F0r a farmer there is nothing m
ore precious than his crop. But in parts of Vidarbha
region this week, groups of farmers and women put fire to their cotton produce. The farmers were
all deep in debt and the women were mostly widows of men who have committed
suicide in recent years. It was not a protest against banks or moneylenders, it was a protest against Bt cotton which the farmers blame for their misfortunes.
Bt cotton completed 10 years in India this week and Vidarbha farmers used the moment to raise their voice against the seed that once promised them gold. Instead, they cry, it has turned them into paupers.
India commercialised its first transgenic crop, Bt cotton, in March 2002. It was sold to cotton-growing states that were told the seed had an inbuilt capacity to resist American bollworm pests. But in the impoverished belts of eastern Maharashtra, Bt technology started losing its sheen in 2005 as crops began to fail.
Ramesh Sankeniwa Reri of Hiwara village took a loan of Rs 3.5 lakh for Bt seeds only to see his crop fail last year. "I barely managed to earn Rs 1 lakh from my failed crop. How will I pay the loan? I have two young children and don't know how I can sustain my family. Now, I have decided to cultivate soybean and chana. A lot of farmers here have already committed suicide," he says.
The situation is so serious that last year Maharashtra had to bail out Vidarbha farmers with a Rs 2000-crore relief package. "In 2002, farmers were told that Bt cotton will reap gold. Aggressive advertising campaigns continued to mislead farmers who quit their indigenous drought resistant varieties and started buying expensive Bt cotton seeds worth Rs 3000 for two packets. It almost doubled the cost of production ," says Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) chief Kishor Tiwari.
One of the main reasons for crop failure in Maharashtra was lack of irrigation facilities. "Vidarbha is a classic example of wrong selection of Bt technology in dry regions. Most farmers who committed suicide in the Vidarbha region are Bt farmers" adds Tiwari.
But Vidrabha's tragic tales are only one side of the story. Experts believe it's wrong to blame Bt cotton for suicides. "There are farmer suicides in West Bengal, too, where there are no genetically modified crops. I think people are wrongly connecting farmer suicides in Maharashtra with Bt cotton," says S K Datta, director-general (crop sciences ) at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
Datta asserted that the yield is not stagnating everywhere. "Some villages near Rajkot in Gujarat have a productivity of 850 to 900 kg lint per ha. It's much higher compared to all other states. This is because they have managed the Bt crop well, supplementing it with check dams and drip irrigation."
There are others, too, who think Bt is good. This week, the biotech industry celebrated a decade of success . The International Service for Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications report claimed that "the production of Bt cotton seed and its by-products had increased from 0.46 million tones in 2002-03 to 1.20 million tones in 2010-11 ."
Production has indeed gone up in some parts of the country, but the technology has created other problems . According to V S Vijayan , former chairman of Kerala State Biodiversity Board chairman and prominent ecologist, indigenous varieties of cotton have almost disappeared because of cross pollination with Bt cotton. "There was a similar issue in Mexico which is the 'centre of origin' of maize. But once Bt maize was introduced, all the local 35 varieties of maize disappeared ," says Vijayan. A recent report by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel also declared that no genetically modified crops should be introduced to protect the rich biodiversity of the area.
The situation is not very different in Punjab. Some Bt farmers have started taking interest in organic farming. "Initially the yield per acre of Bt cotton went up to 10 quintals but it has now come down to around eight, which is what even an organic farmer is getting without spending anything on pesticide sprays and seeds," says Kheti Virasat Mission chief Uminder Dutt.
On the 10th anniversary of the introduction of this technology in India, as Punjab's farmers return to organic farming, the Bt story seems to have come full circle.
With reports from Snehlata Shrivastav, Nagpur; Ankur Jain, Ahmedabad; and Sanjay Sharma, Chandigarh