Whitefly lesson

A few villages in Haryana successfully grow cotton amid widespread destruction of the crop by whitefly in the region

By Jitendra
Last Updated: Thursday 12 November 2015
Women farmers at Haryana's
Nidana village identify different
pests in a cotton farm. They use
carnivorous pests to combat
pests that destroy plants. (Inset)
a whitefly pest (Photo: Vikas Choudhary)
Women farmers at Haryana's
Nidana village identify different
pests in a cotton farm. They use
carnivorous pests to combat
pests that destroy plants. (Inset)
a whitefly pest (Photo: Vikas Choudhary) Women farmers at Haryana's Nidana village identify different pests in a cotton farm. They use carnivorous pests to combat pests that destroy plants. (Inset) a whitefly pest (Photo: Vikas Choudhary)

LOOK HERE, the red pest you see is Chrysopa,” says an excited Manisha, while navigating through her cotton field in Haryana’s Nidana village. “A single Chrysopa, a carnivorous pest, eats around 125-150 whiteflies a day,” says the 24-year-old. Further ahead in her 0.8-hectare cotton plantation, she picks another plant leaf to show a pest she calls deedarbora. “This big-eyed pest injects its eggs in herbivorous pests like whiteflies and kills them. This helps in population control of herbivorous pests that cause crop loss,” says Manisha, who is locally called keet mastarni (pest teacher).

Nidana is among 18 villages in Haryana’s Jind district where farmers have ditched pesticides and used carnivorous pests to fight harmful pests such as the whitefly. There reason is pesticides kill the friendly pests more than the harmful ones, and they are expensive too, says Sheela, another keet mastarni from Radhana village.

The success of these villages comes at a time when farmers in Haryana and neighbouring Punjab and Rajasthan have been devastated with whitefly infestation that has caused widespread destruction this year. The three states have already lost over 75 per cent of their cotton plantations. Over 18 farmers have committed suicide in Punjab, which is the worst-affected state. Desperate farmers are now staging protests for government support. Interestingly, over 95 per cent of the damaged cotton crops is hybrid Bt cotton.

The total loss due to this is around Rs 4,500 crore. The affected farmers in these states are angry because the government misled them into using pesticides and hybrid cotton varieties (see ‘Whitefly epidemic’).

Setting an example

The 18 villages began experimenting with carnivorous pests in 2007 with the help of late entomologist Surinder Dalal, who was the agriculture development officer in the district. Dalal showed the farmers that crop-destroying pests could be contained naturally by predator pests.

Farmers set up camps on tracks near Sher Garh railway station in Bathinda to demand government support after the whitefly attack destroyed their cotton crops

He then trained 183 farmers, including 50 women, to identify useful and harmful pests. “We learnt to differentiate between herbivorous and carnivorous pests and their roles in the ecosystem. We have identified 43 herbivorous pests and 161 carnivorous pests. Some herbivorous pests help in pollination whereas others destroy cotton,” says Suresh Ahlawat, one of the farmers trained by Dalal. He adds that all pests play a role in the ecosystem and pesticides destroy them all.

Out of every 4.5 g foods a plant makes through photosynthesis, the first 3 g is supplied to roots and stem and the remaining 1.5 g is for the pests, says Ahlawat. “In fact, plants use the surplus food to attract pests as they help in pollination,” says Ahlawat, who runs a farmers’ association group called Surinder Dalal Keet Saksharat Mission (SDKSM). The association has taken the initiative forward after Dalal’s death in 2013. It conducts training classes for farmers. The course comprises 18 classes, which are held once a week.

SDKSM volunteers say Bt Cotton attracts harmful pests such as whitefly, aphid (hara tila), thrips (churda), mite, miley bugs, more than normal cotton varieties because of their higher yield. And even pesticides attract pests because even they contain nutrition. “The pesticides are more effective against carnivorous pests which are not even a threat,” says Ahlawat.

“The real problem starts when these harmful pests start multiplying in the absence of natural predators and start damaging the crops,” says Gurusharan Singh, who teaches entomology at the Punjab Agricultural University. He adds that 60 per cent of total insecticides in the country are used in cotton crops. K R Kranti, director of the Central Cotton Research Institute, Nagpur, says that whitefly attacks can be minimised by spraying soapy or neem water.

