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Recently in Wardha and Yavatmal (Vidarbha, Maharashtra)

Moreshwar Chaudhary was 32; Suraj Bhoyar, 29. On a wintry December 8, last, the two cotton growers consumed Monocrotophous, a commonly used pesticide, distraught by failed crops, falling income and mounting loans.

Moreshwar was uneducated and married; he left a year-old a son and wife in the middle of her second pregnancy. Suraj had a vocational diploma and was a bachelor. They had never met each other. But their short lives ran parallel and ended on the same note. They died within a span of few hours.

In a dingy mortuary of government hospital in Ghatanji town of Yavatmal district, that day, Suraj’s body was being taken in for post-mortem while Moreshwar’s was moved out. It became an unlikely meeting place for the two families joined in grief that stemmed from a common thread: cotton.

Rains came after the crops had failed. And when the abysmal yields began to flock the markets around November, prices had tanked. "This year," Suraj’s elder brother Swapnil says, “There is no crop, no price.”

Vidarbha, a region in Maharashtra notorious for farm suicides, has seen such coincidences before. Except this time they are glaring. As it turns out, the months since their suicides have seen more farmers take their lives in the region. The neighbouring Marathwada, which faces water stress, is also reporting a spurt in farmer suicides. Put together, roughly 400 farmers, mostly young, have taken their lives in past three months in these two regions. And suicides are just one symptom of a deepening crisis. Reports of distress sales of land and cattle have begun. So have migrations of people, who need work.

“This is a negative farm growth year,” says Kishor Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan-Andolan Samiti (VJAS), a fact borne out by the Maharashtra Economic Survey 2014-15 published on March 17. It says state’s agriculture growth rate was in the negative owing to bad monsoon and failed crops. Barring sugaracane, all other crops have suffered a steep decline in yields ranging from 20-60 per cent. “Vidarbha and Marathwada are like volcanoes,” he says. “That's because the entire rural economy is belted.”

By an official estimate, about 24,000 or over half of Maharashtra’s villages are facing drought-like conditions, a metaphor for drop in crop yields (indicated by a gauge called anewari) by over 50 per cent. That means roughly 10 million rural households – or two-thirds of the state’s peasantry is in trouble. Most of these are scattered all over the state, but worst affected ones are in Vidarbha and Marathwada.

It’s a deadly cocktail: erratic monsoon, crop failure, falling prices, growing indebtedness. As if this was not enough, a spell of hailstorm that accompanied incessant rains last week irreparably destroyed Rabi crops such as wheat and gram wherever they had been planted and were about to be harvested.

This is the first major test of the BJP governments in the state and Centre. The Fadnavis-government has announced an aid of Rs 2000 crore for drought-hit Maharashtra farmers; the Modi-government matched it with the same amount but details of how the money would be used are still sketchy.

Vijay Jawandhia, farmers’ leader and activist in Wardha, says: “Every year there are climatic aberrations and market volatilities; but the new government hasn’t stepped in to support farmers.” Maharashtra’s aid is paltry, he says. “The Centre hasn’t ensured better prices through market intervention.”

India’s domestic cotton consumption has been stagnant despite a jump in cotton acreage to a record 130 lakh hectares in 2014-15. That coincided with sluggish international prices and global demand.

At the beginning of current cotton cycle in June-2014, the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), a global think tank, said that with 1.8 million tons of surplus cotton and changes in China’s cotton policy, prices were unlikely to rise to the historic 2012-13 levels. That year a quintal of cotton fetched about Rs 6000 in local markets – perhaps the highest price in a decade or so.

In 2013-14 Moreshwar and Suraj fetched Rs 5000 or more per quintal of cotton and the yields were better (4 quintals per acre). This time the prices are hovering around Rs 3900-4000 and yields are two quintals an acre at best. So for the cotton growers of the region it came like a staggering pay cut.

China curbed its imports this year as it gave a greater incentive to its growers to improve yield and quality, as a result of which Xinjiang, the largest cotton-producing region in that country where the trial subsidy is being implemented, yielded a bigger harvest than last season, an ICAC release said last month. While China imported much of India’s cotton last three seasons, it did not in the 2014-2015 season.

In domestic markets, it meant a glut despite fall in cotton yields in states like Maharashtra. For, overall acreage and production has gone up. This should have prompted the government of India to intervene in the markets by proactively asking the Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) to step up its procurement in different parts of the country like it does every year so that the prices did not fall below the minimum support price threshold, Jawandhia explains. But the CCI has been reluctant to procure cotton given the poor demand and lack of counter-guarantee from the Centre to bear the burden if it incurred losses.

For sugar, Modi government announced an export subsidy of Rs 4000 per tonne last month to tide over the industry losses; but refused to support cotton farmers the same way, Jawandhia points out.

