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What ails the farm sector part-3: Safest bet for farmers, cotton’s success stymied by low yields, lack of irrigation

It’s sturdy and withstands harsh weather conditions better than other crops, it’s non-perishable, farmers can hope to get extra flushes from extended rain spells and, more importantly, prices have generally remained stable if not very remunerative. Moreover, cotton has always had a demanding market in the textile industry.

Written by Vivek Deshpande | Nagpur |
July 26, 2017 4:06:54 am
 cotton harvest, cotton prices, cotton growth, what ails the farmers, genetically modified cotton, cotton msp, maharashtra Cotton remains the most popular choice for farmers in Vidarbha, Marathwada and parts of middle Maharashtra. (Express Archive)

IN April 2010, raw cotton prices had zoomed close to Rs 7,000 per quintal, its highest peak till date. As a result, the cotton area in Maharashtra saw a record jump from 33.91 lakh hectare in 2009-10 to 39.42 lakh hectare in 2010-11. The event bears uncanny similarity to its intercrop arhar’s story in 2016, when the pulse’s price skyrocketed to a record over Rs 9,000 per quintal, leading to the area of the crop going up by over three lakh hectare in 2016-17. And it was cotton area that took the hit dropping from 42 to 38 lakh hectare. But with arhar (pigeon pea) prices crashing to less than Rs 4,000 per quintal and cotton prices touching a high of Rs 5,700 per quintal, cotton is set to regain its lost ground in 2017-18. Also, over the past ten years, soybean and cotton crops competed with each other in Maharashtra, with the area being influenced by prices and pests.

Despite being seen by some as a “problem crop” for farmers, cotton, however, remains the most popular choice for farmers in Vidarbha, Marathwada and parts of middle Maharashtra (Khandesh), thanks to the advantages it provides like no other crop does. It’s sturdy and withstands harsh weather conditions better than other crops, it’s non-perishable, farmers can hope to get extra flushes from extended rain spells and, more importantly, prices have generally remained stable if not very remunerative. Moreover, cotton has always had a demanding market in the textile industry and hence was seen as a cash crop by farmers. Clearly, agrarian distress in general and farmers’ suicides in particular in regions like Vidarbha do not relate to cotton so much as many have reasoned as far as the farmers’ steadfast choice for the crop goes.

Says farmer Dilip Pohane from Hinganghat, the biggest cotton mandi in the state, in Wardha district, “I had stopped sowing cotton for past three years due to lopsided cost benefit ratio and had switched over to arhar. But since arhar prices have crashed, I am switching back to cotton this time. And if you take a look at the entire stretch of 50 km from Hinganghat to Wadki, you will find 75 pc of farmers have gone for cotton since it fetched up to Rs 5,700 per quintal last year.” Pohane agrees that cotton provides advantages even if it’s not hugely profitable. “In situations like the one created by arhar, cotton is the only viable option,” he says. Read: What ails the farm sector part-1: Maharashtra farmers angry despite bumper pulse harvest, prices crash on oversupply. Click here

According to government statistics, cotton sowing in the state is complete up to 93 pc of the average area till July 21, which is already 108 pc of last year’s sown area. Arhar sowing, meanwhile, has fallen 13 pc. The rise in acreage could impact prices, some feel. According to cotton trader Pankaj Kochar from Hinganghat, there has been 40 pc increase in cotton area in the Hinganghat belt. “With the kind of rain at this juncture, production will go up by 1.5 times and is likely to suppress the prices this time round,” he says.

