Half of Yavatmal’s soil not meant for cotton: study

District known for farmers' suicides has shallow soil depth which has very little capacity to retain water; report recommends switch to traditional millets, oilseeds

By Aparna Pallavi
Published: Tuesday 03 June 2014

GM cotton has proved to be a grim experience for farmers as erratic rains and high costs of cultivation have resulted in poor returns. This appears to be a prime cause of the wave of farmer suicides that have touched nearly 9,000 since 2005

Around half of the soil in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, known both for suicides and for Bt cotton, is unsuitable for cotton cultivation, says a recent report from the National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning (NBSS & LUP) at Nagpur. The report, based on a soil survey conducted in the troubled district about two years ago, recommends a switch to traditional millet and oil-seed crop pattern for farmers in the shallow soil belt of the district.

Bt cotton particularly unsuitable

Speaking to Down To Earth, NBSS & LUP director, S K Singh, said that the survey has found that more than 40 per cent of the soil in Yavatmal is medium shallow, that is, having a less than 50 cm depth. Such soil, he said, is not suitable for cotton cultivation, as it has very low water retention capacity. “Even the slightest water stress causes crop failure in such soil,” said Singh, adding that even under best management, yields remain low. Bt cotton, which is based on American cotton hybrids, is particularly unsuitable for this region, since it has a higher water demand than Indian cotton varieties, he said.

Return to traditional crops

Singh said the best crop options for the shallow-soil areas in Yavatmal district are sorghum and maize in the kharif season, and oil-seeds like linseed in the rabi season. If there is facility for protective irrigation, chick-pea crop can also be grown during rabi. As for cash crops, he said, the best option in these soils is onion, which has low water demand.

“Our experiments in Dhule district, which has soil and climatic conditions similar to the drought-prone parts of Yavatmal district show that onion can be an excellent cash-crop option because it grows well in shallow soils,” he said. Indian cotton varieties can also be cultivated in a small way, he said.

Activists slam poor crop planning

The report s a scientific confirmation of facts that have been known for quite some time. The Planning Commission study team for farmer suicides has pointed out this fact, and even slammed government for not undertaking proper crop planning. G V Ramanjaneyulu, former ICAR scientist, who heads Hyderabad based non-profit Centre For Sustainable Agriculture, said most of the suicides among cotton farmers have been reported from Vidarbha and Telengana, and it is no secret that the reason is the mismatch between soil type and the requirements of Bt cotton.

“We have repeatedly complained of government apathy towards proper crop planning keeping in view soil type,” he said. “There is no coordination between government departments and various scientific organisations, and there is a general lack of concern in the area of crop planning. Seed companies have taken the opportunity to promote the seeds which give them the most profit at a terrible cost to the farming community.”

It is a simple enough affair to regulate the amount of cotton being grown in a district, Ramanjaneyulu said. “State department can put a limit on the number of seed packets to be sold. The extension section of the department can run awareness campaigns to help farmers choose the right crops, but none of these has ever been done,” he rued.

Feature: Political economy of agricultural distress and farmers suicides in Maharashtra

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