Cotton farmers in northwest India were taken by surprise when, despite a pesticide blitzkrieg, the American bollworm devastated half their crops. Now, the farmers can't pay up the loans they took …

-- A SMALL, green caterpillar has proved to be the scourge of the 3 cotton-growing northwestern Indian states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. Over the past 2 years, the seemingly innocuous American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) has chewed its way into ripening bolls of cotton, destroying over half the cotton crop.

The cotton production in Haryana's Hissar and Sirsa districts, Rajasthan's Ganganagar district and Punjab's Firozpur, Faridkot and Bhatinda districts has dropped from more than 4.8 million bales in 1993 to about 2.9 million bales this year. The 3 states produce almost 50 per cent of India's 10 million bales of cotton and the drastic fall in production has had a sharp and immediate impact on cotton prices. Prices per quintal rose from Rs 900 at the start of the season in December to as much as Rs 2,000 just 2 months later.

The devastation has had an enormous social and economic impact on farmers, farm labour, cotton traders and the flourishing ginning industry. Says Mohinder Rinwa, an affluent farmer of Abohar in the Firozpur district of Punjab, "Earlier, it was the terrorists who demanded a share of the crop. But what they looted was only a fraction of what the American sundhi (worm) has taken away. Although the government has rid Punjab of terrorists, it has yet to take steps to rid us of this creature, which is an even bigger threat to the nation."
Hale worms, heavy debts The bollworm first gained notoriety in 1987, when it destroyed cotton crops in Andhra Pradesh's Guntur and Prakasam districts, impoverishing thousands and driving farmers to indebtedness and, in some cases, even suicide (see box Driven to despair). In the northwestern cotton belt, the pattern of crop failure, debt and disillusionment is becoming all too familiar.

When the American sundhi first struck in the north in September 1992, the farmers borrowed money and bombarded the worm with pesticides. But the worm showed up again this year and the farmers responded with another pesticide blitz, blissfully unaware of how ineffective it would be. Result: worms hale, heavy debt.

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are selling off their cattle to discharge their liabilities. A distressed Phul Singh, a small landholder from Budain village in the Jind district of Haryana, sold his only buffalo to recover the amount he had spent on pesticides. He said, "I spent so much on pesticides because I felt that if this crop failed, my family would starve to death and I would be unable to get my daughter married and maintain my position in the panchayat." In Haryana's Hissar district, Kitab Singh Koth of Kothkalan village was forced to sell his livestock to repay part of his Rs 20,000 debt.

For some farmers, the only escape is sulpha, a mixture of tobacco and charas (an extract of cannabis). H P Singh Gandhi and Balbir Singh, who run a de-addiction clinic in Sirsa, report that the number of young men who visited their clinic in the past 2 years has increased. Says Gandhi, "These men consume cough syrups, which, taken in large quantities, have a calming effect." He adds, "Of late, youngsters have begun taking pain relieving ointments orally. This, they feel, soothes the pain of the mind."

Several farmers are emphatic they will never cultivate cotton again. Said Jalalpur Kalan's Satbir Singh, "Nobody will grow a crop that has failed farmers twice."

Besides the farmers, labourers have also suffered. The fall in cotton production means meagre earnings. Many small farmers plucked the cotton themselves because the harvest was too small to engage labour. To compensate for the loss of income, labourers have resorted to thieving. Many farmers in the villages along the Hisar-Fatehabad road complained that landless Harijans labourers had stolen tubewell motors. Hissar deputy commissioner Sanjiv Kumar says, "One out of every 3 complaints I deal with these days pertains to the cutting of trees by the villagers." A SMALL, green caterpillar has proved to be the scourge of the 3 cotton-growing northwestern Indian states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. Over the past 2 years, the seemingly innocuous American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) has chewed its way into ripening bolls of cotton, destroying over half the cotton crop.

The cotton production in Haryana's Hissar and Sirsa districts, Rajasthan's Ganganagar district and Punjab's Firozpur, Faridkot and Bhatinda districts has dropped from more than 4.8 million bales in 1993 to about 2.9 million bales this year. The 3 states produce almost 50 per cent of India's 10 million bales of cotton and the drastic fall in production has had a sharp and immediate impact on cotton prices. Prices per quintal rose from Rs 900 at the start of the season in December to as much as Rs 2,000 just 2 months later.

