Worming up for losses
Pink bollworm infestation threatens yield, yet again
It is early August. Every year around this period, cotton growing farmers in the Marathwada region are counting number of young bolls grown on the plant and are estimating the possible yield. This year however, they are counting the number of worms present inside the boll.
There has been yet another malicious attack on the cotton plant in the Vidarbha and Marathwada region of Maharashtra, causing concern among farmers of the region. Nizampur is a village in the Arvi Tehsil of the Wardha district. On July 27, cotton farmer Suresh Bhanage from this village, observed his crop and found pink worms attacking the cotton plants. He reported the existence of the pest to the agriculture department. The expert team visiting the farm found that the pink bollworm has resurfaced again.
A farmer shows the bollworm infested cotton boll in the Marathwada region. Photo- Angad Taur
Narayan Jagtap, is a cotton farmer from the Pandepokhari village in Jalna district. He had put in an effort to raise the four acre cotton field early this year by sowing seeds of BT-II technology on 15 May, in the irrigated land fed by the local well.
“I had put all my effort to sow this season. The germination was good. I have used organic and chemical fertilisers in balance, like every year. Now the plant looks green, fleshy and full with bolls, but the pink warm has affected it adversely.” says Jagtap helplessly showing the uprooted, green, well grown plants in his hand.
Jagtap has terminated his entire 4 acre hard grown cotton crop field fearing more possible loss in the future.
Looking at the black soiled empty field he narrates, “After seeing the pink worm attack, I tried some pesticide but there was no use. I don’t want to again risk thousands of rupees and hard work for an uncertain yield. It was a tough decision to destroy the four acre cotton which could earn me a livelihood this year. But I had no option.”
Jagtap had gone to ask the concerned agriculture officials for assistance, but they turned out to offer mere advice and sympathy.
Similar instances of the pink bollworm attacks have been reported in Nanded, Hingoli and Parbhani, Akola districts and several parts of the Vidarbha region which is the major cotton growing belt in Maharashtra.
Aaba Sagde, a farmer from the Ganeshpur village close to Selu Tehsil in Parbhani, shares his concern saying, “There is a complete lack of assistance and assurance from the officials on controlling this pest. There is no any communication about any advanced methods to check its spread,” and adding, “There is chaos. Some are terminating the crop field while others are applying any random pesticides referred by the agro shop vendor to control and moderate the attack. I am confused what to do.”
The cotton farmers have been facing the Mealybug, White Flies, Mirids, Thrips and other pests harming the cash crop. But the pink bollworm is an unstoppable onslaught and they don’t know how to control it.
Farmer show their bollworm infested cotton crop in the Marathwada region. Photo- Angad Taur
BT (Bacillus Thuringiensis) cotton is the only genetically modified (GM) crop allowed for the commercial cultivation in the country currently apart from the undertrial Mustard. The authenticity of the BT seed has now become a critical issue amidst the attack of the pink worm, and so is its price.
For the 2018 Kharip season, the maximum retail price of BT cotton seed has been fixed at Rs 740 per packet. Before this regulation, each packet of around 450 grams, would cost more than Rs 800 until last year.
The trait value (royalty fee) paid by a domestic seed producing companies to technology developer Monsanto Mahyco Biotech India limited has been reduced to Rs 39 per packet from Rs 49 per packet.
Dnyaneshwar Solanke owns a shop selling agriculture products and supplementary goods at Ashti in Partur tehsil of Jalna district. When asked about the possible cause of the eruption of infestation, he says, “What we know is just the battle between companies for the patent of the bollgard technology. The government regulation in deciding the MRP of cotton seed packet has brought some relief to farmers but what about the quality of the bollgard protection.”
Dnyaneshwar, a trader by profession is also the farmer owning five acre land in Karhala village, where he has not grown cotton this year, fearing the pest attack. He shares an experience about farmers usually visiting his shop, “ It’s a trend that our farmers need to buy the BT cotton seed every year, believing blindly on an aggressive advertisement campaign by seed producing companies and shopkeepers like us. What we know is nothing different than farmers. At my level, being ethical in the business, I have refrained myself from not selling a single packet of BT cotton to farmers considering this outburst of the pest. But what about others. Neither shopkeepers take the responsibility, nor the companies.”
