At two in the afternoon, the humidity is suffocating. Our elders always said that dry heat in May is a blessing when compared to humid heat of August. I am with Tiku Ram, a tall strapping farmer from village Shergarh, sporting a yellow headgear. He tells me: “It poured yesterday; 10 fingers of rain”. That is measure of rainfall for ordinary farmers everywhere.
Tiku Ram, 28 years of age, is proud to have done his schooling up to 12th standard. He is married and father of three children, two boys and one girl. He owns four acres of land and his neighbour, Rohtas Kumar, owns eight acres and they both sit for a chat.
Both grow cotton and, surprisingly, they are currently growing both ‘Kapas’ or ‘desi’ cotton and Bt cotton or ‘Narma’ (Bt gene is only applied to Hybrid cotton). That is curious but they tell me that growing both varieties is their risk mitigation strategy. In the absence of any government crop insurance programme, that is probably the only way out.
Incidentally, the Akali Dal-BJP combine ruling alliance in Punjab is a partner in the central government, where it supported the crop insurance programme. In the state, however, the Punjab government has refused to participate in the programme. This is a perfect example of what ails Indian farmers. Agriculture is a state subject but policy is made by the central government, to be implemented by many a badly governed state.
Till 1997, they tell me, most people growing cotton would produce their own seeds but that was a long time ago. Now farmers procure seeds from shops and Bt cotton seeds cost `1,500 and Kapas `600 per acre. The big problem that farmers face, however, is with timely application of inputs.
Rothas elaborates: while Kapas can withstand a long dry spell, Bt cotton is far more susceptible to complete loss if there is no water for two weeks from the time that water application becomes due. Kapas is far more resistant to climatic variations compared to Hybrid Cotton and its fertilizer requirement is half of that needed for Bt cotton. Also, the water requirement for Kapas to mature is lower by one-fourth.
More surprises await me. The number of pesticide applications for both kinds of cotton is about the same; 8-10 times. Bt cotton requires no pesticide for the first 100 days, while Kapas has no such buffer time. Till such time that the hot summer winds, called the ‘loo’, blow, Kapas needs no pesticide. The moment the wind turns and traces of humidity set in, the cycle of pesticide application begins. Kapas requires more expensive pesticides than does Bt cotton.
Kapas yields more than Hybrid Cotton but that is only half the story. The normal difference in yield can be substantial, 16 quintals for Kapas against 11 for Narma. It is a good hedge for a small farmer who needs to pick it every third day. Tiku says that yields of each have been at around 8-9 quintals.
The cost of harvesting varies between the two on account of the nature of the maturing crop. Kapas requires about eight pickings while Hybrid Cotton can be hand-picked in just two to three pickings. Therefore, even when the yield is the same, the headache is more for Kapas. The cost of picking Kapas is 20 per cent higher too. The labour cost of picking cotton is `600-`700 per quintal. When the wind velocity increases, a standing Kapas plant falls rather easily. Picking cotton from fallen Kapas plant becomes even more expensive.
I ask: Have they ever planted the refuge around the Bt cotton seeds. They have; once or twice but the refuge did not yield any cotton as such. I remind them that refuge is not supposed to provide cotton but serve as a safety mechanism to grow and get better yield for Bt cotton. Rothas shoots back that if he plants the refuge he loses one kanal of an eight kanal plot (1 acre=8 kanal) of his land to a no yield planting. He cannot afford to do that.
We are in a cotton field, surrounded by citrus orchards (also susceptible to the White Fly) and Arhar fields. Jagrup, who has since joined our conversation, pitches in and says that he had attended a seminar, organized by the Indian Cotton Association, Bhatinda, on Bt cotton and White Fly, where the vice chancellor of the Punjab Agriculture University had explained the necessity of planting a refuge. He has paid heed. Well, seminars and lectures do help those who attend them seriously.
There is, of course, perennial pestilence. Last year the White Fly attack devastated the cotton crop in the Bhatinda and Abohar areas. A scam of wrongly prescribed and government purchased pesticides is being pushed under the carpet. The local MLA who was also the leader of opposition took up the cudgels on behalf of the farmers and the agitation that followed forced the government to compensate farmers to the tune of `5,200 per acre for 30 per cent damage and `8,000 for 80 per cent damage. On the MLAs insistence, even non-land owing cotton picking labour was compensated for the first time. The ruling party, however, managed to convert the tragedy into a political opportunity by doling out cash to those connected with the party and restricting payment to other persons.
The farmers are grateful that the White Fly attack this year is only 10 per cent as intense as last year’s and within manageable limits because there is little assistance vis-à-vis managing disease. No government farm extension officer has ever bothered to visit Tiku Ram. My quick visit is full of surprises. I ask again: ‘Never in his lifetime?’ Not once in his life time, he replies with vehemence. His tone suggests that he did not expect such visits. Clearly, farmers have given up hope; with zero expectations from the establishment. So, who does he turn for cropping advice? His own experience and talking to neighbours and other farmers, he says philosophically.
formal banking system is making its presence felt. They all have a Kisan Credit Card limit whereby they get an interest subvention if repayment is made on time. The effective rate of interest charged by the bank is then four per cent. The private sector HDFC Bank has opened a branch in the village and Tiku banks with it.
He applied for government benefits like ‘Neela card’/BPL (below poverty line) card that would entitle him to cheap grain and pulses. Tiku, however, owns and cultivates four acres of land and is denied government benefits. There are many complaints against the government for denying people benefits or BPL cards due to their political affiliations, while giving cards to many who do not fulfil the criteria. Making matters worse is that Punjab has not given pulses to the people, reneging on this promise like many others. Managing PDS better could be a political game changer.
I press on: Does Tiku receive special benefits meant for the scheduled castes. He is categorical: he gets no benefits but for some units of free electricity. With all the hue and cry around ‘dalit’ inclusion, this is sad state of affairs.
Earlier Kapas was cheaper than Bt Cotton but not anymore. Kapas fetched a higher price last year but, with the rising prices, industry tends to find alternatives like man-made fibre or other spinning waste. The Khadi Gramodyog movement is also incentivizing the growth of Kapas vis-à-vis Narma for handlooms thus benefiting farmer and weaver both. However, with the sowing of Kapas doubling, prices will surely be impacted, they fear.
Cotton price is up this year on lower sowing and depleting international stocks. So do Jagrup and his friends expect better times? I thought they would be very happy but they are cautious. “Good times depend on God and the government is of no use”. I leave a sad person. Farmers are giving up hope of the government being a saviour. Many academics would be delighted, of course, and twist the words to say that this proves that farmers are itching for a completely free market economy.
Smart articulation and tortured data have always wrought havoc on farmer livelihoods, even more consistently than the evasive monsoons.