The devastation has had an enormous social and economic impact on farmers, farm labour, cotton traders and the flourishing ginning industry. Says Mohinder Rinwa, an affluent farmer of Abohar in the Firozpur district of Punjab, "Earlier, it was the terrorists who demanded a share of the crop. But what they looted was only a fraction of what the American sundhi (worm) has taken away. Although the government has rid Punjab of terrorists, it has yet to take steps to rid us of this creature, which is an even bigger threat to the nation."
Hale worms, heavy debts The bollworm first gained notoriety in 1987, when it destroyed cotton crops in Andhra Pradesh's Guntur and Prakasam districts, impoverishing thousands and driving farmers to indebtedness and, in some cases, even suicide (see box Driven to despair). In the northwestern cotton belt, the pattern of crop failure, debt and disillusionment is becoming all too familiar.

When the American sundhi first struck in the north in September 1992, the farmers borrowed money and bombarded the worm with pesticides. But the worm showed up again this year and the farmers responded with another pesticide blitz, blissfully unaware of how ineffective it would be. Result: worms hale, heavy debt.

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are selling off their cattle to discharge their liabilities. A distressed Phul Singh, a small landholder from Budain village in the Jind district of Haryana, sold his only buffalo to recover the amount he had spent on pesticides. He said, "I spent so much on pesticides because I felt that if this crop failed, my family would starve to death and I would be unable to get my daughter married and maintain my position in the panchayat." In Haryana's Hissar district, Kitab Singh Koth of Kothkalan village was forced to sell his livestock to repay part of his Rs 20,000 debt.

For some farmers, the only escape is sulpha, a mixture of tobacco and charas (an extract of cannabis). H P Singh Gandhi and Balbir Singh, who run a de-addiction clinic in Sirsa, report that the number of young men who visited their clinic in the past 2 years has increased. Says Gandhi, "These men consume cough syrups, which, taken in large quantities, have a calming effect." He adds, "Of late, youngsters have begun taking pain relieving ointments orally. This, they feel, soothes the pain of the mind."

Several farmers are emphatic they will never cultivate cotton again. Said Jalalpur Kalan's Satbir Singh, "Nobody will grow a crop that has failed farmers twice."

Besides the farmers, labourers have also suffered. The fall in cotton production means meagre earnings. Many small farmers plucked the cotton themselves because the harvest was too small to engage labour. To compensate for the loss of income, labourers have resorted to thieving. Many farmers in the villages along the Hisar-Fatehabad road complained that landless Harijans labourers had stolen tubewell motors. Hissar deputy commissioner Sanjiv Kumar says, "One out of every 3 complaints I deal with these days pertains to the cutting of trees by the villagers." A SMALL, green caterpillar has proved to be the scourge of the 3 cotton-growing northwestern Indian states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. Over the past 2 years, the seemingly innocuous American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) has chewed its way into ripening bolls of cotton, destroying over half the cotton crop.

The cotton production in Haryana's Hissar and Sirsa districts, Rajasthan's Ganganagar district and Punjab's Firozpur, Faridkot and Bhatinda districts has dropped from more than 4.8 million bales in 1993 to about 2.9 million bales this year. The 3 states produce almost 50 per cent of India's 10 million bales of cotton and the drastic fall in production has had a sharp and immediate impact on cotton prices. Prices per quintal rose from Rs 900 at the start of the season in December to as much as Rs 2,000 just 2 months later.

The devastation has had an enormous social and economic impact on farmers, farm labour, cotton traders and the flourishing ginning industry. Says Mohinder Rinwa, an affluent farmer of Abohar in the Firozpur district of Punjab, "Earlier, it was the terrorists who demanded a share of the crop. But what they looted was only a fraction of what the American sundhi (worm) has taken away. Although the government has rid Punjab of terrorists, it has yet to take steps to rid us of this creature, which is an even bigger threat to the nation."
Hale worms, heavy debts The bollworm first gained notoriety in 1987, when it destroyed cotton crops in Andhra Pradesh's Guntur and Prakasam districts, impoverishing thousands and driving farmers to indebtedness and, in some cases, even suicide (see box Driven to despair). In the northwestern cotton belt, the pattern of crop failure, debt and disillusionment is becoming all too familiar.

