This particular story hit me hard, and made me pause and wonder about the fact that in the three-odd months since I visited a couple of villages in Wardha and Yavatmal districts in Vidrabha trying to figure out why cotton farmers were killing themselves. I was terribly disturbed by what I saw and I wondered if India was seeing a wedge being driven through it - dividing it into the haves and have-nots. But because of the fact that I had gone of official work, I did not write about the cotton aspect - after all the blog doesn't pay me.
But since it has been three months, I just thought that I would write about what I feel is going wrong with India's cotton policy, a bit about Vidarbha and if there is any way we can salvage the situation. Almost 600 people have killed themselves and it seems that more and more farmers will continue to consume pesticide, if something is not not. Either that, or the government might as well admit that the life of a petty farmer in Vidarbha or Telengana really doesn't matter to them. And the mainstream English media should admit that the drug habits of the rich and famous make for better stories (and discuss hair straighteners at Press Conferences).
And I'm not bunging this line in to please my bosses, but one reason that I will stick with my current job is that they give me an opportunity to go visit parts of India that I would never have seen otherwise (for stories that most people would assume a publication such as ours would not do) and everytime I travel, this sickening feeling of helplessless hits me, and you realise that 60 years after independence our politicians haven't really done that much other than move to cities. OK, that was a very long sentence and would never get into print!
So what is happening in Vidarbha? The easy answer as the loony-lefties and environmentalists would say is that it is all Bt-Cotton's fault. Now, I won't get drawn into a discussion on Bt-Cotton and the fact that an American multinational is despoiling our environmental heritage by introducing genetically altered seeds. The fact of the matter is that in a time of immense population pressures - genetically modifying crops might be the only way forward. Loony environmentalists in Europe can argue otherwise, but they do not face the pressures that the land in India has to. I'm not advocating a free-for-all over here, no, thats just wrong! But, and no insult to anybody, basically its either genetically modified foods or forced sterilisation. Otherwise we'll hear of far more cases of malnutrition. And if you want your food prices to stay in check that is really a choice you have to make.
But that said - Monsanto in collaboration with a Maharashtra government PSU - Mahyco - sells Bt-Cotton in India. Now, one thing that did go disasterously wrong - as usual - was the rampant corruption in the organisation. Mansanto-Mahyco did not check the sale of illegitimate seeds across Vidarbha. Why did this happen? Two reasons. One, it is quite obvious that Monsanto charges a hand and a leg for its seeds - Rs 1300 per 450gram packet - they justified the price saying that it needs to be rewarded for its research yada, yada, but the fact is that they charge less for these seeds almost everywhere else in the world. Maybe what the company was trying to tell us is that it had to pay out a lot of money to politicians to get the seeds approved, so they need to make their money back - by the way the Union Agriculture Ministry did clear sales of the seeds. You need two-three packets of seeds per acre. Now to control rampant abuse, Monsanto sprayed Bt-Cotton seeds blue.
But really, what does to take to paint seeds blue. I can do that. So that is what unscrupulous characters in Vidarbha did (this did not happen across the border in Telengana - because seed right holders protected their investment). These folks obviously were local political leaders, or so I was told. Now the 'fake' un-altered seeds were sold for Rs 900 a pack, halfway between the price of altered seeds and actual Bt seeds. Farmers, who really didn't know better, and who though they could save a few bucks bought into it, but even 900 bucks is a lot of money. Especially when you consider that Bollworms went ahead and ate up their crop anyway!
Problem two comes from Monsanto-Mahyco. You see, while we sit here and complain about the misleading adverts placed by a certain dubious B-School, even the Ponytail would be put to shame by some of the advertising at district level newspapers. They promise the moon, and unlike cynicals f***** like some us, village people are rather trusting. Sadly. The promises included the fact that farmers would not need to use pesticide at all (and pesticide at Rs 5000 plus a litre is very expensive) and would get much increased yields of between 8-10 quinatls per acre instead of the 2-3 quintals they got from regular seeds. But the fine print, and there was fine print, said that they 'might' need to spray their crops and the increased yield yields would only happen if certain conditions were fulfilled - such as more intense watering.
Then, in Vidarbha, nature dealt a cruel blow, and this is important. There is a disease that afflicts cotton called lalya, which is a reddening of the leaves. This happens during unseasonal rain, which is what happened in late 2005. Now, since the fine print was in font-size one (a trick Monsanto-Mahyco picked up from Ponytail it seems) and warned famers to take special care of the crops in the event of unseasonal rain, our farmers who thought that Bt-Cotton was a superseed, it didn't need any special care. And the plants literally withered away and died.
