Cotton Curse: Bt Cotton losses by pink bollworm pushing farmers to brink of suicide

Part 1: Recurring losses due to pests in North India compounding farmers’ distress, finds DTE ground report 

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Thursday 19 October 2023
Cotton crop in Haryana destroyed by pink bollworm infestation. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE__

This is the first story in a series about pink bollworm attacks on Bt Cotton in the North Zone, comprising Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

Cotton crops across North Indian states, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, are reporting a severe pink bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella) attack and even the genetically modified pest-resistant variety called Bt Cotton (Bollgard II seed) is falling prey to the pest it was created to resist. However, the insect invasion is claiming more than just the crops — the losses are pushing farmers to the brink of suicide.

On September 25, 2023 40-year-old Shamsher Singh from 23 ML village in Sri Ganganagar district in Rajasthan had his afternoon meal of sabzi roti (vegetable curry and chapatis) at 3.30 pm, followed by a nap and usual tea. His family did not know this would be the last time they would see him. 

His wife Jaswinder Kaur, 17-year-old son Jaswinder and two daughters, Jaspreet and Pushpa Kaur, 11 and 14 years old, respectively, didn’t notice any strange behaviour. The farmer set off on his motorcycle to his farm around 4.30pm and ended his life in the tubewell room.  

The teenage Jaswinder’s last memory of his father is now finding his father’s body hanging from the pumpset by a rope. "Initially, we assumed he went to visit some friends or the farm. He did not arrive home by 5.30-6 pm like usual,” his son said. 

Jaswinder started calling his father, but Singh did not answer. “I immediately approached our neighbours, borrowed their motorcycle and rushed to the farm where I found my father,” he told Down To Earth (DTE).

Singh’s family is steeped in debt, which drove him to take his own life. His death is likely the first farmer suicide case in the district in over a decade, according to locals.

His elder brother Balwinder Singh said the farmer’s life began spiralling after his 16.24 acres of cotton fields drowned in the excess rains witnessed in the village on September 15, 2023. Half the cultivation was on leased land, while the rest was his own. 

Shamsher Singh’s family: (from left) His wife Jaswinder Kaur, 17-year-old son Jaswinder Singh, and his brother Balwinder Singh. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

Shamsher Singh’s family: (from left) His wife Jaswinder Kaur, 17-year-old son Jaswinder Singh, and his brother Balwinder Singh. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

“He seemed worried after the rains and I accompanied him to the farm to inspect the damage. It was not significant,” Balwinder recalled.

When Singh visited the cultivation on September 24, he discovered that, in addition to the rain-damaged crops, the entire plantation was infested with pink bollworm (PBW). “He realised that the entire crop had been lost, and the losses would only add to his debt that had been piling up for the past three years,” the brother explained.

Singh had traditionally planted cotton, but faced losses in 2021 due to PBW. The whitefly attack on cotton farms in 2022 stunted growth and resulted in losses once more. He lost the crop due to PBW again this season in 2023. Several whitefly species infest cotton and typically feed on the undersides of plant leaves.

Over three years, his debt had accumulated to almost Rs 8 lakh, said Singh’s wife Jaswinder Kaur. “We owe money to the grocer, the money lender, the bank and numerous other people. My mother-in-law’s respiratory illness necessitated additional expenses. During rabi season, we barely survived on mustard and wheat produce,” she said. 

Singh never expressed his concerns or stress about the debt to her, said Kaur. He remained cheerful and communicated normally with all family members. “Even on September 25, he did not behave unusually,” she said.

However, Balwinder said his brother repeatedly spoke about the farm losses and financial burden from September 15 onwards. “He even shared his ordeal with his friends in the neighbourhood and social gatherings. We all tried to counsel him,” he said, adding, “I never thought he would go to such extremes.”

Concerningly, many other farmers in the region are similarly under distress, said Harjinder Maan, district president of the Gramin Kisan Mazdoor Samiti. “Unlike Maharashtra and other states where farmer suicides are in high numbers, this region hardly sees any suicide deaths due to debt as they are capable to manage losses and recover in couple of years,” he said.

But repeated losses have changed the story and farmers are in economic distress they have never experienced before. 

“It is likely to be the first farmer suicide case due to debt in over a decade, but unlikely to be the last. Many farmers have called me and expressed their anguish after facing losses. I have been struggling to counsel them and assure them the bad patch of their lives would pass in the next season,” Maan said.

This season, farmers in Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab have suffered heavy losses due to a severe infestation of cotton by PBW. In Haryana and Punjab, the losses are estimated to be around 65 per cent while Rajasthan is far worse, according to Y G Prasad, director at Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR). 

The Rajasthan government has claimed the losses extend up to 90 per cent and on October 8, announced Rs 1,125 crores as relief fund.

Farmers that DTE spoke to and visited their farms reported at least 90 per cent of damage. Many farmers have not even conducted the first picking of cotton due to poor yield and said farm labourers have refused to work in the fields. 

The severe infestation has resulted in heavy losses to farmers, burdening them with increasing debt and pushing them to the brink of suicides.

Ashwini Kumar, another farmer from Maujagarh in Punjab said he feels depressed and demoralised. “I have taken eight acres land on lease at Rs 50,000 per acre from the panchayat. I sowed cotton on the entire land and it is all gone,” he said.

Kumar said this is the second consecutive year of facing severe losses and has no money left to sow another crop. “I should have earned Rs 80,000 by selling the produce, but now ended up with a debt of Rs 6 lakh due to loans,” he said.

Gagandeep Sidhu, block president of Gramin Kisan Mazdoor Samiti (GKS), Hanumangarh, Rajasthan reiterated that farmers in the region have been consistently facing losses due to PBW and whitefly since 2017.  

The constant financial losses have broken the moral and economic resilience of farmers, said Sidhu. “They are barely managing from mustard and wheat crops grown during short rabi season. But farmers have started getting debt-ridden and would take at least 4-6 years to recover if nature supports the community in future,” he added.

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