The double whammy


In the last decade, new commercial crops were introduced like Bt cotton, which have wreaked havoc with the small farmers’ cropping patterns and food security. A lot more thought has to be applied before introducing such crops.

Various rural communities have evolved cropping patterns keeping in view the primacy of their food needs. What is more, these crop rotations which meet their basic needs, are generally also in conformity with the need to maintain soil fertility and water levels.

However, when new commercial crops are introduced rapidly without assessing their impact on food availability as well as soil and water conditions, then this can be a very disruptive experience. These days, due to a number of reasons, rural communities are under pressure to earn some extra cash. Hence, they may agree to any offer which brings a lump sum payment, regardless of its long-term impact. But after some time, the harmful impacts on food security and ecology far outweigh the small cash gains.

Such a situation can be seen in the Kotra block of Udaipur district (Rajasthan) following the introduction of Bt cotton crop and its rapid spread for some time. Babu Lal and his wife Mirdi Bai have been traditionally cultivating wheat, maize and bajra (a millet), on their farmland in Palesar village (Kotra block of Udaipur district, Rajasthan). This provided food for several months in a year for the 10-member family, apart from providing fodder for farm and dairy animals, all essential components of this mixed farming system.

However, some time back, agents of some companies started coming to their family and luring them with the promise of a lump sum payment. They finally convinced Babu Lal to plant and produce Bt cotton seeds in two of his fields.

Babu Lal soon found that he had to spend a lot of money on chemical fertilisers and pesticides for this seed production. He got several cans of highly poisonous pesticides. His entire family including children worked hard to produce Bt cotton seeds, bearing somehow the ill effects of the poisons they had to handle repeatedly now, all in the hope of getting the promised lumpsum payment.

When the time for payment came, however, the agent informed Babu Lal that the seeds produced in his farm had been declared to have ‘failed’ in tests and so he won’t be getting any payment. Babu Lal and his family now faced economic ruin. The food harvest was much lower than normal, as the best fields and most labour and resources had been devoted to Bt cotton. Also, there was hardly any fodder. So Babu Lal had no other option but to borrow from private moneylenders at a high interest rate to meet the immediate needs of food and fodder. The family then had to work extra hard on the fields of others to pay back their loan.

This was not the end of Babu Lal’s cup of woes. Not satisfied with holding back his payment, the company’s agent started harassing Babu Lal for a payment of about `10,000 in lieu of the fertilisers and pesticides/weedicides etc., provided to him earlier. Till the time of this writer’s visit to Palesar village on April 29, this harassment was continuing.

Babu Lal and Mirdi Bai say that they’ll never again fall into the trap of deceit and deception set by the Bt cotton seed agents. This is also the view of several other tribal farmers of Kotra block who have tried their hand at Bt cotton seed production. This is evident from the fact that the number of such Bt cotton seed producers has fallen significantly during the last one year.

This trend started about five years back and reached its peak about three years back. But recently there has been a downward trend due to experiences of farmers like Babu Lal. Yet, there are farmers who continue to try their hand at Bt cotton seed production.

There is a clear need for introspection regarding the rapid changes introduced in tribal farming by agents of Bt seed companies. There is growing evidence that this has disrupted food security apart from introducing many health hazards and ecological threats, short-term as well as long-term.


Bharat Dogra

Bharat Dogra is a Delhi-based freelance journalist who writes on social concerns.