Take the pesticide problem. Although cotton occupies only 5 per cent of India's agricultural land, it accounts for 54 per cent of pesticide use. Andhra Pradesh cotton growers use more than 30 per cent of the country's pesticides and almost 70 per cent of pesticides used for growing cotton. "Since the advent of the green revolution we have been surviving on a high pesticide dosage. We adopted alien varieties, which brought new diseases and to control them we resorted to excessive use of pesticides," says Y S Ramakrishna, director, Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture. The pattern of pesticide use that is followed has led to pests developing immunity, which in turn leads to even greater use of these chemicals. It's a vicious upward spiral that increases the cost of farming, adversely affects soil quality and, therefore, yields. This is one of the major reasons for suicides in Andhra Pradesh and Punjab.
The first major cotton crop failure occurred in the mid-1980s by the whitefly bug. The synthetic pyrethroids class of pesticides failed. It was then that farmers started using alternative pesticides like endosulphan, quinolphos, monocrotophos and chloripyriphos. But even these failed. In the mid-1990s, various varieties of the bollworm pest -- American bollworm, pink bollworm and spotted bollworm -- arrived. The devastation was spectacular. The epidemic claimed more than 10,000 lives countrywide. The pest was contained only when Bt cotton came into play. But Bt is resistant only to American bollworm. New low-volume pesticides, such as Avaunt, Tracer and Imidachloprid, which are supposed to be environment-friendly, have been introduced. They are seven to10 times more expensive than the earlier ones. But the future is uncertain with the advent of new varieties of pests.
Cotton is the only genetically modified (gm) crop to be cultivated in India. gm cotton accounted for an estimated one-third of the total cotton acreage in 2005-2006, which also includes illegal Bt cotton, mostly in Gujarat, Punjab and Rajasthan, where the yields are the highest. But the exorbitant price of Bt seeds and royalties are areas of concern (see box: Grey areas). Besides, they do not always fit into Indian conditions. Scientists also believe a variant that suits Indian conditions must be developed soon.
Bt cotton can definitely help farmers, as it reduces the incidence of American bollworm, says B N Khadi, director, Central Institute for Cotton Research (cicr). The initial Bt cotton uses the Cry1Ac gene, which has been brought to India by its us- based patent holder Monsanto. Its effectiveness has always been under scrutiny. Studies by geneticist Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign found the first two varieties of Bt cotton, mech-162 and mech-184, introduced by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech, were unfit for Indian conditions. The study found that Bt cotton required higher inputs like water and fertilisers and was not effective against pink bollworm, the second most prevalent cotton pest. Another recent study by K R Kranthi of cicr found that the first Bt varieties sold by mmb and Rasi Seeds were not effective against bollworm pests. The study further said the Bt gene was 10 times less effective in the case of American bollworm, India's main pest, compared to the tobacco budworm, the major cotton pest in the us . "Though we assume these to be the best possible seeds available, we can do better," says S Nandeswar, a scientist at cicr. (see 'Cotton tangle', Down To Earth, Aug 30, 2005)
When Monsanto and the us department of agriculture developed Bt cotton, they considered pest incidence, existing varieties and agro-climatic situation in the us. The gm variant chosen was Cocker-512. Considering Indian conditions, this variant is not the best possible option, and second, when Bt hybrids were developed in India, Cocker-512 was crossed with Indian strains. This reduced the effectiveness of pesticidal toxins. Given India's vast biodiversity, the problem of introducing gm seeds becomes very complicated. Since Bt seeds were developed without taking this diversity into account, its success was limited.
After constant criticism of the initially introduced Bt varieties, Monsanto came up with Bollgard- II , an improved variety. "This is 10 times better than the earlier version and it includes a new gene Cry2Ab," says Ranjana Smetacek, director, corporate affairs, Monsanto. Senior scientists at cicr agree. "This is a better technology, no doubt, but the question is if they can do this today why not earlier," adds Sahai. But problems remain. The long gestation period involved in developing new seeds is one of them, Smetacek says.
American cotton -- Gossypium hirsutum -- and its hybrid varieties today cover 70 per cent of the cultivated area in India while only 10 per cent of the area is under the Indian variety, Gossypium herbaceum . But American cotton is not suitable for Indian situations, which leads to frequent crop failures. It has brought numerous diseases, including the notorious American bollworm. It also requires at least three times more water and other inputs and its yield plummets after three years, unlike Indian cotton, which gives the same level of yield for 30 years. Although not suitable for Indian conditions, the long staple American cotton is popular because machines to gin and spin Indian cotton are not readily available.
The technology problem dates back to the mid-eighteenth century when Richard Arkwright invented the first spinning machine based on the staple length of American cotton. All machines developed subsequently were based on the same model. After the us civil war, when Lancashire started importing cotton in a big way from India, the mills found Indian cotton unsuitable. Lesser staple length meant that the fibre broke frequently. To avoid the high costs that were likely to go into fresh innovation, the colonial government introduced and promoted American cotton in the country. But these attempts were unsuccessful because it could not cope with Indian conditions.
Although American cotton could not replace Indian cotton, the Britishers replaced the best Indian varieties and succeeded in introducing it in some regions. Ironically, while after partition only 3 per cent of area under cotton was covered by American cotton, it has now risen to 70 per cent. To buck this trend, the technology issue has to be addressed.
A roller-ginning machine best gins Indian cotton, while the charkha is the best spinning option. A roller-ginner is slow and labour-intensive, but produces fabric of better strength, as fibres don't break very often. In the wake of increasing textile exports more centralised ginning is preferred. The charkha is best suited for spinning Indian cotton varieties. Although a time-consuming process, spinning with the charkha could generate more employment by providing a decentralised system of manufacturing.
Unfortunately, after Gandhi few people have tried to promote the charkha or improve it technologically. One important innovation was the 'Amber Charkha', which was developed by a Gandhian, Bholanath, in the 1960s. In recent years, a novel initiative has been started by an ngo called Dastkar Andhra in Chirala village in Prakasham district of Andhra Pradesh. The village has adopted a decentralised system. A 62-year-old woman, Uzramma, leads a team of 41 spinners and weavers.
To facilitate this operation, Vortex, a private company, has designed and developed a machine that consists of an assembly of 21 motorised Amber charkas. The technology has been developed taking into account village-level factors like spinning small lots of cotton of variable quality, meeting the diversity of yarn specifications of small looms and availability of small and low capital costs," says L Kannan of Vortex, who designed the machine. This technology discards a large number of expensive steps like baling, transport of bales etc, says G V Ramanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad.
These are not the only problem areas in this sector.