In fact, SDKSM volunteers say that whiteflies only attack farms that have pesticides. They measured the permissible level of pests on a cotton plant leaf, which is called the Economic Thresholds Level (ETL), and found that up to six whiteflies on a cotton plant leaf is not harmful. “In the past eight years, I have not met a single farmer who complained of high ETL levels after not using pesticides. Only, farmers who use pesticides complain of poor ETL levels,” says Ahlawat.

Source: SDKSM; The quantity used per .04 hectare during
a cropping season

A judicious mix

Sensing the benefits of not using chemicals, farmers tutored by SDKSM have also reduced their dependency on chemical fertilisers. They use a mix of chemical and organic fertilisers developed by the late Dalal because it is less toxic and substantially cheaper. The solution—2.5 kg each of diammonium phosphate (DAP) and urea, and 0.5 kg of zinc—is mixed with 100 litres of water and needs to be sprayed six times on 0.4 hectare of cotton during a season. “Dalal taught us the solution. So we kept its name after him as Dalal Ghol,” says Singh (see ‘Dumping pesticides’).

“We used to spend over Rs 25,000 only on pesticides in a season on cotton crops. We stopped this practice five years ago. From the money I saved, I have constructed a cemented cattle shed,” says Sheela. She owns 0.8-hectare of land, and says she has now leased an additional 0.8-hectare to grow cotton. “Government recommends farmers on how much fertilisers should be used, but normally farmers use much more because shopkeepers and agents of fertiliser companies influence them,” says SDKSM member Rajbir Singh.

Growing popular

The success of the initiative is now being recognised by experts. S S Siwach, director (research) at the CCS Haryana Agricultural University, says, “We regularly call these farmers to our workshop to take classes.” Over a dozen students from the university have done their PhD theses on the practices adopted by farmers in Jind district.

This year SDKSM for the first time moved beyond Jind district to train farmers. They have set up a training camp 70 km away in Byawar Khera village in Hisar district. “In Hisar, 70 farmers from 30 villages are attending the classes. They are from Punjab as well as other districts in Haryana,” says Rajbir. Manjit Singh, one of the teachers at Byawar, says five farmers from Sirsa district travel 125 km to attend the classes. “We have a habit of only waking up at the time of a disaster. We need to learn a lesson from Nidana village,” says Kranti.


Pesticide lobby all the way

Sukhmander Singh committed suicide on October 4 in Punjab's Behmandiwan village after his 1.8 hectares of cotton crop was completely destroyed by the whitefly pest. He was the third member of his family to commit suicide in the past 18 years because of pest attacks. "Papa was under depression after getting a total yield of just 20 kg this year. He has left behind a Rs 2.5 lakh debt for us," says Singh's 16-year-old daughter Rimpy. This year, whitefly pests have destroyed almost 75 per cent of cotton crops in Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana. This is despite the fact, that the farmers in these states spend heavily on pesticides. Experts say the state government has been selling pesticides to farmers even when studies by the Central Cotton Research Institute, Nagpur (CCRI) in 2002 confirmed that the whitefly has become immune to pesticides. In late September, CRRI issued a notice to farmers through the local media asking them not to use Fipronil-based pesticides because they promote the breeding of whitefly. The Pesticides Manufacture Association of India immediately slapped a legal notice on them. "It is their agenda to intimidate us (scientists) but we responded with proof. Let us see what happens," says K R Kranti, director, CCRI. The other point that is emerged is that spurious pesticides are being sold rampantly in the market. A 2013 report by industry body Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says that 40 per cent of pesticides sold in 2012 were spurious that not only failed to kill pest but also damaged crops. A senior CCRI official says that the Punjab government bought 92,000 litres of Oberon insecticide this year for its 465,000 hectares of cotton crop. "The insecticide is normally only sold through the state government and almost all farmers use it," said the official. He added that ideally one litre should be sprayed per hectare of land. "This means the government could have diluted the insecticides to meet the demand".

Sukhmander Singh's family

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