|Death by cotton (23/9/2007)|
1.Death by cotton
EXTRACTS: The more dangerous trend in Cotton seed production is the encroachment of Bt seed production, which leads to termination of the farmer's rights on seed. (item 2)
What could be made from selling his depleted yield could in no way cover the debts he'd incurred to buy agrochemicals and BT seeds. In the end, the harvested crop lay piled in the house and no attempt had even been made to take it to market. Ravinder's grandfather, his face etched in lines of sorrow, said simply: 'I have lost my hands.' The unspoken question that troubled this tall, dignified old man: 'How will the five of us left now survive?' (item 1)
The genetically modified BT seeds had added to the cost. There was crop-loss from flooding and from the 'reddening disease' that the farmers have come to associate with the new cotton strain.
Soon the conversation began to stray further afield, and people began an animated running commentary on their more general fate. It went something like this: 'BT cotton has devastated us. Our production costs have spiralled and yields have actually declined... Foreign technology has put us into debt. Now we can't even get back to zero... How about the leaders? No-one sees them committing suicide. It is only us... It is better that the Government just comes and bombs us, that would be a more effective way to get rid of us... The agricultural extension officers used to come from the Government, and had some knowledge. Today they come from the corporates and are just dealers who only know how to count money.' (item 1)
1.Death by cotton
Ravinder Kisan Piwar's brother came back at five o'clock in the evening as usual to turn on the electric pump. This is the one time the erratic electricity supply can usually be counted on in the eastern Maharashtra village of Chalbardi. He found the 23-year-old Ravinder bent over, holding his stomach and retching. He had swallowed a lethal dose of the pesticide he had purchased to safeguard the cotton crop on his family's four-hectare plot. It was a crop he relied on to support himself and five others his grandparents, younger brother and two sisters.
Ravinder was by all accounts a jovial sort of guy, or at least that is how his grandfather thought of him when I talked to him outside their tumbledown house on a back street of Chalbardi. Although Ravindar was worried about the economic odds that are stacked against the survival of a small-farm family in the 11 counties that make up the Vidarbha cotton belt, he had never given any sign that he was contemplating such drastic action. As they talked to me, his family searched for clues as to what might have led him to this very final decision: the well had collapsed; exceptionally hard rain had washed away almost half of the cotton; he was worried about his marriage prospects.
But the background was also crucial. Day after day he drove past the cotton market in nearby Pandharkawada and saw the gates closed. Even when they were open, cotton was either not selling or selling below the cost of production, even below the government-set floor price. What could be made from selling his depleted yield could in no way cover the debts he'd incurred to buy agrochemicals and BT seeds. In the end, the harvested crop lay piled in the house and no attempt had even been made to take it to market. Ravinder's grandfather, his face etched in lines of sorrow, said simply: 'I have lost my hands.' The unspoken question that troubled this tall, dignified old man: 'How will the five of us left now survive?'
Ravinder's decision, while his alone to take, was not an isolated one. Two other farmers in that village had also taken their lives and, over the past few years, thousands of Vidarbhan cotton farmers had done the same. This made the individual act of suicide into a social phenomenon. Social suicide is wreaking much havoc throughout rural India. Farmers, drawn more and more into competing with global commodity prices and forced to borrow to finance hi-tech inputs (seeds, agrochemicals and the like) are starting to despair.
Paradoxically, the suicides have taken place in some of the best agricultural areas paddy farmers in eastern Vidarbha, wheat farmers in the Punjab, coffee growers in Kerala. In more marginal areas, farmers continue to lead a life of poverty but a self-reliant, debt-free or at least debt-manageable poverty. The suicides started among cotton farmers and remain most prevalent among the producers of what was once called 'white gold'. And it is in the dry cotton country of Vidarbha where the problem is most acute. In these dusty villages, where poor farming families try to scratch out a living, a group of committed activists maintains a kind of suicide watch, complete with a macabre map covered with labels in the form of skulls.
Nagpur is the capital of the region and it is here I meet Jaideep Hardikar. Hardikar has interviewed hundreds of farmers in his attempt to publicize their plight. He is from Vidarbha and is deeply committed to its 25 million people. 'There is a mass depression that has crept in. Poverty has always been pervasive in this country, but no-one committed suicide. It is not the issue of poverty but the issue of indebtedness that affects all spheres of a farmer's life.'
