In a move ostensibly aimed at preventing farmers from planting the unauthorised genetically modified herbicide-tolerant (HT Bt) cotton, the Centre has issued a draft notification making it mandatory for spraying of glyphosate — the herbicide widely used for such cotton crops — to take place only through approved pest control operators (PCOs).
However, farmer leaders and agriculture scientists have condemned the draft published on July 7, pointing out that glyphosate is a commonly-used herbicide for a wide range of crops and any move to restrict its usage would have a far-ranging effect.
As per estimates, of the total weedicides sold in India worth Rs 4,500 crore annually, glyphosate alone accounts for over Rs 1,100 crore, with the most-talked about application being in cotton crops.
The chemical cannot be used on normal Bt cotton, but the special hybrid HT Bt cotton can withstand its application.
While HT Bt cotton is an unauthorised variant in the country, farmers still use smuggled seeds for this crop — rough estimates point to 10-15 per cent of the total cotton acreage in the country coming under this unapproved variant. The high cost of weeding, and difficulty in finding agricultural labour, propel farmers to use this variant though they have to pay almost double the usual amount for procuring these seeds. If there is a restriction on the usage of glyphosate, the sowing of HT Bt cotton will also be restricted.
Anil Ghanwat, president of the farmers’ union Shetkari Sanghatana, claimed the notification was an indirect method to control the cultivation of such cotton. This was the second time when the government was trying to curtail the usage of this chemical, he said. “Back in 2018, the governments of Telangana and Maharashtra had tried to restrict the usage of the chemical but the ban remained on paper due to farmers’ protests,” he claimed.
Ghanwat and his organisation earlier led a civil disobedience movement in Akola district of Maharashtra where farmers had openly sown HT Bt cotton to press for its legalisation.
Farmer leaders said the restriction has been proposed even as the government is trying to free up the agriculture sector. “If the notification comes into force, farmers will have to make numerous and meaningless applications for application of a chemical which can save their fields from being overrun by weeds,” Ghanwat claimed.
Bhagirath Choudhary, founder-director of the South Asia Bio Technology Center, said that PCOs are more of an urban post while the chemical has vast rural applications. “Thus the farmer would have to come to the city to seek permission every time he wants to control his weeds,” he said.
Vijay Jawandiya, another farmer leader, called the ban illogical. “If the government wants to restrict usage of HT Bt cotton, then they should stop seed production in Gujarat. Why ban a chemical which has a wide usage,” he asked, claiming the notification is against the “spirit of competitive agriculture”.
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