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AGRICULTURE & DEVELOPMENT: Farmers in Vidarbha (India) are moving away from cotton, prefer to grow food crops







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TITLE:  CANNOT COTTON ON…

SOURCE: The Hindu Business Line, India

AUTHOR: Aparna Pallavi

URL:    http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/life/2007/07/06/stories/2007070650070400.htm

DATE:   06.07.2007

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CANNOT COTTON ON…

Farmers in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region are moving away from cotton cultivation and now prefer to grow food crops.

Plunging cotton prices, rising cost of fertilisers, mounting debts have compelled these farmers to stay away from cotton.

I will not grow cotton anymore. I have two children to feed, and I just can’t risk losses on my farm,” says Manorama Santosh Ahir of Naygaon village, Buldhana district. ”I will plant jowar (the staple millet in the region) and tur. Cotton costs too much. One needs seeds, labour, pesticides and fertilisers, it’s an expensive proposition. And it requires so much attention.” This is what most farmers in the V idarbha region of Maharashtra have to say when asked why they no longer wish to cultivate the region’s main cash crop. The 3.2 million-plus cotton growers have been hit hard in recent years by plunging cotton prices and the rising cost of fertilisers and other inputs. Crushed by mounting debts, thousands of farmers have committed suicide. Experts studying Vidarbha’s agrarian crises have often suggested that if farmers cannot secure a good price for cotton they should not plant it. The falling support price for cotton has been a rallying point between the Maharashtra government and the farmers of Vidarbha.

So far, the suggestion had not met with much enthusiasm from the farming community. However, a growing number of women farmers — especially widows of farmers who committed suicide — appear to have toyed with the idea. Their reasons are basic: time and money. Unlike jowar, tur or even soyabean — all of which require weeding just once or twice in the entire season — cotton needs regular weeding. For the farmer, this translates into time lost in sourcing and supervising labourers; and into expe nses incurred because of their wages. Furthermore, the prices of inputs have skyrocketed in the last eight years. Irregular returns are cited as another major deterrent.

Shobha Bodkhe of Nimgaon village in district Buldhana is running from pillar to post to secure a promised anganwadi teacher job. She is also engaged in a tussle with her in-laws over land rights. ”I have to do all the househol d work, take care of my son, deal with the legal issues, as well as manage the farm. I can’t even visit my farm every day. Where do I have the time to manage a fussy crop like cotton,” she asks. Last season, Shobha planted soyabean and corn on her 3.5-acre farm. ”The returns were not very good,” she admits, but adds, ”how can I say cotton would have been better?”

Kusum Mahadevrao Ingle of Kanheri Sarap village in Akola district had opted out of BT (genetically modified) cotton last year after her husband committed suicide. ”BT requires lot of attention, labour and water, all of which I don’t have,” explains Kusum, a mother of two school-going boys.

In Saikheda village of Yavatmal district, Chandrakala Meshram, a widow, cites another reason. ”I can’t opt for a crop loan because the land is still in my husband’s name. Without a loan, I cannot meet the expenses of planting cotton. Men can get money from anywhere, but who will give me money?”

 

Cotton Vs food crops

While the women cite various reasons for not cultivating cotton, one wonders about the implication of such a trend.

Gajanan Amdabadkar, a farmer-activist, who has been touring the rural areas of Vidarbha documenting and researching farm suicides, says, ”It is not easy to determine the effects. The decision to stay away from cotton comes mostly out of a sense of being unable to manage and not out of the conviction that it will make better economic sense. Still, a section of women farmers are opting out, though it is too early to predict what it will mean for their family economies.”

Amdabadkar’s wife Vijaya, who manages their 20-acre farm in Ladegaon village, Washim district, almost single-handedly, has also decided not to plant cotton this year. ”It is just not worth it. The price does not even cover the expense. The input costs have gone up but the support price has dropped. We need a support price of at least Rs 3,000 per quintal (100 kg) to make cotton work,” she says. Last year, the Maharashtra government cut the minimum support price from Rs 2,000 to Rs 1,750 per quintal.

So does she think not planting cotton makes better economic sense? ”I don’t know. Other crops like tur, jowar and soybean do not give good financial returns. I don’t mean I will not plant cotton at all... just less than last year.”

 

The complexities of farm economies

Journalist Jaideep Hardikar, who has been studying the crisis for quite some time now, feels that the shift to food crops will not mean a better income, but stability. ”Food crops mean a lower loan burden, and sufficient food in the house would mean less desperation,” he says.

But Amdabadkar begs to differ, ”Those who say ’don’t plant cotton’ don’t know what cotton means to the farmer of Vidarbha. Cotton means cash, and cash means education for children and repayment of pending loans.” Chandrakant Wankhede, editor of Marathi daily Sakal, who has spent 20 years in the villages as an activist, says, ”Farm economies are complex and not easy to figure out. Moving back to food crops might sound good from a certain ide alistic standpoint, but that is, again, based on the urban assumption that farmers need nothing but food.”

Moreover, says Wankhede, cotton being a labour-intensive crop, much of the farmer’s investment in the crop goes in wages, which means livelihood for farm labourers. ”Simply opting out of cotton may or may not be a solution for the farmer’s own problem, but it surely means unemployment for the rural landless labourers.”

He may be right. A closer look at the economies of the women farmers who are thinking of giving the cotton crop a pass reveals that they have better economic support than others. Manorama has a job as an anganwadi helper, which mean s at least a regular, though meagre, income, independent of farming.

Shobha and Kusum are in queue for similar jobs and have hopes of better economic prospects. Women, whose families are entirely dependent on incomes from farming, are finding it more difficult to drop cotton. ”I have a daughter who is studying and another who needs constant medical attention. Where will I get money for all this if not from cotton,” asks Saraswati Ambarwar of village Tailang Takli (district Yavatmal). In the previous season, she could not raise funds for weeding and for pesticide sprays for the cotton crop and the yield fell substantially. But she is sure she will still grow cotton again this year. ”There is no other option,” she says.

Elaborates Vijaya, ”The problem is not with cotton, but with its price. Cotton has always been a high-investment crop, but it has also been the secret of Vidarbha’s prosperity. Even 20 years ago, the price of one quintal of cotton used to be at par with the price of one tola (10 grams) of gold. Even a moderate yield meant a good profit. Now the price has fallen to less than one-third of that, and input costs have gone up. Even bumper yields do not mean anything. We suff er if we plant cotton, we suffer if we don’t.”


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