Heavy cotton

Following suicides by cotton farmers in various parts of the country, the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Delhi, the National Commission on Farmers and the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, organised a one-day meet. Institutional, social and technological problems were debated. Here's a cross-section of views

Published: Tuesday 15 August 2006

Heavy cotton

The first consultation of the National Commission on Farmers was on cotton, where we brought together the farmer and the user. Our aim was that everyone in the cotton sector should prosper.

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M S Swaminathan
National Commission on Farmers
But today, maximum numbers of farmer suicides are in cotton. On the other hand, the textile industry is happy because the multi-fibre arrangement has ended and there are new opportunities. There is something wrong with public policy.

Since small farmers are involved in cotton farming, the economics will not work, unless the productivity is increased. Research must ensure that farmers in rainfed areas benefit. So, the challenge is to magnify the power of very small producers through collectives. We also need to change our import-export policies so that this linkage improves.

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Vijay Jawandhia
Nagpur-based farmer leader;
one of the founders of Shetkari Sangathana
When you compare our yields with China, the us or some other countries, please factor in other aspects as well. Check the agricultural inputs in these countries, the economic protection that's accorded to farmers and then compare them with those provided by our government.

The problem in the cotton trade is that the industry, and not the farmers, dictate prices and policies. There have been instances when international prices were high and cotton exports were banned and when global prices came down, imports were liberalised.

I want to explain why suicides by cotton farmers were noticed after 1994. That was the time when the World Trade Organization regime started. The rupee was devalued, petroleum prices increased. In globalisation's first phase, our low-cost economy became a high-cost economy. The fifth-pay commission saved our salaried class. But no commission was set up to increase remuneration for farmers.

Your (background) paper has rightly cited the example of China. We follow Chinese policies in almost every area. But why don't we provide the kind of protectionist measures China provides to its cotton farmers? We appreciate that textile prices have to be competitive, but not at the cost of the farmer.

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C D Mayee Chairman,
Agricultural Scientists’ Recruitment Board
I 'm a cotton farmer's son from Vidarbha. I was completely against the monopoly procurement scheme. At one time the government bought at Rs 2,500 per 100 kg and suddenly brought the price down to Rs 1,750, leaving the farmers at the mercy of traders. This increased suicides. Between cotton and sugarcane, the only difference is that 65 per cent of cotton is grown in drylands while all sugarcane land is irrigated. In Vidarbha, the situation is even more precarious since only 3 per cent of the area is irrigated. If the government applies the same policies to sugarcane farmers as it has done to cotton farmers, they will also commit suicide.

While talking about the research agenda, too, we need to be very critical. For example, is their any necessity for the public sector to develop Bt genes? Or, for that matter, hybrids? We have the same old hybridisation programme, the same fertiliser agenda.

Down to EarthGujarat’s productivity has increased from just over 175 kg per hectare (ha) in 2000-2001 to more than 722 kg per ha in 2005-2006, the highest in the country. If we all accept that the so-called illegal Bt has worked this wonder, which has made Gujarat’s farmer wealthier by Rs 5,000 crores, why are we banning Navbharat-151 (the strain that brought about the cotton revolution in Gujarat), while releasing varieties that farmers grow to commit suicide.
N P Mehta
Cotton breeder, who developed world’s first cotton hybrid and was instrumental in developing Navbharat-151
Down to EarthThe cotton requirement for a shirt is 5 to 20 grammes, so paying a higher price to the farmer won’t really hit the textile industry. In fact, with increased exports more profit can be earned and shared.

Rajeev Baruah
Bio-Dynamic Association of India

Our research agenda has not changed in the last 20 years. We need drastic changes now.

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G V Ramanjaneyulu
Executive director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture
Every country will have a technology policy that suits its conditions, its affordability. But we don't have that kind of system. We copied technology but not the regulatory systems, accountability systems or support systems. If us $4 billion subsidy is needed for 25,000 farmers to produce cotton worth $3 billion, the country's government provides that sum.

But in India, 16 million farmers producing cotton get hardly us $10 million in subsidies. How can they adopt the same technology? This is the fundamental question. Today, the shirt I am wearing or the food you eat -- everything is subsidised by the farmer.

This is a problem we need to address. It is the main reason for the crisis. In the last 15 years, the agricultural department has been centred on input industry development.

All the research has been focussed on developing external inputs. All support systems of the government are encapsulated in marketable products; not for those people who use their own resources.

This problem is something we need to look at.

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Bhagirath Choudhary
National coordinator, International Service for Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications
Bt has been successful in increasing production in India. For example, it was said in the 10th Plan that India would produce 230 lakh bales of cotton in 2007, which we have already crossed. This proves the benefit of Bt.

Besides, our quality of cotton has improved in recent years and international buyers have shown a lot of interest in us. In 2002-2003, cotton price was discounted by 5 to 6 per cent due to poor quality.

Price is a very important issue. This year we are ready with 58 hybrids. This will bring more competition and will reduce the price of seed. The example of Gujarat and Punjab is important. Despite not using legal Bt cotton, these states have done well. And states like Karnataka, which are not resorting to Bt, are low in the productivity table.

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R B Singh
Member, National Commission on Farmers
There should be a single national bio-security umbrella for regulation. We have asked for Rs1,000 crore with which we intend to strengthen testing abilities for food safety, bio-safety, environmental safety, soil safety and other issues.

We must increase the Cotton Corporation of India's (cci's) role in managing a price fluctuation fund. It must also ensure payments to farmers are based purely on staple length.

Import duty should be increased from 10 per cent to 30 per cent. We have also asked for export facilitation and including storage facilities pre-export. The cost should be borne by the government to subsidise farmers.

