Chlorophile: For Punjab farmers, governance a risk factor

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Updated: October 19, 2015 4:22:05 PM

The whitefly outbreak has given a shot in the arm to those opposed to genetically engineered crops

At Pathrala railway station on the Bhatinda-Bikaner line, farmers are squatting on carpet-covered tracks under white canopies. It is Day 5 of their ‘rail roko’ agitation. The mood is sombre. The sacrifices of Sikh gurus is invoked, the Jallianwala massacre is recalled. It is evening, and halwa is passed around on slips of newspaper. There is camaraderie born of common suffering. Similar scenes have been reported at Rampura on the Bhatinda-Ambala line and Shergarh on the Bhatinda-Mansa line.

The agitation was called off on the seventh day. The protesters were unable to get the government to improve upon its offering of R8,000 an acre to farmers, and R800 for farm labourers. This relief won’t compensate for costs incurred and cotton crop lost to the pest, whitefly.

As one drives from Rohtak in Haryana to Bhatinda in Punjab, and onwards to Abohar and Fazilka districts, the devastation is visible at first glance. Green fields have blotches of dirty brown as if caustic alkali has been drizzled on them. Shrivelled speckles of white from burst cotton bolls on stunted plants point to the damage wreaked by the sap-sucking pest.

‘I believe this is an attempt to grab land and give it to companies,’ says Balwant Singh, 50, who grew cotton on 5 acres and moong on another 5 acres in Kaljharani. ‘This is a conspiracy to force us off our farms.’ Such paranoia is understandable because cotton prices were low last year, potato prices crashed earlier this year due to a glut, sugar mills have defaulted on arrears and basmati is selling at a discount over even common rice.

Kaljharani adjoins Badal, the village of the Punjab chief minister. Singh sprayed his cotton crop 6 times, including with a new molecule provided by the government at half-price. He was unable to save either his cotton or moong crop.

Amandeep Dhillon, of the same village, has a similar story. Of 80 acres, she sowed 40 with cotton. Whitefly infestation is not new, says the English-speaking, hands-on farmer, but ‘this year it has been uncontrollable.’ Her crop was healthy till August. Suddenly, the rapidly-multiplying pest was all over. She had the crop sprayed with water in the morning to wash off the waste left by the flies on the leaves to aid photosynthesis, and treated with chemicals in the evening. She tried the government-supplied stuff and other recommended potions. She even went organic with neem oil—all to no effect. She expects a picking of 2.5 quintals an acre, against last year’s 8 quintals. Her crop of guar, whose prices have fallen in sympathy with crude oil, has also been damaged by the pest.

Anuj Kajla, 22, of Panjkosi, the village of former speaker and agriculture minister, Balram Jakhar, has lost 45 acres of cotton. He sprayed various chemicals 9 times, singly and in combination, spending R6,500 an acre. The crop is a washout.

His neighbour, Surender Sharma, grew cotton on 15 acres, all leased at an annual rental of R30,000/acre contracted on credit from the arthiya at a monthly interest rate of 2%. He has ploughed under 8 acres of the crop not wanting to waste money on picking. Of the remaining 7 acres, which he considers ‘good,’ he expects to harvest about one quintal an acre against 8-10 quintals last year.

The plight of farm workers, usually ignored, is worse. Kaushalya Devi, picking cotton on Sharma’s field, managed just 10 kg the whole day when she would have been picking nearly 10 times as much. Her rate—R5 a kg—has not changed despite the effort involved in picking a lean crop because there is so little work available and growers themselves are hard up.

At Pathrala, Sita Devi, a Class VIII student from the Bagariya tribe, is picking cotton on a holiday. When told that she is under-age and shouldn’t be working, she says, ‘we must do something to be able to eat.’ She struggles, thanks to the sparse cotton. The land owners, she says, will get some relief; labourers will have to fend for themselves.

For the government, the crisis must be managed with minimal damage to its prospects in the next elections.

Scientists, extension officials and private pesticide suppliers, all claim to have played their part responsibly.

‘Weather was most favourable this year’ for the whitefly outbreak, says Paramjit Singh, director of Punjab Agricultural University’s regional research station at Bhatinda. Whiteflies emerged in the second half of June, about two months earlier than usual because of humidity and day temperatures being less than 40oC. Late cotton sowing due to delayed wheat cutting made young plants vulnerable. The university recommended 5 cotton hybrids and 4 kinds of sprays, Singh says, but most farmers may not have heeded the advice. They were told to spray when the number of adult male whiteflies exceeded the ‘economic threshold limit’ of 6/leaf. According to Singh’s assessment, ‘40-50%’ of the crop is damaged—an obvious under-estimate. The crop at the station itself does not look healthy, though Singh insists it is.

Among pesticide companies, Bayer’s brand value seems to have suffered. The government bought 92,200 litres of Oberon, a new molecule which Bayer CropScience introduced in India in 2013, and sold it with 50% subsidy. The farmers this correspondent spoke to found the chemical to be ineffective. Bayer says the quantity which the government bought would have covered just 23% of Punjab’s cotton acreage. Its ‘assessment’ is that ‘a majority of farmers’ who sprayed it ‘in the right window’ according to ‘recommended usage guidelines’ would be ‘satisfied with the product.’ Bayer says whitefly nymphs cause the most damage; by the time farmers notice the adults it would be ‘too late to control the pest.’

There is speculation (unverified) that the pesticide which the government supplied may have been adulterated. If so, the adulteration may have happened after the chemical left the manufacturer’s premises because companies with reputations to protect would not risk losing farmers’ trust. The state director of agriculture, Mangal Singh Sandhu, was removed from his post, and upon obtaining a stay from the high court, arrested for alleged corruption. But what explains the failure of the crop in Haryana? Given the virulence of the pest and the desperation of farmers a surge in scruple-less sales can be expected, but can the entire stock across the state be spurious?

The whitefly outbreak has given a shot in the arm to those who oppose GM crops. They are pointing fingers at Bt cotton, though the Bt gene targets only bollworms. Dhillon says non-Bt cotton which she planted around the field for bollworms to feed on (so that they do not develop resistance to the Bt gene) had been unaffected by whiteflies. This calls for investigation by seed companies. Scientist M S Swaminathan believes, based on his Green Revolution experience with dwarf varieties of wheat, that when a dominant pest (bollworm) is controlled, lesser ones move in.

Former state finance minister Manpreet Singh Badal says the handling of the whitefly attack points to a disease. ‘It is a symptom of corruption, poor governance and weak leadership.’ Badal fell out with his chief minister uncle in 2010 for voicing concerns about the state’s debt problem. He now presides over his own party.

The Punjab farmer is lurching from one crisis to another. They have to negotiate volatile prices and uncertain weather. The government is the third risk factor they have to reckon with.

The author is consulting editor,

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