When the American sundhi first struck in the north in September 1992, the farmers borrowed money and bombarded the worm with pesticides. But the worm showed up again this year and the farmers responded with another pesticide blitz, blissfully unaware of how ineffective it would be. Result: worms hale, heavy debt.

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are selling off their cattle to discharge their liabilities. A distressed Phul Singh, a small landholder from Budain village in the Jind district of Haryana, sold his only buffalo to recover the amount he had spent on pesticides. He said, "I spent so much on pesticides because I felt that if this crop failed, my family would starve to death and I would be unable to get my daughter married and maintain my position in the panchayat." In Haryana's Hissar district, Kitab Singh Koth of Kothkalan village was forced to sell his livestock to repay part of his Rs 20,000 debt.

For some farmers, the only escape is sulpha, a mixture of tobacco and charas (an extract of cannabis). H P Singh Gandhi and Balbir Singh, who run a de-addiction clinic in Sirsa, report that the number of young men who visited their clinic in the past 2 years has increased. Says Gandhi, "These men consume cough syrups, which, taken in large quantities, have a calming effect." He adds, "Of late, youngsters have begun taking pain relieving ointments orally. This, they feel, soothes the pain of the mind."

Several farmers are emphatic they will never cultivate cotton again. Said Jalalpur Kalan's Satbir Singh, "Nobody will grow a crop that has failed farmers twice."

Besides the farmers, labourers have also suffered. The fall in cotton production means meagre earnings. Many small farmers plucked the cotton themselves because the harvest was too small to engage labour. To compensate for the loss of income, labourers have resorted to thieving. Many farmers in the villages along the Hisar-Fatehabad road complained that landless Harijans labourers had stolen tubewell motors. Hissar deputy commissioner Sanjiv Kumar says, "One out of every 3 complaints I deal with these days pertains to the cutting of trees by the villagers." A SMALL, green caterpillar has proved to be the scourge of the 3 cotton-growing northwestern Indian states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. Over the past 2 years, the seemingly innocuous American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) has chewed its way into ripening bolls of cotton, destroying over half the cotton crop.

The cotton production in Haryana's Hissar and Sirsa districts, Rajasthan's Ganganagar district and Punjab's Firozpur, Faridkot and Bhatinda districts has dropped from more than 4.8 million bales in 1993 to about 2.9 million bales this year. The 3 states produce almost 50 per cent of India's 10 million bales of cotton and the drastic fall in production has had a sharp and immediate impact on cotton prices. Prices per quintal rose from Rs 900 at the start of the season in December to as much as Rs 2,000 just 2 months later.

The devastation has had an enormous social and economic impact on farmers, farm labour, cotton traders and the flourishing ginning industry. Says Mohinder Rinwa, an affluent farmer of Abohar in the Firozpur district of Punjab, "Earlier, it was the terrorists who demanded a share of the crop. But what they looted was only a fraction of what the American sundhi (worm) has taken away. Although the government has rid Punjab of terrorists, it has yet to take steps to rid us of this creature, which is an even bigger threat to the nation."
Hale worms, heavy debts The bollworm first gained notoriety in 1987, when it destroyed cotton crops in Andhra Pradesh's Guntur and Prakasam districts, impoverishing thousands and driving farmers to indebtedness and, in some cases, even suicide (see box Driven to despair). In the northwestern cotton belt, the pattern of crop failure, debt and disillusionment is becoming all too familiar.

When the American sundhi first struck in the north in September 1992, the farmers borrowed money and bombarded the worm with pesticides. But the worm showed up again this year and the farmers responded with another pesticide blitz, blissfully unaware of how ineffective it would be. Result: worms hale, heavy debt.