Even Maharashtra’s cotton marketing federation, an agency that once ran the monopoly procurement programme for cotton from 1970s until the 2002 season, did not procure much, leaving the farmers at the mercy of private traders, who won’t offer higher price since neither cotton exports would pick up, nor the domestic demand. So the falling yields and prices came as a double whammy for the farmers, already beleaguered by a long depressing negative growth in agriculture and sagging incomes.

It was around 2 pm that day Suraj called his elder brother, Swapnil, 33, on his cell phone. It was to be their last conversation. “He told me to take care of our parents and then hung up,” Swapnil recalls at his village Anji. Suraj had minutes earlier left for home from Ghatanji cotton yard, distraught by the fact that their abysmal yields coupled with poor prices would not help them repay this year’s loans. Swapnil was still at the market when the call came. “Though I am older, Suraj looked after the farm as he was better educated,” he says. When he cut the call and could not be reached, Swapnil left his cotton-laden cart at the market and rushed home on a friend’s bike. Anji is five km from the town. Suraj, his mother told him, had left for the farm after touching her feet; he did not have his lunch.

“My fears came true when I reached our farm,” Swapnil recounts. Suraj lay unconscious in the midst of his cotton plants, some of them are wilting today and without any bolls. By the time he could be taken to Ghatanji hospital, Suraj had slid into a state of coma. Minutes later, Swapnil recalls, he died.

Around 4 pm his body was taken to the mortuary. That was when the Bhoyars realized that another young farmer’s body was being moved out. That was Moreshwar Chaudhary of Daheli village. “It was very heart-wrenching,” Anji sarpanch and a distant relative of the Bhoyars, Gajanan Bhoyar, recounts.

That morning Moreshwar went to his farm worried how to repay loans, his mother Gangabai recalls. Around 11 am, she was informed that her son had consumed pesticide and needed to be taken to a hospital. His friends put him in an auto and took him to Ghatanji hospital where doctors pronounced him “brought dead”. Moreshwar had consumed half-a-litre of pesticide, his neighbor Aakash Dambhare says. Tragedy had come calling back again on Gangabai exactly a decade after her husband Bharatrao committed suicide due to mounting indebtedness. She had lost her only son too.

On his 3-acre land that he began to till after his father’s demise, Moreshwar got 3 quintals of cotton this year when he should’ve got at least 15. A week before he took his life, he sold it for Rs 11,000. It would not help him repay loans. A look at his records shows Moreshwar was juggling multiple loans to meet his expenses. In his mother’s name he borrowed from two micro-finance institutions a sum of Rs 26,000. On that Moreshwar paid a weekly instalment of Rs 605. It was in addition to the crop loan from a bank and hand loans from relatives – together amounting to over Rs 1 lakh. He had also mortgaged his mother and wife’s gold ornaments.

Moreshwar had to borrow more than he could repay; he had no sources of income other than his farm.

Ten km away from Daheli, in Anji, the Bhoyars who own eight acres are yet to recover from the shock. Their story is no different. Loans now outweigh their income. Swapnil says they would need to sell off a portion of land to repay debt.

Suraj, an ITI diploma holder, lost his job five years ago after which he took to farming with his brother. “We could’ve sold our land; repaid our debts – what was the need to kill himself, we could have done something,” his bereaved father says. When rural youths get married at 24-25, Suraj kept postponing his wedding due to financial crunch, Swapnil says. "He was more of a friend to me."

Moreshwar got married three years ago. He had a year-old son, Kanhaiyya. His young widow, Yogita, is in the eighth month of her second pregnancy. Putting up a brave-face, she says holding Kanhaiyya close to her: “He just deserted us." Every time he gets up from his sleep the toddler searches for his father, Yogita says. Then his grandmother shows him Moreshwar's framed photograph. As the young-one smiles looking at the picture, the grandma cries.

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An article by P Sainath

The same full page appeared twice in three years, the first time as news, the second time as an advertisement

“Not a single person from the two villages has committed suicide.”

Three and a half years ago, at a time when the controversy over the use of genetically modified seeds was raging across India, a newspaper story painted a heartening picture of the technology's success. “There are no suicides here and people are prospering on agriculture. The switchover from the conventional cotton to Bollgard or Bt Cotton here has led to a social and economic transformation in the villages [of Bhambraja and Antargaon] in the past three-four years.” (Times of India, October 31, 2008).

So heartening was this account that nine months ago, the same story was run again in the same newspaper, word for word. (Times of India, August 28, 2011). Never mind that the villagers themselves had a different story to tell.

“There have been 14 suicides in our village,” a crowd of agitated farmers in Bhambraja told shocked members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture in March this year. “Most of them after Bt came here.” The Hinduwas able to verify nine that had occurred between 2003 and 2009. Activist groups count five more since then. All after 2002, the year the TOI story says farmers here switched to Bt. Prospering on agriculture? The villagers told the visibly shaken MPs: “Sir, lots of land is lying fallow. Many have lost faith in farming.” Some have shifted to soybean where “at least the losses are less.”