In 1996. Monsanto introduced the technology. The modified cotton seeds to be resistant to the feared crop-eating bollworms. Immediately after two years, in 1998, the technology giant had tied the knot with India based Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (mahyco) to launch ‘Bollgard’ branded seeds in India.
It took four years for Mansanto Mahyco Biotech India limited get the green signal. In 2002, It started its full fledged operations, producing BT cotton, the first genetically modified crop in India.
Journalist and writer Meena Menon and activist researcher Uzramma, have traced the journey of cotton cultivation in India. In their book ‘A Frayed History: The journey of cotton in India’, they write, “Monsanto has had an aggressive media campaign and has, in interactions with farmers, asked them to increase the number of cotton plants per acre. In a video recorded by US journalist Trevor Aaronson, who travelled with a Monsanto team in Vidarbha in June 2009, Monsanto officials can be seen interacting with small groups of farmers, promoting Bollgard II [the second generation Bollgard technology].”(The Caravan, July 2017)
When it comes to Genetically Modified crops in India, the views and counter views are common. While BT cotton has become popular in the absence of other choices, farmers are sometimes forced to purchase BT cotton varieties at a high price, when the companies, distributors and traders allegedly make artificial shortage and sell the stock in the black market.
“Every year, companies, with help of an aggressive campaigns for their brands, projected their product to be more popular, effective and resistant to the pests. They are treated as special or exclusive and sold unnecessarily at a higher cost like a bidding process. Traders also treat them as something reserved for their premium farmer customers. It results in increased prices of the seed packet, sometimes going above Rs 1500 per unit.” Says Mohan Waghmare, from Karhala in Jalna district who owns an 8 acre cotton field which is both irrigated and rain fed.
Cases were filed against Mahyco by the government in April 2012, for ‘cheating and criminal breach of trust’ in 18 districts. Mahyco allegedly failed to deliver the promised quota of a single variety of BT cotton seeds during the 2011 Kharip season. Mahyco went to the court and got an anticipatory bail for its directors and a stay on the operation of the FIR.
The confrontation and battle between three other seed producing companies with Monsanto over royalties owed for the use of the seed’s gene based technology is yet another issue.
In April this year, a bench of justice Ravindra Bhat and Yogesh Khanna in Delhi High court had partially allowed the counter claim of three Indian seed companies that Monsanto does not have a patent for its BT cotton seed. Indie Journal tried to contact the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. (Mahyco), Nuzividu seeds ltd and Ajeet seeds pvt ltd through email but they did not respond.
India is the second largest producer and consumer of cotton. As per the figures from the Directorate of Economics and Statics, the area under BT cotton which was 29,000 hectares in 2002-03 has increased to about 118.35 lakh hectares in 2014-15.
Last year, the textile ministry had estimated that the cotton farmers in Maharashtra were set to lose nearly 13% of their output. However industry sources said that one third of the total sown area was under the attack of the pink bollworm. The Maharashtra state government has sanctioned Rs 1161 crore as a compensation towards the losses reported by farmers due pink bollworm in 2017-18.
The demand for the financial assistance and compensation was Rs 25,000 per hectare, as raised by the opposition parties in the Maharashtra assembly. However, the government has come out with an offering of Rs 6,800 for non irrigated cotton crop and Rs 13,500 for an irrigated Cotton crop attacked by bollworm pest.
Ram Bilhare who stands in the queue at the Jalna Jilha Madhyawarti Sahakari Bank to get his compensation amount, the meagre financial aid given by the government as assistance to the farmers who were hit by the pink bollworm pest last year.
“All are trying different tricks just to control this pink bollworm attack. I should not terminate my current flourished but infested crop. I want to try the insect control kit (Good insects which help in controlling the pest attack) which has been recently introduced in the market and for a price ranging from Rs 70 to Rs 100 per unit. It is the last resort for me.”
Ram Bilhare has to purchase the bollworm controlling unit (Pheromone Trap for Pink Boll Worm control) from the same money he has just received from the bank as compensation for the losses he had suffered due to the pink bollworm erupted last year. The liability of the failure of the BT crop however, remains unassigned and unanswered.