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But Keshav Kranthi, former Director of Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) and now with Washington’s International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), says many countries have seen a drop in area under cotton. “And with China also likely to import this time, the prices are expected to remain at the same level as last year,” he says.

 cotton harvest, cotton prices, cotton growth, what ails the farmers, genetically modified cotton, cotton msp, maharashtra, india news, latest news, indian express news MSP and cotton prices in Maharashtra

Some activists have also blamed the advent of genetically modified Bt cotton as an aggravating event in farm distress. But increase in area, production and productivity in cotton over the years do not bear it out. Even going by the farmers’ suicide numbers over the past ten years, Bt cotton is difficult to blame for distress. What most have missed is a very substantial drop in suicide numbers from 1449 in 2006 to 805 in 2013 in the six main cotton growing districts of Vidarbha viz Wardha, Amravati, Akola, Buldana, Washim and Yavatmal. These are known as the most suicide-prone districts in not only Vidarbha but also anywhere in the country. Interestingly, Yavatmal, that had registered the maximum 360 suicides in 2006, recorded 231 suicides in 2013. Coincidentally, this was the period when Bt cotton picked up in a big way to cover over 95 pc of the cotton area in the state. The area under cotton also rose from 31.07 lakh hectares in 2006 to 42.07 lakh hectares in 2016, averaging an increase of more than one lakh hectare per year.

The productivity levels have also gone up from 253 kg lint per hectare in 2006-07 to maximum of 361 kg lint per hectare in 2013-14. The average market price has also risen from Rs 1,955 in 2006-07 to Rs 4,751 in 2015-16. Read: What ails the farm sector part-2: Politics brings bitter turn for sugar barons, drip irrigation for cane still to catch up. Click here

The problem for Maharashtra’s 20 lakh cotton farmers, however, has been low productivity. In states like Gujarat, the yields are more than double that of Maharashtra. The difference between cost of production and average market price has always been very small. In 2006-07, according to statistics provided by Kranthi of the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), the cost of production in 2006 was Rs 2,052 per quintal against the average market price of Rs 1,955 and the minimum support price (MSP) provided by the government Rs 1,990.

Incidentally, the MSP factor was virtually rendered ineffective since 2005 when the state government virtually ended the Monopoly Cotton Procurement Scheme (MCPS), where it would buy the entire cotton produce of state farmers by paying a bonus amount above the MSP. The scheme, launched for thirty years in 1973, ran on extensions for two years till 2005 with no further extension being granted due to over Rs 8,000 crore losses piling up and continued default on payment of bonus. Since then, the open market prices have mostly been above the MSP, barring 2008, when then Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar hiked the MSP by a huge 42 pc from Rs 2030 to Rs 3000. The market didn’t respond to the government move and kept their offers low, forcing the state government to buy about 70 pc of the produce. But except for 2008-09, farmers have been selling their cotton in the open market.

Low productivity itself is because about 90 pc of the state’s cotton area is non-irrigated and about one-third of the state area is in Vidarbha (about 15 lakh hectares), where irrigation is a far cry. Of late, in the Khandesh region, the yields have gone up handsomely, attributed to use of drip irrigation.
Though productivity has increased after the advent of Bt cotton, it has kind of plateaued over the past ten years. “Resurgence of sap sucking insects and emergence of Bt-resistant pink bollworms. Sap sucking insect pests such as jassids, mealy bugs, mirid bugs, thrips and whiteflies, which are not controlled by Bt-cotton, increased over the past ten years and caused serious damage despite heavy use of insecticides,” says Kranthi. “Pink bollworms, which can feed only on developing cotton seeds and almost nothing else, developed high levels of resistance to Bt-cotton. More than a thousand private Bt-cotton hybrids were released during the five year period after 2006. Majority of these were very susceptible to the sap sucking pests thereby leading to the problem of sucking pests. Non sowing of refuge crop surrounding Bt, as prescribed in the Bt technique coupled with extending the crop by a few months, led to rapid development of pink bollworm resistance to Bt-cotton only in India and nowhere else in the world,” he adds. Whiteflies in Punjab and Pink Bollworm in Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh had hit national headlines last year. Whitefly had blown up into an election issue in Punjab.

Successive governments have rhetorically pushed “cotton to cloth” slogan doing virtually nothing on the ground to turn it into a reality. A value chain beginning with cotton and ending in cloth has kept hanging fire with no textile units coming up in and around cotton growing areas.

Tomorrow: Resolving Maharashtra’s Irrigation crisis

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