Over a hundred people, including landed farmers, have migrated from this ‘model farming village' showcasing Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech's Bt Cotton. “Many more will leave because agriculture is dying,” Suresh Ramdas Bhondre had predicted during our first visit to Bhambraja last September.

The 2008 full-page panegyric in the TOI on Monsanto's Bt Cotton rose from the dead soon after the government failed to introduce the Biotech Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill in Parliament in August 2011. The failure to table the Bill — crucial to the future profits of the agri-biotech industry — sparked frenzied lobbying to have it brought in soon. The full-page, titled Reaping Gold through Bt Cotton on August 28 was followed by a flurry of advertisements from Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (India) Ltd., in the TOI (and some other papers), starting the very next day. These appeared on August 29, 30, 31, September 1 and 3. The Bill finally wasn't introduced either in the monsoon or winter session — though listed for business in both — with Parliament bogged down in other issues. Somebody did reap gold, though, with newsprint if not with Bt Cotton.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture appeared unimpressed by the ad barrage, which also seemed timed for the committee's deliberations on allowing genetically modified food crops. Disturbed by reports of mounting farm suicides and acute distress in Vidarbha, committee members, who belong to different parties, decided to visit the region.

Bhambraja, touted as a model for Mahyco-Monsanto's miracle Bt, was an obvious destination for the committee headed by veteran parliamentarian Basudeb Acharia. Another was Maregaon-Soneburdi. But the MPs struck no gold in either village. Only distress arising from the miracle's collapse and a raft of other, government failures.

The issues (and the claims made by the TOI in its stories) have come alive yet again with the debate sparked off by the completion of 10 years of Bt cotton in India in 2012. The “Reaping Gold through Bt Cotton” that appeared on August 28 last year, presented itself as “A consumer connect initiative.” In other words, a paid-for advertisement. The bylines, however, were those of professional reporters and photographers of the Times of India. More oddly, the story-turned-ad had already appeared, word-for-word, in the Times of India, Nagpur on October 31, 2008. The repetition was noticed and ridiculed by critics. The August 28, 2011 version itself acknowledged this unedited ‘reprint' lightly. What appeared in 2008, though, was not marked as an advertisement. What both versions do acknowledge is: “The trip to Yavatmal was arranged by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech.”

The company refers to the 2008 feature as “a full-page news report” filed by the TOI. “The 2008 coverage was a result of the media visit and was based on the editorial discretion of the journalists involved. We only arranged transport to-and-from the fields,” a Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India spokesperson told The Hindu last week. “The 2011 report was an unedited reprint of the 2008 coverage as a marketing feature.” The 2008 “full-page news report” appeared in the Nagpur edition. The 2011 “marketing feature” appeared in multiple editions (which you can click to online under ‘special reports') but not in Nagpur, where it would surely have caused astonishment.

So the same full-page appeared twice in three years, the first time as news, the second time as an advertisement. The first time done by the staff reporter and photographer of a newspaper. The second time exhumed by the advertising department. The first time as a story trip ‘arranged by Mahyco-Monsanto.' The second time as an advertisement arranged by Mahyco-Monsanto. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

The company spokesperson claimed high standards of transparency in that “…we insisted that the publication add the source and dateline as follows: ‘This is a reprint of a story from the Times of India, Nagpur edition, October 31, 2008.' But the spokesperson's e-mail reply to The Hindu's questions is silent on the timing of the advertisements. “In 2011, we conducted a communications initiative for a limited duration aimed at raising awareness on the role of cotton seeds and plant biotechnologies in agriculture.” Though The Hindu raised the query, there is no mention of why the ads were run during the Parliament session when the BRAI Bill was to have come up, but didn't.

But there's more. Some of the glowing photographs accompanying the TOI coverage of the Bt miracle were not taken in Bhambraja or Antargaon, villagers allege. “This picture is not from Bhambraja, though the people in it are” says farmer Babanrao Gawande from that village.

Phantom miracle

The Times of India story had a champion educated farmer in Nandu Raut who is also an LIC agent. His earnings shot up with the Bt miracle. “I made about Rs.2 lakhs the previous year,” Nandu Raut told me last September. “About Rs.1.6 lakh came from the LIC policies I sold.” In short, he earned from selling LIC policies four times what he earned from farming. He has seven and a half acres and a four-member family.

But the TOI story has him earning “Rs.20,000 more per acre (emphasis added) due to savings in pesticide.” Since he grew cotton on four acres, that was a “saving” of Rs. 80,000 “on pesticide.” Quite a feat. As many in Bhambraja say angrily: “Show us one farmer here earning Rs.20,000 per acre at all, let alone that much more per acre.” A data sheet from a village-wide survey signed by Mr. Raut (in The Hindu's possession) also tells a very different story on his earnings.