Jaideep's anger and frustration show through as he talks: 'Last year  I reported that there was a suicide every 36 hours. Then it came down to 24. Then down to 12. And now it stands at 8. That is 3 suicides a day.'
Jaideep, who is writing a book on the suicides, is not much puzzled by the cause. As they say, he has 'done the math'. 'In Vidarbhan there are 1.8 million households engaged in cotton. In the US there are 25,000 cotton farmers. If the subsidy that they receive that depresses the world price for cotton were removed, prices would rise to 4,500 to 5,000 rupees a bushel. Efficient Indian cotton farmers could easily compete with a price of 3,500 a bushel. Today the farmers usually get less than 2,000 [below the cost of production] and it is impossible to make even 10,000 rupees a year from a 8-hectare plot. That is just $200 for your entire family to live on.'
As I wandered through the dusty villages of Vidarbha the reasons for the suicides started to come into focus. I was nervous to approach people at such a tragic time. But I found that people who would have every reason to tell you to leave them alone and mind your own business always received you with tea and courtesy. It seemed to give them some relief to be able to tell their story.
Certainly this was true of Bravin Vijay Bakamwar's father. The Bakamwars live in Sunna village. The 26-year-old Bravin had been married for just six months. On 25 November 2006 he got up early and rode his new (but unpaid-for) motorbike out into the fields and hanged himself from an electrical pole. Bravin was deep in debt to both moneylenders and the co-operative bank. A loan for a well had come up dry. Cotton prices were what they were. He was responsible not only for his new wife but also for his parents and siblings. He was caught between the obligations of old rural India and the desires of shiny new consumer India, as represented by his new motorbike. He must have felt that he could satisfy neither. His father referred to Bravin as a sensitive son who felt that all the responsibilities fell on him. We sadly agreed that a parent should never outlive their child. I thought of my own son. In the end the father, left in sadness and despair, felt that his only recourse was to follow the example of his son. He shook my hand warmly as I left, and I hoped he would find different way out.
Sometimes when you go to a 'suicide village' you meet just the family and close relatives. Other times many farmers and not a few young children gather round. Everyone (or at least all the men) talks, eager to give you a sense of their situation.
This was the case in Waifad village, where 65-year-old Danada Nirayan Thahme had swallowed pesticides. All agreed that Danada had been a popular man in the village and had many friends. He had always been generous and willing to help others, even though he had little himself. No-one had seen it coming before his 81-year-old neighbour found him lying in the road.
But he had been tense for three months the crop had not been good and the debts had mounted. The genetically modified BT seeds had added to the cost. There was crop-loss from flooding and from the 'reddening disease' that the farmers have come to associate with the new cotton strain.
Soon the conversation began to stray further afield, and people began an animated running commentary on their more general fate. It went something like this: 'BT cotton has devastated us. Our production costs have spiralled and yields have actually declined. Next year we are not going for BT... Things were much better under the British. If there were a ballot box here where we could vote for the British, they would win... Everything we used, we used to make at home. We never borrowed anything. Foreign technology has put us into debt. Now we can't even get back to zero... How about the leaders? No-one sees them committing suicide. It is only us... It is better that the Government just comes and bombs us, that would be a more effective way to get rid of us... The agricultural extension officers used to come from the Government, and had some knowledge. Today they come from the corporates and are just dealers who only know how to count money.'
What the farmers always came back to was a question: why could the politicians and the 'corporates' not understand that eventually everyone, including them, had to live from the soil. Sometimes they talked over one another, but they listened too, and nodded in agreement. While hard lives were etched on their faces, there remained a sense of pride in the land and those who work it.
