Anil Kumar never believed he would grow cotton again after his entire crop on 50 acres — 4.5 acres own and the rest taken on lease — was destroyed by a whitefly epidemic in 2015. The 42-year-old from Ghallu village in Punjab’s Fazilka district and tehsil ended up with debts of over Rs 15 lakh. He cleared about two-thirds of it in the subsequent years, by investing in a second-hand tractor and working it “day and night” on other farmers’ fields in Punjab and neighbouring Rajasthan.
“I couldn’t imagine going back to narma (cotton) after seeing what the chitti makhi (whitefly) did to my crop. But I took a chance this year after my fellow farmers here told me how the pest can be managed through proper cultivation practices. I’ve probably taken the right decision,” says Kumar, who also followed the agriculture department’s advice on timely sowing (mid-April to mid-May), planting hybrids such as RCH-773 and RCH-776 having better sucking pest and leaf-curl virus tolerance, and keeping a check on his crop for any signs of infestation.
“Earlier, I never bothered, as there were so many hybrids in the market. But this time I sowed good-quality seeds and did not plant after May 15. Further, I cleared all the wild vegetation around my fields before sowing and ensured that the lands leased in by me were at some distance from kinnow (citrus) orchards, which are breeding grounds for chitti makhi. In early-July, I started seeing ande (eggs/nymphs) of the pest under the leaves of my plants and sprayed a dose of pyriproxyfen insecticide,” Kumar tells The Indian Express.
He is confident of harvesting an average narma/kapas (raw un-ginned cotton) yield of 12-13 quintals per acre. “I have just completed the first picking of 64 man (25.6 quintals) from the crop on my own 4.5 acres sown in early-April. I got a rate of Rs 5,341 per quintal, but full-fledged pickings will happen only from mid-September. There are at least three pickings in roughly 20-day intervals,” adds Kumar, who does not perceive whitefly as a threat now.
Whitefly basically sucks sap from the cotton plant’s phloem or living tissue that transports food made in the leaves (through photosynthesis) to other parts. The small (1-2 mm) white insect is also a carrier for the leaf curl virus. The disease-affected plants are stunted, with less number of bolls and reduced yields. According to scientists, the late-sown cotton is most susceptible to the pest. The crop planted after mid-May is tender during July-August, when the weather conditions — hot, humid and cloudy — are congenial for infestation. The early-sown plant is less prone to attack, as mature leaves are not preferred by the whitefly.
Planting in time is a lesson that Mandeep Singh, 24, has also learnt. This farmer from Raipur village in Mansa district’s Jhunir tehsil had lost 100 per cent of his cotton crop on seven acres and 50 per cent on another seven during 2015 on account of whitefly. Like Anil Kumar, he did not sow cotton in 2016 and 2017, but after seeing farmers harvesting good yields and “managing” the pest, has taken the crop on three acres this year. Kuldeep Singh of Tungwali village in Bathinda district and tehsil, too, is growing narma on two out of his five-acre holding for the first time after 2015. That year, he had cultivated cotton on all five acres, which was completely destroyed by whitefly.
The same farmers, however, are happy with the quality of their crop now and hoping for good prices as well. In 2017-18, kapas rates ruled at Rs 4,000-4,200 per quintal early in the season and rose to Rs 5,000-5,100 towards March, but by which time most farmers had already sold. Average realisations were only around Rs 4,500 per quintal. For 2018-19, the Narendra Modi government has declared a minimum support price of 5,150 per quintal for medium staple and Rs 5,450 for long staple varieties, while these were Rs 4,020 and Rs 4,320 last year.
The whitefly epidemic of 2015 ravaged the cotton crop on an estimated 1.38 lakh hectares (lh) out of Punjab’s total 4.36 lh area. That, and significant losses reported in the balance area, resulted in farmers cutting down plantings to 2.56 lh in 2016 and 3.82 lh in 2017. The not-so-good realisations in 2017-18 and greater yield-cum-price stability from paddy — plus assured government procurement — has meant that cotton acreage has been low even this year, at 2.83 lh. But the farmers who have planted may not regret their decision.
Key to the turnaround in fortunes has been the measures taken for controlling whitefly. Following the 2015 epidemic, a committee comprising agriculture department officials and scientists from Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan — farmers there, too, had faced problems from the pest — was formed under the chairmanship of the Vice-Chancellor of Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana. Among other things, it shortlisted 38-44 Bt cotton hybrids — out of the 250-300 available in the market — that were relatively whitefly-resistant and suited for cultivation in the three states.
“We laid stress on timely sowing and clearing wild vegetation before planting. If farmers sow between April 15 and May 15, the plant would be 45-70 days old by end-June and will have 40-45 leaves. So, even if the pest attacks, the damage is less than when it is on plants that have lesser number of, and more tender, leaves. And if it rains by then, the insects will get washed away, keeping the overall pest population below the ETL or economic threshold levels. That will reduce pesticide use as well, since farmers need to spray only if the number of insects per leaf exceeds six or so,” explains Vijay Kumar, senior entomologist at PAU.
In 2015, more than 70 per cent of the cotton area in Punjab was sown late. The pest could, then, strike when the plant was very small and having 10-15 leaves. “In the last two years, PAU’s regular advisories issued to farmers, including through formation of WhatsApp groups, have definitely helped,” notes Harvinder Singh, agriculture development officer of Mansa district.
The other major intervention has come from the state agriculture department appointing “scouts”, who conduct village-level surveillance for early detection of nymphs (baby whitefly insects) in plant leaves. “The scouts were trained at PAU. From the 2016 season, they would visit 2-5 villages daily in the eight cotton-growing districts (Firozpur, Faridkot, Fazilka, Muktsar, Bathinda, Barnala, Mansa and Sangrur) to monitor breeding levels of the pest and report back to us. This year, we have 250 such scouts, who are all BSc agriculture students at PAU and are being given a monthly stipend of Rs 12,000 for the job, which is now part of their training,” states Jasbir Singh Bains, director of agriculture, Punjab government.
The effects of these are seen on the ground. In 2015, Punjab’s cotton (lint fibre) yield averaged a dismal 197 kg per hectare. In 2016 and 2017, it hit a record 756 kg and 750 kg, respectively. This year, the expected yield is an-time-high of 778 kg — though that would be confirmed only in the next couple of months.