Down to EarthWe have to look at the plant-machine relationship. We have tried to change the plant to fit the needs of the machine and not vice-versa. The policy is based on the fact that Richard Arkwright’s ginning machine (and later ones) was based on varieties that came from America. They were completely unsuitable for the varieties being grown in India.
Shambhu Prasad
Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar
Down to EarthIf farmers find best quality inputs provided by the best companies, they prosper. But, due to a poor regulatory mechanism, spurious seeds reach and fail them. Quality inputs from reputed manufacturers are an answer.
Devraj Arya
Manager (regulatory affairs), Monsanto India Ltd

Down to Earth

Jaideep Hardiker
Nagpur-based journalist
While calculating cost of cultivation, we must not forget the variation in the interest rate charged for different kinds of finance. For example, in Vidarbha if somebody has taken a loan from a moneylender the interest rate he has to pay annually is 100 per cent. Even cooperatives charge very high interest.

Moreover, farmers in Vidarbha have no choice of inputs, since the input dealer is also his moneylender. Whatever the input dealer offers has to be accepted. This should be kept in mind while planning improvements in input quality.

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M L Madan
National Academy of Agricultural Sciences
Nowadays, we are prescribing Israeli technology for Vidarbha cotton farmers, where we have the smallest amount of water going into the roots of the cotton plant. A lot of money has been spent on getting an exposure to the technology. It has been promised that production will go up to 4,500 kg per hectare. The Israeli technology works when about 300-400 mm of water is available for the plant. But unfortunately both in eastern and western Vidarbha, rainfall is between 300 mm to about 1,100 mm per annum. So even if you deliver small quantities of water to the root of the plant there is so much extra water available that weeds overtake the plant. So how will you get a yield of above 4,500 kg? We need to understand the requirements of the agro-climatic conditions first and then decide on the best technology.

There are other factors. cci should re-start big-time, corruption-free procurement. There is a serious problem in the way cotton is procured from the farmer. Firstly, the farmer sells his produce to middlemen or traders who hoard the cotton and later sell it to the procurement agency, because the farmer doesn't have holding capacity. Secondly, at the procurement centre his good produce is also paid less at the behest of corrupt officials. Thirdly, if a farmer grows desi non-hybrids of a sustainable variety, the procurer does not pay him.

Even in the case of subsidies, the money goes to industry (fertiliser, drip irrigation) and not the farmer. Even though cotton is an agricultural commodity, it is never treated like one. Between the raw material and the final product there is a vast escalation in price but all of it goes to industry, while with many other commodities, farmers and middlemen share.

Industry is very lucky. It gets all the attention and subsidy from the government. At first, it manages to import cotton at much lesser duty and, secondly, earns from value-added exports. For the farmer, only minimum support price ( msp ) is paid, which is much less than the cost of cultivation. cci must procure the cotton at remunerative price and the profit from industry must be used for paying back the farmers.

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Surbhi Mittal
Fellow (agriculture & trade),
Indian Council for Research in International Economic Relations
Cotton farmers' income has to be increased. There are two solutions: productivity has to go up or the price of their produce has to increase. Domestic cotton prices today are governed by international prices. So, domestic prices won't go up if countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (oecd) don't remove subsidies.

According to an icrier study that is to be published soon, if oecd subsidies are eliminated or reduced by 50 per cent, international cotton prices can go up by 37 per cent to 50 per cent. As a result of which domestic prices could go up by 10 per cent to 15 per cent. The net gains to small and marginal farmers (with landholding less than 2 ha) would be us $1,800 per ha (labour wages not considered).

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D K Nair

Confederation of Indian Textile Industry
Subsidise the farmer in the process of production (by giving subsidies on inputs), rather than after production. We all accept msp doesn't work.

The problem with man-made fibre in India is that a few people are dictating their price, which is uncompetitive and is not increasing its share in exports and eating into cotton's domestic market. Once the price of man-made fibre goes down and becomes a competitive export item, cotton as a source of textile can gain more.

What we need to understand is that additional duty of any kind helps as long as the imported product is not meant for export production. If the imported product is meant for domestic production and consumption, then it is fine.

Production in terms of quantity is not a big concern. This is because the textile industry consumes 21.5 million bales while the actual production is 24.4 million bales. The real problem is with quality.

With the increased growth of textile industry, poor cotton quality could be a constraint.

Down to EarthToday there are close to 60 hybrids, some specifically released for rain-fed conditions. But it’s true that the earlier varieties didn’t work for rain-fed areas. We need to look into appropriateness. Bt cotton cultivation is very expensive. But it’s not effective against jassid infestation. So in the case of such infestations the farmer is at a loss. So we recommend that Bt must have genetic capabilities to fight other diseases if the prices are to remain high.

G L Karihaloo Project Co-ordinator,
Asia-Pacific Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology
Down to EarthAs a part of research agenda, we must develop technologies to help farmers to decide the right input. It is more important because this unique problem of spurious seed and pesticides is limited to India only. As much as 38-40 per cent of all legal seeds sold in Maharashtra are fake.
Keshav Raj Kranthi Senior scientist,
Central Institute for Cotton Research
Down to EarthInnumerable small and marginal farmers don’t know who is deciding what and for whom. The government has no agenda on genetically modified GM crops. Unfortunately, GM crop research is in the hands of the private sector, as a result of which the government can only facilitate release not control it. And farmers are the only losers.
Divya Raghunathan
Campaigner on genetic engineering,
Down to EarthFor cotton farmers, no technology will work as long as he’s not getting the right price. There is no minimum guaranteed price but only minimum support price, with no promise to buy all their produce. In the case of tobacco, minimum guarantee works, because industry and scientists are working together. There should be a statutory minimum guarantee.
M S Chari
Managing trustee, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture

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