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are selling off their cattle to discharge their liabilities. A distressed Phul Singh, a small landholder from Budain village in the Jind district of Haryana, sold his only buffalo to recover the amount he had spent on pesticides. He said, "I spent so much on pesticides because I felt that if this crop failed, my family would starve to death and I would be unable to get my daughter married and maintain my position in the panchayat." In Haryana's Hissar district, Kitab Singh Koth of Kothkalan village was forced to sell his livestock to repay part of his Rs 20,000 debt.

For some farmers, the only escape is sulpha, a mixture of tobacco and charas (an extract of cannabis). H P Singh Gandhi and Balbir Singh, who run a de-addiction clinic in Sirsa, report that the number of young men who visited their clinic in the past 2 years has increased. Says Gandhi, "These men consume cough syrups, which, taken in large quantities, have a calming effect." He adds, "Of late, youngsters have begun taking pain relieving ointments orally. This, they feel, soothes the pain of the mind."

Several farmers are emphatic they will never cultivate cotton again. Said Jalalpur Kalan's Satbir Singh, "Nobody will grow a crop that has failed farmers twice."

Besides the farmers, labourers have also suffered. The fall in cotton production means meagre earnings. Many small farmers plucked the cotton themselves because the harvest was too small to engage labour. To compensate for the loss of income, labourers have resorted to thieving. Many farmers in the villages along the Hisar-Fatehabad road complained that landless Harijans labourers had stolen tubewell motors. Hissar deputy commissioner Sanjiv Kumar says, "One out of every 3 complaints I deal with these days pertains to the cutting of trees by the villagers." A SMALL, green caterpillar has proved to be the scourge of the 3 cotton-growing northwestern Indian states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. Over the past 2 years, the seemingly innocuous American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) has chewed its way into ripening bolls of cotton, destroying over half the cotton crop.

The cotton production in Haryana's Hissar and Sirsa districts, Rajasthan's Ganganagar district and Punjab's Firozpur, Faridkot and Bhatinda districts has dropped from more than 4.8 million bales in 1993 to about 2.9 million bales this year. The 3 states produce almost 50 per cent of India's 10 million bales of cotton and the drastic fall in production has had a sharp and immediate impact on cotton prices. Prices per quintal rose from Rs 900 at the start of the season in December to as much as Rs 2,000 just 2 months later.

The devastation has had an enormous social and economic impact on farmers, farm labour, cotton traders and the flourishing ginning industry. Says Mohinder Rinwa, an affluent farmer of Abohar in the Firozpur district of Punjab, "Earlier, it was the terrorists who demanded a share of the crop. But what they looted was only a fraction of what the American sundhi (worm) has taken away. Although the government has rid Punjab of terrorists, it has yet to take steps to rid us of this creature, which is an even bigger threat to the nation."
Hale worms, heavy debts The bollworm first gained notoriety in 1987, when it destroyed cotton crops in Andhra Pradesh's Guntur and Prakasam districts, impoverishing thousands and driving farmers to indebtedness and, in some cases, even suicide (see box Driven to despair). In the northwestern cotton belt, the pattern of crop failure, debt and disillusionment is becoming all too familiar.

When the American sundhi first struck in the north in September 1992, the farmers borrowed money and bombarded the worm with pesticides. But the worm showed up again this year and the farmers responded with another pesticide blitz, blissfully unaware of how ineffective it would be. Result: worms hale, heavy debt.

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are selling off their cattle to discharge their liabilities. A distressed Phul Singh, a small landholder from Budain village in the Jind district of Haryana, sold his only buffalo to recover the amount he had spent on pesticides. He said, "I spent so much on pesticides because I felt that if this crop failed, my family would starve to death and I would be unable to get my daughter married and maintain my position in the panchayat." In Haryana's Hissar district, Kitab Singh Koth of Kothkalan village was forced to sell his livestock to repay part of his Rs 20,000 debt.

For some farmers, the only escape is sulpha, a mixture of tobacco and charas (an extract of cannabis). H P Singh Gandhi and Balbir Singh, who run a de-addiction clinic in Sirsa, report that the number of young men who visited their clinic in the past 2 years has increased. Says Gandhi, "These men consume cough syrups, which, taken in large quantities, have a calming effect." He adds, "Of late, youngsters have begun taking pain relieving ointments orally. This, they feel, soothes the pain of the mind."

