Water starved village caught in Bt debate

Bhamb Raja rues Bt seed major Monsanto and farmers activists exploit its plight to achieve their own goals

By Aparna Pallavi
Published: Tuesday 20 March 2012

In early March, Bhamb Raja village of Yavatmal district shot to fame, to use a stock media phrase, for being the first village in Maharashtra to draw up a gram sabha resolution opposing Bt cotton and demanding a ban on it.

But four years ago, in a video film sponsored by biotech seed giant Monsanto, the village residents had spoken about Bt cotton in glowing terms, describing how it had changed lives and enabled people to build houses and buy gold.

When asked about their change of mind, deputy sarpanch Suresh Patrikar said Bt cotton is not their concern at all. “What we really want is water. But at no forum are we able to put this across. Everyone who comes to us has a ready-made stuff that they want to put in our mouths. And we do it with the hope that maybe it will help us get water.” At least 14 farmers from the village have comitted suicide in the past six to seven years.

Located some 20 km from Yavatmal city on a hill, Bhamb Raja has no source of surface or groundwater. It shares a traditional tank with a village some two kilometres away. But it is too small and located downhill, making it useless for irrigation purposes. Even availing drinking water becomes difficult as all our wells and borewells remain dry for most parts of the year, says Mahadeo Shendre, a village elder. “During the dry months between January and June, we have to cart drinking water from the wells and borewells of the downhill village,” says Jamunabai Gajbe.

Residents say 25 per cent of their farmland lies fallow due to lack of water; 90 per cent of the total farmland remains non-irrigated. To add insult to injury, almost all villages in the vicinity have been provided with water through micro-irrigation projects in the past decade or so, leaving Bhamb Raja water-starved, rues elderly sarpanch Gaukarnabai Karpate. “My own family has been reduced to farm labour because there is no water for irrigation.” The village’s long-standing demand for a water tank uphill from the village did receive a response of sorts some years ago when the government announced a micro-irrigation project on the Bodra Nullah to provide water to Bhamb Raja and Hivri villages, but the project has been held up due to forest clearances.
Then why the Bt debate?

The villagers started cultivating Bt cotton as a matter of course. “Everyone was doing it,” says Sitaram Kale, a farmer. Asked about their experience with the GM cotton, villagers said they had no opportunity to observe whether it was good or bad. The water crunch brings down the yield of every crop, they say. Kale explains: “Bt cotton increased production, but the input costs also went up. So the income remained the same.” According to the residents, the average per acre (0.4 hectare) yield of Bt and non-Bt cotton in the village is 250 and 150 kg and the input costs are proportionate. The yields of other crops—grains, pulses and soybean—are equally abysmal. With rising input costs most farmers in the village face the burden of unpaid debts, which is pushing farmers to end their lives. Take the case of Shendre. On his 3.5 ha, he grows 400 kg of jowar, 500 kg of Bt cotton, 100 kg of pigeon pea and 500 kg of soybean. He has to pay back Rs 80,000. “We are are aware that Bt cotton is input-intensive and is not suitable for non-irrigated land. But we have no alternative,” says Patrikar.

Villagers rue the fact that seed companies and farm activists have both used their vulnerability to push their own agenda. “When the seed company representatives asked us to pay tribute to Bt cotton’s supposed benefits,” says Patrikar who was one of the interviewees in the film, “We knew it was not true at all but did what we were told to because we hoped some benefit would come of it. We do not know what the company has done with the film, but they must have used it to push their seeds.”

This time around, when the visit of the Parliamentary Committee for Agriculture to Vidarbha was announced, the village was keen to present its demands to the committee. But what transpired was something else.

“We wanted to stress our water needs but activist Gajanan Dhumale and other activists told us we must draw up a gram sabha resolution, opposing Bt seed,” says Patrikar. Residents say Dhumale, who was portrayed before the media as a poor farmer from Bhamb Raja, is neither poor nor a resident of the village but an influential Shiv Sena activist from a nearby village. “During the meeting by the Parliamentary Committee for Agriculture on March 2, the entire discussion centred around Bt cotton, while our demand was not heard at all. We had been given readymade statements on Bt cotton, and all we could do was repeat them,” says farmer Shrikant Ade.

But why has the village allowed itself to be manipulated so easily by outsiders? “We believe that educated city people who are richer, are also smarter and wiser,” says Shendre. “So when they ask us to do something we do it believing that something good will come of it. But we are now feeling cheated—both by Bt supporters and opposers.”


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