The ridicule that Bhambraja and Maregaon farmers pour on the Bt ‘miracle' gains credence from the Union Agriculture Minister's figures. “Vidarbha produces about 1.2 quintals [cotton lint] per hectare on average,” Sharad Pawar told Parliament on December 19, 2011. That is a shockingly low figure. Twice that figure would still be low. The farmer sells his crop as raw cotton. One-hundred kg of raw cotton gives 35 kg of lint and 65 kg of cotton seed (of which up to two kg is lost in ginning). And Mr. Pawar's figure translates to just 3.5 quintals of raw cotton per hectare. Or merely 1.4 quintals per acre. Mr. Pawar also assumed farmers were getting a high price of Rs.4,200 per quintal. He conceded that this was close to “the cost of cultivation… and that is why I think such a serious situation is developing there.” If Mr. Pawar's figure was right, it means Nandu Raut's gross income could not have exceeded Rs.5,900 per acre. Deduct his input costs — of which 1.5 packets of seed alone accounts for around Rs.1,400 — and he's left with almost nothing. Yet, the TOI has him earning “Rs.20,000 more per acre.”

Asked if they stood by these extraordinary claims, the Mahyco-Monsanto spokesperson said, “We stand by the quotes of our MMB India colleague, as published in the news report.” Ironically, that single-paragraph quote, in the full-page-news story-turned-ad, makes no mention of the Rs.20,000-plus per acre earnings or any other figure. It merely speaks of Bt creating “increased income of cotton growers…” and of growth in Bt acreage. It does not mention per acre yields. And says nothing about zero suicides in the two villages. So the company carefully avoids direct endorsement of the TOI's claims, but uses them in a marketing feature where they are the main points.

The MMB spokesperson's position on these claims is that “the journalists spoke directly with farmers on their personal experiences during the visits, resulting in various news reports, including the farmer quotes.”

The born-again story-turned-ad also has Nandu Raut reaping yields of “about 20 quintals per acre with Bollgard II,” nearly 14 times the Agriculture Minister's average of 1.4 quintals per acre. Mr. Pawar felt that Vidarbha's rainfed irrigation led to low yields, as cotton needs “two to three waterings.” He was silent on why Maharashtra, ruled by an NCP-Congress alliance, promotes Bt Cotton in almost entirely rainfed regions. The Maharashtra State Seed Corporation (Mahabeej) distributes the very seeds the State's Agriculture Commissioner found to be unsuited for rainfed regions seven years ago. Going by the TOI, Nandu is rolling in cash. Going by the Minister, he barely stays afloat.

Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech's ad barrage the same week in 2011 drew other fire. Following a complaint, one of the ads (also appearing in another Delhi newspaper) claiming huge monetary benefits to Indian farmers landed before the Advertising Standards Council of India. ASCI “concluded that the claims made in the advertisement and cited in the complaint, were not substantiated.” The MMB spokesperson said the company “took cognizance of the points made by ASCI and revised the advertisement promptly…. ASCI has, on record, acknowledged MMB India's modification of the advertisement…”

We met Nandu again as the Standing Committee MPs left his village in March. “If you ask me today,” he said, “I would say don't use Bt here, in unirrigated places like this. Things are now bad.” He had not raised a word during the meeting with the MPs, saying he had arrived too late to do so.

“We have thrown away the moneylender. No one needs him anymore,” The Times of India news report-turned-ad quotes farmer Mangoo Chavan as saying. That's in Antargaon, the other village the newspaper found to be basking in Bt-induced prosperity. A study of the 365 farm households in Bhambraja and the nearly 150 in Antargaon by the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) shows otherwise. “Almost all farmers with bank accounts are in critical default and 60 per cent of farmers are also in debt to private moneylenders,” says VJAS chief Kishor Tiwari.

The Maharashtra government tried hard to divert the MPs away from the ‘model village' of Bhambraja (and Maregaon) to places where the government felt in control. However, Committee Chairperson Basudeb Acharia and his colleagues stood firm. Encouraged by the MPs visit, people in both places spoke their minds and hearts. Maharashtra's record of over 50,000 farm suicides between 1995 and 2010 is the worst in the country as the data of the National Crime Records Bureau show. And Vidarbha has long led the State in such deaths. Yet, the farmers also spoke of vast, policy-linked issues driving agrarian distress here.

None of the farmers reduced the issue of the suicides or the crisis to being only the outcome of Bt Cotton. But they punctured many myths about its miracles, costs and ‘savings.' Some of their comments came as news to the MPs. And not as paid news or a marketing feature, either.

(Disclosure: The Hindu and The Times of India are competitors in several regions of India.)

This article first appeared in The Hindu.