I travelled north to Gujarat to see how cotton growers there were faring. It is ironic that farmers considered less modern are, in a sense, better off. Take Ranta Bhie Rathwa, who is a tribal farmer (from one of Indias marginalized indigenous groups) in Rangpur, some three hours drive from Baroda, near the border with Madhya Pradesh. He is a wily old character with a devilish twinkle dancing in his eye. His young son climbed all over him as he tried to tell me about his situation. I felt a long way from the suicide villages of Vidarbha. Ranta, like most farmers in this relatively remote area, grows cotton, but only as a sideline to get cash. The other crops in the area include mangos, chillies, castor beans, eggplant, tomatoes, maize, paddy rice, pigeon peas and chickpeas. Some of these help carry the farmers through the year, while others are an alternative to cotton as a cash crop.
Ranta Bhie Rathwa is very disdainful about cotton, saying it is barely worth growing. Here, agriculture-related suicides are virtually unknown. When asked why, Sunhil Machhi, the agronomist who works with the farmers here, cuts to the chase. 'Those farmers [in Vidarbha] are depending only on the cotton crop. If that fails there are huge amounts of stress and debt. Here farmers grow their own food crops and use only extra land for cotton, so the problem does not arise.'
Farmer suicides throughout India as a whole, according to the Governments own figures, have amounted to 150,000 in the last 10 years. The phenomenon, although by no means restricted to cotton farmers, started with and continues to be driven by those who have hitched their fortunes to the erstwhile white gold.
The suicides are at once a source of shame, denial and expediency in India. The shame is kept alive by the media (particularly the local media), activists and NGO groups. The farmer is, at some fundamental level, still considered the backbone of the country. Cotton takes 'pride of place' because of a long, illustrious history and Gandhi's use of it as a symbol in the independence struggle. The situation is considered a 'national scandal' at least by some.
The denial comes through official down-playing of the extent of the deaths, or unofficial fantasies about widespread farmer alcoholism and their attempts to get hold of (largely non-existent) government largesse; or in claims that the suicides are not really farm-related.
The expediency is a matter of using the suicides against your political opponents when you are out of power and then ignoring them when you make it to office.
Kavitha Kuruganti, of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad, uses the election of the Congress Party in Uttar Pradesh in 2004 to illustrate the point. Congress kept a running count of the suicides, which they threw in the face of the BJP Government. It was a big factor in their election victory. When they formed the government they drew up a list of suicide households for compensation. But when the applications started flowing in they did a very stupid thing and immediately started whittling away at which were "legitimate" farm-related suicides and which were not, cutting those families eligible for compensation to only 30 per cent of what they themselves had been claiming when they were in opposition. Her dismay is apparent: 'You'd think, just for the sake of political credibility, that they would at least compensate the whole list.'
For Kavitha, the suicides cut to the very core of Indias development strategy, which she sees as sacrificing agriculture for the prosperity of the hi-tech sector and industrial exports. A similar approach has been taken by China. She points to a plethora of government reports and planning documents that all indicate the inevitable destruction of traditional Indian agricultural life. She takes a caustic view of this kind of technocratic realism. 'These people probably see suicide as a legitimate "exit strategy" from agriculture. There is no sense of the pace at which it is happening, where people can go, or the long-term fate of farming.'
As I left Vidarbha there was a confrontation at a cotton-buying site, where police fired on desperate farmers. One was killed. Then an independent Maharastran legislator, Bacchu Kadu, staged his own protest, climbing a 30-metre watertank and threatening to jump if police tried to get him off. Hundreds of farmers across the Vidarbha cotton belt followed suit, climbing on to tanks and raising the spectre of a potential mass suicide.
There was the usual official response: expressions of concern and promises of action. At least they forestalled more suicides. For now.
2.Seeds Of Distress: Story Of Cotton Seed Growers In AP
Hybrid cottonseed production is concentrated in Andhra Pradesh which alone account for 62% of the total seed production in India. Within AP, nearly 90% of seed production is concentrated in Mahaboobnagar and Kurnool districts. Area under cotton seed production in these two districts is around 14,000 acres. Though seed production is carried out in most of the mandals in these districts there is high concentration of seed production in Gadwal, Dharur, Maldakal, Gattu, Iza, Atmakur, Jadcharla in Mahaboobnagar and Allagadda, Nandhyala, Sanjamala, Koillkuntla, banaganapalli, Uyyalawada, Emmiganur, Mantralayam, Kodumur mandals in Kurnool districts.