Several farmers are emphatic they will never cultivate cotton again. Said Jalalpur Kalan's Satbir Singh, "Nobody will grow a crop that has failed farmers twice."

Besides the farmers, labourers have also suffered. The fall in cotton production means meagre earnings. Many small farmers plucked the cotton themselves because the harvest was too small to engage labour. To compensate for the loss of income, labourers have resorted to thieving. Many farmers in the villages along the Hisar-Fatehabad road complained that landless Harijans labourers had stolen tubewell motors. Hissar deputy commissioner Sanjiv Kumar says, "One out of every 3 complaints I deal with these days pertains to the cutting of trees by the villagers." A SMALL, green caterpillar has proved to be the scourge of the 3 cotton-growing northwestern Indian states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. Over the past 2 years, the seemingly innocuous American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) has chewed its way into ripening bolls of cotton, destroying over half the cotton crop.

The cotton production in Haryana's Hissar and Sirsa districts, Rajasthan's Ganganagar district and Punjab's Firozpur, Faridkot and Bhatinda districts has dropped from more than 4.8 million bales in 1993 to about 2.9 million bales this year. The 3 states produce almost 50 per cent of India's 10 million bales of cotton and the drastic fall in production has had a sharp and immediate impact on cotton prices. Prices per quintal rose from Rs 900 at the start of the season in December to as much as Rs 2,000 just 2 months later.

The devastation has had an enormous social and economic impact on farmers, farm labour, cotton traders and the flourishing ginning industry. Says Mohinder Rinwa, an affluent farmer of Abohar in the Firozpur district of Punjab, "Earlier, it was the terrorists who demanded a share of the crop. But what they looted was only a fraction of what the American sundhi (worm) has taken away. Although the government has rid Punjab of terrorists, it has yet to take steps to rid us of this creature, which is an even bigger threat to the nation."
Hale worms, heavy debts The bollworm first gained notoriety in 1987, when it destroyed cotton crops in Andhra Pradesh's Guntur and Prakasam districts, impoverishing thousands and driving farmers to indebtedness and, in some cases, even suicide (see box Driven to despair). In the northwestern cotton belt, the pattern of crop failure, debt and disillusionment is becoming all too familiar.

When the American sundhi first struck in the north in September 1992, the farmers borrowed money and bombarded the worm with pesticides. But the worm showed up again this year and the farmers responded with another pesticide blitz, blissfully unaware of how ineffective it would be. Result: worms hale, heavy debt.

Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are selling off their cattle to discharge their liabilities. A distressed Phul Singh, a small landholder from Budain village in the Jind district of Haryana, sold his only buffalo to recover the amount he had spent on pesticides. He said, "I spent so much on pesticides because I felt that if this crop failed, my family would starve to death and I would be unable to get my daughter married and maintain my position in the panchayat." In Haryana's Hissar district, Kitab Singh Koth of Kothkalan village was forced to sell his livestock to repay part of his Rs 20,000 debt.

For some farmers, the only escape is sulpha, a mixture of tobacco and charas (an extract of cannabis). H P Singh Gandhi and Balbir Singh, who run a de-addiction clinic in Sirsa, report that the number of young men who visited their clinic in the past 2 years has increased. Says Gandhi, "These men consume cough syrups, which, taken in large quantities, have a calming effect." He adds, "Of late, youngsters have begun taking pain relieving ointments orally. This, they feel, soothes the pain of the mind."

Several farmers are emphatic they will never cultivate cotton again. Said Jalalpur Kalan's Satbir Singh, "Nobody will grow a crop that has failed farmers twice."