So instead of getting double their yield, they got they got a similar yield if they actually used Bt-Cotton and worse if they used the fake seeds. Bt-Cotton actually did deliver increased yields in Telengana (where it must be pointed out the farmers were more literate) but then came another cruel blow. Cotton is priced according to the staple length, which the length of the raw cotton fibre. Bt-Cotton delivered a very poor length fibre (and we're talking a difference of millimeters, but it does count) which got a very poor price. So at the end of the day, farmers in Vidarbha actually lost money on the crop.
Of course, cloth procuders in India couldn't quite live with poor staple length cotton. So they imported bales and more bales of cotton. From the US. Where the US government pays their farmers nice subsidies (over and above everything else). Now, one can't force Indian cloth producers to buy inferior cotton, and the cloth industry is a major export revenue gererator so some farmers demand of increasing excise becomes a "Robbing Peter to Pay Paul" exercise - even though good ol' Chiddu is a master of that art.
So what is the solution? I don't know really. The land in Vidarbha is too poor to support too many other crops - not even maize grows here - but with a little more emphasis on irrigation that might be possible (as has happened in Telengana). Secondly, seed development by indigenous organisations should be encouraged, also there should be an organisaed crackdown on illegal seeds. And the third part - financing.
Now, this is tricky, while everybody blames money-lenders for being the worst part of the problem, not a single farmer actually cursed them. Why? Because banks don't give them any money. Once a farmer, or any member of a farming family defaults, no bank will give them loans, what do these guys do, they go to money-lenders. They also told me that money-lenders don't charge really usurious rates - because it is in their interest that the farmers stay afloat (barely). In fact the number I heard was bees-pachess takka (20-25%), that is better than those thieves running credit-card operations in India.
Also banks are not flexible with repayments - what do I mean here - farmers unlike salaried professionals do not have steady income, a point farmers told me, money-lenders understand. This means that some years they earn massive amounts of money, some years the monsoons fail and they get rogered. Now, I don't want to condone money-lenders, but when people say that they're nicer than the State Bank of India, there obviously is a problem. This can easily be addressed, the problem is that a lot of the red-tape around government-owned banks will need to go and I really feel that it will be a private bank that will address the issue first.
Solution, you can have flexi-payments (at higher interest rates) for middle-class people, why not for farmers? If you do that, they will not default in case the crops fail one year, banks should keep metereologists in their staff who should warn farmers of weather conditions (and keep the bank upto speed also) thus altering their lending and collection plans accordingly. If a bad monsoon is predicted, banks should go easy on loans and not start distributing motorcycle loans to every farmer who walks in with a '816' (the land record document - I think that is the number correct me if I'm wrong).
The solution is not to give one lakh rupees to farmers who kill themselves. The Indian Penal Code does not condone suicide, so why does the government of Maharashtra. The one lakh rupees that is given to the widow (and while I think it is charitable), give the money to the people who are living, not the people who die. Because if you give people a financial motive to kill themselves, after a few drinks, what are a couple of pegs of pesticide (and from what I saw, highly poisonous pesticides are just lying around in some of the huts). What you will create is a self-perpetuating culture of suicide. No wait, they already have.
Now, this is just the mad-cap suggestion of a 27-year old journalist, but one who has seen the utter devastation of the area. One who has seen how suicides of the primary earner can crush a family. Not much, just a few thousand bucks (ten thousand in some cases - sums that were petty cash for Rahul Mahajan), less than most of our monthly salaries, but enough for people to kill themselves.
Anyway, this has been a long rant, I'm not saying we can solve the problem overnight, but there has been no political will at all to resolve the problem (and I do feel that dividing Maharashtra will not work, it will create more bureaucracy). Our politicians are addicted to cities and their constituents illiteracy and lack of access to information. All they want is their white powder and their nice cars.
The picture is of a village called Bhadumri in Yavatmal district. Three farmers had committed suicide in this village to cover their losses (the biggest loss being Rs 35,000 - this while industrialists get away with hundreds of crores) and so that their families could get the one lakh compensation. The village had no primary health centre, but did have a primary school and it was around 150km south of Nagpur about 30km off NH-7. But, let me assure you of one thing it was desperately poor - not as bad as village in eastern UP or Bihar, but comparted to western Maharashtra (where Sharad Pawar, incidentally Union Agriculture Minister diverts his sugar money and Mumbai's taxes) this was pathetic. Oh, and those electricity lines barely carry any power, they only have power at best for six hours a day.
On another note - it will be one year (tomorrow) since I installed Statcounter - almost 77,000 pageloads and over 45,000 unique hits to this blog in under a year. I'm rather impressed with those numbers. Anyway, have a great weekend, and be sure to pray for the families of those farmers who killed themselves.
And best of luck to the last 16 teams in the WC Finals.
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