The other districts where cottonseed production is carried out are Randareddy in Telangana and West Godavary, Krishna, and Vijayanagaram in Coastal Andhra region and Kadapa in Rayalaseema. The basic reason for concentration of seed production in this region is availability of cheap labour and also suitability of climatic conditions.
Monsanto, JK seeds, Rasi seeds, Krishidhan, Ankur, Nandi, Nuzuveedu seeds etc are the major players in Cotton seed production. According to one seed organiser (middleman between Seed Company and farmer) there are around 10 companies involved in Cotton seed production. Companies develop their seed programmes prior to the season based on their market analysis. These seed companies work with seed organizers for implementing their seed programme. There is no direct link between seed companies and farmers, but the companies will make an agreement with farmer for supply of the predetermined quantity of seed. This agreement is made between company, seed organiser and seed grower.
Seed production activities broadly can be divided into three stages. Farmer's responsibility is to submit the seeds which are passed all the GOT tests. The first stage includes production at farmer's field, second stage includes the processing at ginning mills and the third stage includes seed treatment with chemicals and packing. Farmer is involved up-to the second stage and third stage will be done by the companies themselves. All the costs involved up-to second stage will be bared by the farmers.
In many places seed production activities begin in the month of April and ends in December. These activities will be beginning with making a contract with the seed organizer for producing certain quantity of seed of a particular company. Farmers are generally not aware of the variety of seed which he is going to produce and even he is not aware whether it is a breeder seed or foundation seed or it is Bt or Non-Bt seed. This contact is made between the farmer, seed organizer and the company. Usually after signing the contract seed organizer will supply the money to the farmer as advance (credit @2% interest) for inputs. This advance will vary from Rs.20, 000/- to Rs.40, 000/- depend on the trust between farmer and seed organizer. There are no formal bond papers etc for this credit. This system is entirely depending on faith.
Seeds will be supplied by the seed organizer on cost basis to the farmer. Cost of a packet of foundation seed of 450grs packet is around Rs.2000/-. Seed rate is 900grs (two packets). Male lines and female lines were sown separately. In case of Bt certain companies are keeping male lines as Bt and female lines as Non-Bt and others are using vice versa.
In the entire seed production "seed organiser" plays a vital role. The basic qualification to become a seed organiser is to supply the required credit to the farmers. This amount ranges from Rs.20, 000/- to Rs 40, 000/- . Some times, small companies will supply the money to seed organizers. The interest rates are fixed and from the company to seed organiser and it is 1% and from seed organiser to seed grower it is 2%.
The entire credit system runs on the basis of trust. There are no bond papers between any one of them. The amount of credit is depends on the trust between the seed organiser and seed grower. Each seed grower has dealings with 4-5 companies. There are around 200-250 seed organizers in both these districts. Most of the time seed organisers are not disclosing any details of the seed to the growers.
In addition to the credit supply, seed organisers also give extension support to the growers. Under each organizer there are 3-4 people for monitoring the fields. Companies pay the organisers for monitoring; this payment varies from company to company and ranges from Rs.1/- to Rs. 5/- per packet of seed produced. This means on average he will get around Rs.400/- to Rs.2000/- per acre (by assuming average yield is 400packets/acre). In addition to the supervision costs he will also get Rs.20/packet as commission.
Extension support provided by the seed organizer is basically about spraying of pesticides and fertilizers. They always suggest farmer to use more and more fertilizers and pesticides. Interestingly most of the seed organizers also have fertilizer and pesticide shops. This extension support increases the cost of cultivation and ultimately pushes the farmer into distress.
In addition to the seed organisers extension support, some companies also organizing trainings for farmers to get maximum yields and in all these trainings they advocate dumping of fertilizers and pesticides. One example for this is Monsanto's -Target 400. Farmers who followed these practices and using more and more inputs to get higher yields, ends at higher cost of cultivation and distress among the seed growers.