Besides the farmers, labourers have also suffered. The fall in cotton production means meagre earnings. Many small farmers plucked the cotton themselves because the harvest was too small to engage labour. To compensate for the loss of income, labourers have resorted to thieving. Many farmers in the villages along the Hisar-Fatehabad road complained that landless Harijans labourers had stolen tubewell motors. Hissar deputy commissioner Sanjiv Kumar says, "One out of every 3 complaints I deal with these days pertains to the cutting of trees by the villagers." But the farmers attribute their abnormally high use of pesticides to previous experiences with spurious chemicals that flood the market. The district administration and scientists at the agricultural universities at Hissar and Ludhiana say that as much as 50 per cent of the pesticides sold failed state government quality control tests. Says Joginder Singh, "The farmers were so disappointed with the performance of the pesticides, they even mixed several pesticides hoping for a favourable result. Even the 'cocktail' failed to act".

Though the Punjab government recommends that only 17 of 170 available insecticides be used against the bollworm, the desperate farmers bite the bait of easy loans dangled by pushy traders and manufacturers of ineffective chemicals. Says Bhagwan Singh, head of PAU's entomology department, "There is a nexus between the traders and the pesticide salespersons, and the poor farmer is exploited by them."

According to Sharma, another mistake was the unscheduled application of fertilisers, which led to unnecessary vegetative growth. This delayed the flowering stage till the humidity and temperature became conducive to the increase of the Helicoverpa moth. Additionally, some farmers went in for late sown cotton varieties, which faced similar risks.

There were, however, some farmers who did not suffer at the hands of the bollworm simply because they heeded the advice of scientists. Gulab Singh of Sirsa's Kiradkot village is grateful to HAU's Sirsa Research Station coordinator P S Gill and his colleague Ashok Chabra. "They told me when and how much insecticide to use," he says. Similarly, Shamsher Gupta of Panihari village in Sirsa sprayed his crop only 6 times on the advice of these scientists. The 2 farmers reaped a harvest of about 50 quintals per ha -- 10 times higher than what many other farmers obtained this year.

Desi is impregnable
Interestingly, the pest does little harm to indigenous or desi cotton. Scientists believe the desi variety contains anthocyanin, a brownish-red pigment that is poisonous to the bollworm. In 1993, more than 0.5 million bales of desi cotton was produced and, according to data compiled by the North India Cotton Association, more than 0.4 million bales were received by cotton traders in Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan by the end of February 1994. The association said more was expected because farmers were hoarding stocks anticipating a better price.

And although desi cotton fetches Rs 200 less than medium- or long-stapled cotton, it is regaining popularity thanks to the havoc wrought by the bollworm (see box 'Carpet-bombing' the worm). Even scientists are turning to desi cotton and they have developed 2 high-yielding desi> varieties, one of which is long-stapled.

The state governments' efforts to deal with the pest have been restricted mainly by a lack of finances. The Haryana and Punjab departments of agriculture are handicapped by insufficient resources. But farmers also complain that despite being aware of the spurious insecticides in the market, the government has done little to ban them.

Other government officials are even more callous. Says Hissar deputy commissioner Kumar, "The farmers will now be forced to grow sugar cane, which is scarce in this region." Kumar may be proved right because farmers are already talking of shifting to other crops. One of the most progressive farmers of Hissar, the wife of Kalyan Singh, of Dabra village, who grows almost 50 ha of cotton said, "This year, I'll grow paddy. The water table in my area is well within reach and paddy will hopefully undo the loss inflicted by cotton over the past 2 seasons." Other farmers are planning to shift to the more water-intensive but lucrative sugarcane.

However, the water table in these areas, which is saline, is rising and a shift to sugarcane will entail irrigation from canals. This, say experts, will accelerate the rise of the water table and may even waterlog farmlands.

The reverberations of the events at the farm, district and state levels have been felt at the national level. The Union government first announced the suspension of cotton exports to stabilise the unparalleled rise in cotton prices and has since allowed unrestricted imports of cotton to meet the demand within the country. Reports also indicate that cotton is being smuggled from other cotton growing states like Maharashtra to meet the demand in other states.

Most scientists agree that eradicating the resistant bollworm will not be easy. Integrated pest management practices and other scientific agricultural practices may contain the damage the pest can wreck (see box The long and the short of Indian cotton). But experts point out that if the cotton crop is not to be lost for ever, the agricultural extension machinery in these states will have to make a sustained and educated effort to tackle the bollworm.

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