From floods, drought, spurious inputs to pest attack, Indian farmers are always at risk and recent pest attack in the cotton belt of Malwa (Punjab) only manifest their vulnerability. Farmers of Punjab, facing drought conditions frequently, switched over to cotton as the crop consumes less water, however, this year in August they faced the worst ever pest attack. Whiteflies, a common but notorious pest, wiped out vast tracts of cotton field and inflicted heavy losses. Cotton growers of Malwa are devastated and facing a serious crisis. Over 15 farmers reportedly committed suicide. The farmers demanded compensation and Punjab government offered the help both in terms of financial assistance and getting the Central agency into action for procurement.
Extent of loss
Punjab is the fourth largest producer of cotton, at 1.8 million bales (of 170 kg each), but it has the highest yield of 800 kg/hectare, making it a significant source of farm income. The state produces 12 lakh bales of cotton and contributes 12 percent of the country’s total cotton production. Around 8 lakh hectares in Punjab has been affected by the Whitefly attack. According to reports, extensive damage has been caused to the cotton crop in both Punjab and Haryana by the Whitefly pest, with textile industry anticipating a 30-40 percent drop in harvest in the current marketing year that started on October 1.
Punjab grows mainly Bt cotton which is resistant to some major pests such as Bollworm. But over the years, Whiteflies have regularly attacked cotton plants only to be controlled by intensive spraying of chemical pesticides.
Farmers of Bathinda district, the worst affected area, have a tragic story to tell. They say Whiteflies appeared out of nowhere and left a trail of destruction. For the whole Malwa region, it has affected about two-thirds of standing cotton crop in the state, causing an estimated loss of Rs 4,200 crore. The farmers were on the roads blocking traffic and demanding compensation. The state’s Akali Dal-led NDA government announced a compensation package of Rs 640 crore. But this package was dubbed as inadequate by the farmers.
According to Punjab Agriculture Secretary Suresh Kumar, roughly, 1.36 hectares of the 4.5 lakh hectares under cotton looks affected and assessment is on about the total loss. That’s about 30 percent crop loss.
Agriculture experts say profit-chasing cotton growers, who often throw caution to the winds, may have themselves – and some ill-suited genetically modified (GM) cotton varieties – to blame. Punjab’s farmers have moved wholesale to Bt cotton for higher yields since India allowed GM cotton seeds in 2002. Bt cotton, which offers protection against bollworms, is credited with higher yields. But not all Bt cotton varieties available in the market have been found suitable for Punjab.
A growing economy around spurious pesticides seems to have also contributed to the problem. The Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) which also acts as the state-level farm advisory body blames it (destruction of crop by pest) on farmers.
“Farmers have been ignoring advisories to grow varieties not approved by us. In a bad year like this one, this precisely caused serious problems,” says BK Kang, entomology professor, PAU.
Such unapproved varieties account for roughly 30-40 percent of Punjab’s cotton crop, according to PAU. Farmers often shop for the cheapest brand.
According to the experts, a long dry spell in August caused the whitefly population to peak, triggering a lethal pest invasion. Bt cotton doesn’t protect against whiteflies, but unapproved varieties may be more vulnerable. Normally, adequate rains drive away half of the whitefly population. Pesticides do rest of the job.
A big spurious pesticide market have made matters worse. Punjab Police state’s agriculture director MS Sandhu for allegedly aiding the sale of fake pesticides to cotton growers. Sandhu was arrested for his role in a Rs 33-crore pesticides scam, which seems to be just the tip of the iceberg. Such has been the rampant adulteration of farm inputs that the police have so far booked 18 pesticide firms in Ferozepore district alone.
According to a recent Tata Strategic-Ficci study, nearly 25 percent pesticides sold in the country were fake. The size of the spurious pesticide market in India is as high as 30 percent by volume and 25 percent by value. The study predicted that the market for spurious agro-chemicals will reach 40 percent by value of pesticides sold in the country by 2019.
At present, the size of the domestic crop protection industry is estimated at Rs 13,000 crore. Overall, use of fake products can reduce crop yields by 4 percent, the study estimated, implying a loss of 10.6 million tonnes in food production in the current year.
The key factors driving the illegal market are cheaper prices—up to 40 percent lower compared to genuine pesticides—which attract farmers, and higher margins—between 25 to 30 percent for fake products, compared to 3-5 percent for genuine ones—which entice retailers, the study said.
Crop Care Federation of India (CCFI), a body of crop protection solutions providers, also blames it on farmers and cited late sowing, delayed and inadequate use of pesticides, non-adherence to Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) for the current crisis.
“Damage could have been further curtailed if large scale application of pesticides approved by competent authorities had been followed. Whitefly being a migrating pest, it is important to cover large areas for its effective control,” it says.
The CCFI says, “Those farmers, who followed GAP like sowing of healthy seeds of recommended varieties, balanced use of fertilisers, maintaining optimum plant population etc. to minimise the attack of pests and diseases, were able to control the damage by whitefly to a large extent.”