The entire seed production activities are labor and input intensive. It needs around 620 labor days spread across 120 days of seed production. Out of this 620 labor days 300 are for crossing. Labor costs accounts for Rs.50, 000/- per acre. To achieve higher yields farmers usually apply more fertilizers than commercial Cotton cultivation. Around 15- 20 bags of fertilizers, which includes Urea, DAP, Potash and other fertilizers are also applied. Proportion of DAP and Potash is more when compared to Urea. These costs accounts for Rs.7, 000/- per acre. Farmers use more pesticides to avoid any damage to the bolls and seeds. They use all kinds of pesticides and all most all stages of crop growth. The cost of pesticides accounts for Rs.10, 000/-. The total cost of seed production varies between Rs.80, 000/- to Rs.85, 000/-.
Scarcity of labor, increased labor costs and child labor are the major concerns in cotton seed production. Migrations of labor to work at constructions of irrigation projects and to urban areas are the major factor for scarcity of labor. Due to NREGP and the intense agriculture activities, as a result of timely rains are responsible for increased labor costs. According to U.Venkatesh of Bingidoddi "farmers don't have any other option but to withdraw from seed production as the cost of seed production increased tremendously due to labor costs".
Engaging child labor is still continuing even though companies are giving incentives for the farmers who avoid child labor in their fields. Companies paying only Rs.15/- per packet in the name of incentive, which is insufficient to meet the additional costs bared by the farmer for hiring adult labor. This incentive accounts for Rs.6000/ - (if the farmer gets a yield of 400 packets) but the additional cost incurred by the farmer for hiring adult labor for crossing is around Rs.21, 000/-. According to U.Venkatesh of Bingidoddi "companies are forcing farmer to use adult labor by sending NGO people and police, but they are not paying the required amounts for hiring adult labor, this effort is pushing the farmers into more troubles rather than resolving the issue".
After harvesting, farmers dry the fiber for one week to ten days. Farmers are allotted specific dates by the organizer to take their produce to the ginning mills. Few companies have their own ginning mills but most of the companies depend on the private ginning mills. In ginning mills processing is done by ginning, delinting, cleaning, GOT and treatment. The entire cost incurred at this stage will bared by the farmer. Farmer presence is must for the entire process. Farmer has to pay Rs750/- per quintal as the service charge to ginning mill, Rs 400/- as wages. The total costs accounts for Rs. 1150/- per quintal. If farmer has a yield of 8quintols he has to pay Rs.9, 200/- .Companies will pay the amount to the farmer only after passing all the tests and it will take two to three months time. Up-to this time farmer has to pay the interest to the seed organizer. The interest amount may reach a minimum of Rs.4, 000/- per acre.
Farmers who are producing cotton seeds are spending around Rs. 85,000/- per acre and in turn they are getting Rs.96, 000/- (if they get 400 packets per acre) which mans a net income of Rs.11, 000/-. If we look at the total economics of seed production it is clearly visible that companies exploiting the farmer at all the stages. Companies supply the foundation seed not only at a higher rate but also at low quantity packets. Farmer has to supply 750gr packets at a cost of Rs.240/- but the companies will sold the seeds at Rs. 800/- per packet of 450grs. According to U.Venkatesh of Bingidoddi "there is not much change in the price paid by the companies to the farmers in last ten years, but the selling price of companies was hiked many times".
The economics of Bt Cotton seed production is also the same as Non Bt cotton seed production even though companies promoting Bt Cotton is more profitable. According to the seed growers even though Boll worm incidence was reduced, other minor pests particularly sucking pests incidence was increased and the costs was increased at the same proportion.
The more dangerous trend in Cotton seed production is the encroachment of Bt seed production, which leads to termination of the farmer's rights on seed. One can visualize easily that with in a very short span of time extinction of all other varieties and hybrids. In the entire Cotton seed production belt of Andhra Pradesh, not even a single acre is under hybrids or verities other than Bt Cotton. This has serious implications on erosion of varieties, farmer's knowledge on breeding methods and economics. Loss of rights on seed means loss of Rs.11, 00 crores (share of cotton seed industry in India).
In these two districts we met many farmers and all of them explained their problems in detail. All of them expressed their desire to withdraw from the seed production. Some farmers are not able to with draw from seed production due to their debt trap. It is very clear from the study that there is an urgent need for shift to farmer centric seed production from company centric seed production.
K.Jayaram, is an agriculture economist working with Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad based NGO, working for sustainable agriculture. The author can be contacted at [email protected]