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Film >> Cotton for my shroud • by Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl • Produced by Top Quark Films • 81.30 min HDV Documentary 2011
FOR week upon week, for months and years on end, farmers have been taking their own lives, adding up to a horrifying figure of over a quarter million suicides in the last 16 years. This is described as “the largest recorded wave of suicides in human history”. Most of the farmers who kill themselves are cotton cultivators and sadly, much of it occurs in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra where cotton once reigned supreme as white gold. Although the country is now familiar with these grim statistics, there has been very little media focus on the reasons that have driven farmers to this grim end despite some landmark studies by economists.
It is to answer the overwhelming question of why farmers continue to cultivate cotton in the tough terrain of Vidarbha that documentary filmmakers Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl made two visits to Vidarbha in 2006, once at the time of sowing and the other at the time of harvest. What they portray in Cotton for my shroud is the usual story of neglect and exploitation of rural people, particularly the tribal population. Neglect by a callous bureaucracy and exploitation by greedy agriculture input companies who are on a roll in the region selling farmers genetically modified Bt cotton seeds, which are not suitable for the heavily rain-dependent districts of Vidarbha.
The early part of the documentary may tend to flag when villages complain about the lack of potable drinking water and basic facilities like schools and primary healthcare. But once Saxena and Bahl settle down to tell the story of the killer cotton crop it becomes a gripping and heart-breaking tale. They meet families where suicides have taken place even when the loan was as little as Rs 27,000, families where a scheduled wedding takes place while the body of its breadwinner lies in the morgue. That is the fate of village folk who know any postponement of a wedding can lead to further tragedy.
Talking to government officials and activists such as Kishore Tiwari who heads the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, the film weaves together a horrific tale. Primarily it is the exploitation that begins when farmers are sold expensive Bt seeds that cost as much as Rs 4,000 for a one-acre (0.4 hectare) field compared with as little as Rs 30 less than a decade ago when farmers were using their saved seeds or varieties bought from the market instead of costly hybrids. There is also the cost of other inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides which skyrocketed. And credit for sowing too is at a premium. The ultimate betrayal occurs when farmers take their produce to the market and are fobbed off with prices that are way below the minimum support price fixed by the government.
Bahl and Saxena describe themselves as ex-journalists and yet it is their journalistic coverage of the killing of a farmer in Wani in police firing that brings together the last strands of a powerful narrative. In December 2006, Bahl tracks the sequence of events that led to the farmer’s death. Around 2,500 trucks and bullock carts had waited three days at the marketing yard to sell their precious cotton, but cotton inspectors and traders were summarily rejecting the crop as substandard, unable to cope with huge supplies coming daily. That’s when frustrated farmers went on the rampage, setting fire to the Wani market yard office.
The most interesting part of the film to me was the case of Phoolsingh Pawar. Till the death of his relative Dhansingh Pawar who commits suicide when his crop fails and he cannot repay creditor, Phoolsingh has not tried Bt cotton although he is tempted by a few success stories that he has heard of. But a year later the filmmakers are in for a shock. They find Phoolsingh has also gone in for Bt cotton but with disastrous results: yields are a miserable two quintals (1 quintal=100 kg) per acre although the seed company had dandled the figure of 25 quintals before him. Worse, the drop in global prices has made the prices collapse in Maharashtra.
The film, replete with stark images of widows and devastated family members, fleshes out the stories behind the statistics of suicides that no longer make news in mainstream media outlets. It also makes some vitals points that explain the suicides phenomenon in India. Cotton turns into a shroud primarily for small farmers who have given up growing food crops in favour of cash crops and have no cushion to fall back upon unlike the larger farmers who can use their land as collateral for much-needed credit. A significant reason is that any kind of non-agricultural employment has disappeared from the region.
Cotton for my shroud contends that this huge wave of farmer deaths cannot be characterised any longer as suicides but qualifies as genocide under UN rules. One couldn’t agree more.