Cotton Curse: No buyers for salvaged produce after pink bollworm wreaks havoc

Labourers refuse to pick leftover crop as yield too low and traders refuse to buy citing poor quality

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Monday 23 October 2023
A cotton farmer in Agricultural Produce Market Committee in Hanumangarh waiting to auction his wares. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE__

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

Bt Cotton crops in the northern cotton zone of Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab have been destroyed by the pink bollworm (PBW) pest this year. With over 90 per cent of the yield damaged in some areas, farmers are struggling to salvage their remaining produce.

Those who have managed to pick it now face uncertainty about whether their produce will find a price in the market even below the minimum support price (MSP). Meanwhile, the little cotton that is arriving in the market can not be bought as the quality is too poor, according to traders. 

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As per government reports, pink bollworm has attacked the entire cotton belt in the north. About 65 per cent of cotton production in Haryana and Punjab has been severely damaged, while Rajasthan has faced losses up to 90 per cent.

PBW is a worm that destroys parts of the developing cotton fruit, such as the square (flower bud) and the boll (rounded sac of seeds with cotton fibres). Adult worms are thin grey moths that lay eggs on buds, flowers, and bolls. The larvae hatch from the eggs and burrow into the bolls to feed on the seeds. It cuts through the lint and stains it in the process, resulting in a loss of quality. 

The disease is common in cotton crops and has recently established itself in the northern cotton zone. However, according to both government officials and farmers, this year’s damage is the worst since 2001. Prior to 2001, the American bollworm wreaked havoc and ruined farmers’ lives.

To provide resistance against the American bollworm, pink bollworm, and spotted bollworm, the Indian government introduced the genetically modified pest-resistant cotton variety Bt Cotton (Bollgard II seed). However, the pink bollworm has developed resistance to Bt cotton over time. 

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About three-fifths of Jagjir Singh’s crop in Shergarh village of Sangrur district, Punjab, have been infested by PBW on his 0.5-hectare field. “My efforts to save the crops with the help of pesticides turned futile. Labourers visited twice but could harvest only 10 quintals, which should have been about 55 quintals without the losses,” he said.

Most labourers are refusing to work as the yield is low and the time-consuming work will pay little, said Singh.

“The labourers are not even prepared to pick up the remaining cotton bolls. The typical rate offered is Rs 8 to Rs 10 per kilogramme, allowing them to earn Rs 1,000 per quintal. However, they are refusing to work even for Rs 13 or Rs 15 per kg,” said Ashwini Kumar, another armer from Maujagarh, Punjab. 

Vinod Nain, from Khariya village in Sirsa district, Haryana, said he offered half of his retrieved produce along with a wage of Rs 10 per kg. But the labourers still refused his offer. Farmers across the three cotton states shared similar experiences.

Cotton infected with pink bollworm. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

Cotton infected with pink bollworm. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

However, labourers said the yield is too low for them to earn anything. “At this low harvest rate, we will not be able to earn that much,” said Charanjeet Kaur, a labourer from Teona Pujarian in Punjab. “Farmers have offered Rs 1,000 or even Rs 1,200 per day in exchange for taking half of their produce to sell in the market, but the effort is still not worth it”.

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Another labourer, Beena, said plucking infested or poor quality cotton often causes injuries to fingers. “The hard, rotten bolls prick my fingers due to constant plucking and my fingers bleed. If the quality is good, I can harvest about 70-80 kgs of cotton a day. But the damaged crop only enables plucking 10-12 kgs a day,” she said.

Despite the losses and refusal by labourers, some farmers have managed to collect cotton, only to be turned away by traders. Down To Earth (DTE) visited an Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) in Hanumangarh in the second week of October and saw farmers struggling to sell their produce. 

Gurudutt Singh from Rhodawali village in Hanumangarh was told by traders the cotton was too yellow and of poor quality. “The MSP is Rs 6,235 per quintal but the traders refused to buy even at a lesser rate,” he told DTE. 

Cotton buying standards require the produce to be at a certain level of whiteness, Ajay Jagga, a trader, told DTE. Cotton white is measured in Rd or degrees of reflectance, which describes the whiteness and yellowness of a cotton along with its fibre quality and other parameters. 

“The cotton brought in is not white enough. We need the produce to be around Rd 73-74. However, we are seeing far less, around Rd 65-66, which will not be accepted in the market,” said Jagga.

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Usnaq Mohammed, who had made it to the market, was unable to find a buyer that day. “I spent money on transportation and fuel to get the produce to the market. Where should I take it if it is not sold? Traders are not even willing to buy at Rs 3,500 per quintal, which is less than half the MSP,” he lamented.

Hundreds of trolleys filled with cotton produce usually arrive in the market by the second week of October, said Charanjeet Sidhu, president of the APMC. 

“But this season there are hardly 50, with poor quality cotton produce. The buzz of farmers bringing their produce usually lasts until December and extends until January. However, the market is expected to be barely operational until the end of November this year,” Sidhu said. 

As the festival season approaches, farmers sell their produce and then go to the market to buy new clothes for themselves and their families. “However, given the current economic situation, the prospects of celebrating Diwali or other festival celebrations this season appear bleak,” he added.

Click here to read the first part of this series and click here to read the second.

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