.


How Did Bt Cotton Exacerbate Vidarbha’s Location-specific Vulnerability? 

Unlike other parts of the country, Vidarbha has certain location-specific shortcomings. It is among the two chronically backward regions in Maharashtra, the other being Marathwada, that suffers from neglect and severe underdevelopment. It has a smattering of irrigation, it is rain-fed and its farmers are poor and in debt. It is also the region that reports high farmers’ suicides, and official figures from 2001 to June 2017 for the six suicide-affected districts in Vidarbha show that nearly 14,000 farmers have killed themselves. Maharashtra continues to report the highest figures for farmer suicides in the country according to annual compilations by the National Crime Records Bureau, but often there is a discrepancy between state and NCRB figures.


Apart from loan waivers, there has been little course correction to better the lot of farmers or agriculture in the region or even in the rest of the country. That distress is a fact in Vidarbha was established in 2006 by a government survey to check farmers suicides,  but there was little continuous follow-up with the families despite having this data (Department of Agriculture 2006). All the landholders were surveyed in the six districts—Amravati, Yavatmal, Akola, Washim, and Buldhana of Amravati division—and Wardha from Nagpur division. Of 17,64,438 farmers in 8,351 villages, the survey reported that 12,26,559 were in distress due to crop failure or crop losses. The number of farmers who were in distress due to debt was 8,89,656, of which 3,06,362 were concerned about the future of their daughters and wedding expenses, and 92,456 were affected with chronic diseases in the family. Only 3,66,950 farmers reported no distress, while 4,34,291 reported maximum distress, and 9,14,708 had medium distress.


There was some anxiety that Bt cotton would exacerbate a vulnerable situation, especially in poor regions. That is exactly what happened. Farmers took to Bt cotton in a big way, unaware of the printed advisory on seed packets that the cotton does well in irrigated conditions.


Why Did Farmers Opt for Bt Cotton?

I am not sure about the “informed choice” that many experts have discussed.  Farmers went in for a variety they thought would save them the cost of pesticides and even if they did not want it, there was little choice they had since few other seeds were available. Government extension services were absent and it was the company or its agents who promoted the seeds.  Among the plethora of factors as to why they bought Bt cotton is of course that they liked having a seed that resisted the American green bollworm, which had become inured to even the most toxic of pesticides. K R Kranthi, former CICR director, called it an “insecticide resistant monster” due to the indiscriminate spraying of synthetic pyrethroids, which began in Andhra Pradesh. Cotton crop failures had already led to hundreds of farmers committing suicide there and soon the trend crossed borders into Vidarbha.


In the mid-1990s, in India, 54% of pesticides were used on cotton, which occupied a mere 5%of the crop area.  That is how grave the situation was and reports of pesticide inhalation deaths were reported from Warangal in Andhra Pradesh in 2001, which was investigated by NGOs, who went to court on the issue. There was little done by way of regulation despite the death of 12 people. Pesticide dealers and companies held sway in a market driven by desperation and the dread of pests. Pesticide dealers are among the most prosperous residents in Vidarbha. They live in large mansions, feeding off the farmers and selling them toxic substances in the name of controlling pests. The Maharashtra government has begun rather belatedly to crack down on dealers for hoarding toxic pesticides and selling chemicals that are not suited for the region but that is an exercise that will stop soon when the powerful pesticide lobby has its way.


The committee headed by Anupam Verma, former Professor, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) recommended 13 pesticides to be banned, 27 pesticides to be reviewed in 2018 after completion of certain technical studies, six pesticides to be phased out by 2020 and the continued use of 18 pesticides. The committee that was tasked with reviewing 66 toxic pesticides, was under fire for not making a substantial difference to the largely unregulated market where everything is available and there is little fear of checks or regulation.


It is Tragic that Indian Scientists Chose to Ignore the Strengths of Desi Cotton in Favour of American Hybrids

There are many experiments in growing cotton without chemicals in the Vidarbha region, which was also, ironically, home to the first organic cotton venture spearheaded by the late Gandhian Kisan Mehta in 1995. The Vidarbha Organic Farmers Association was a vibrant community of 100-odd farmers but that organisation is defunct now and most of the organic farmers have even stopped growing cotton for fear of contamination from Bt gene. The CICR has experimented with the Phule Dhanvantari desi cotton variety in Vidarbha with good results. However, this short staple is preferred for surgical cotton. Desi cotton does grow well there since it is a crop suited to rain-fed soils and does not attract the pests that the American hybrids do, chiefly the green bollworm but suddenly switching to desi cotton may not yield great results as the farmers in Punjab and Haryana found out.


Barely 5% of cotton scientists research desi cotton, but belatedly the CICR has eulogised desi cotton for its stress-tolerant and climate change–resistant qualities. It is tragic that Indian scientists chose to ignore the strengths of desi cotton in favour of American hybrids. CICR in its Vision 2050 document said, “Thus India has a great advantage in desi cotton species especially with reference to climate change. By 2050 it may be possible that desi cotton species G arboreum could replace majority of the area that is currently under G hirsutum in light of climate change related weather vagaries and focused systematic breeding efforts for fibre quality improvement in desi cotton” (CICR 2015). The desi cottons (G arboreum and G herbaceum) are also resistant to a number of pests, including white flies, jassids, aphids, and thripps. In addition, they are immune to the new leaf curl virus and show tolerance to moisture stress. A new study in the magazine Nature Plants says that farmers growing G arboreum or desi cotton in Amravati, Maharashtra, benefitted from a higher market price for their product than farmers growing Bt G hirsutum cotton. The study has evidence that under rain-fed conditions G arboreum cultivation can generate similar economic benefits for farmers as G hirsutum in Maharashtra (Dalmau et al 2015).

Apathy to Agrarian Issues and Farmers Should Not be Part of a Systemic Malaise: We Need Solutions

A sensible debate on Bt cotton and the future of our cotton growing cannot be conducted without a raucous defence of Bt cotton on the one hand and stories of abysmal failure on the other. The agrarian distress brought on by liberalisation policies has been unrelenting and over 3,00,000 farmers have killed themselves all over the country since 1995. Yet the government, undaunted by death and the plight of farmers, continues unwavering on its path of destroying agriculture by its policies or the lack of them, the gross neglect of extension that by its own admission is in a sorry state, leaving the field open to companies, be it for seeds or for chemicals, to rule the roost. The farmer now dependent on everything from seeds to inputs and markets on the government or private players is caught in a bewildering vortex.  Apathy to agrarian issues and farmers is now part of a systemic malaise, and the continuing crisis in Vidarbha and elsewhere has not prompted a course correction. It is in the fundamentals of agriculture, research and our own agrarian resources and history that solutions can be found and not in firefighting.