Madhya Pradesh: No "white gold" for Bt cotton farmers Print E-mail

 Chennai -- Volume 23 - Issue 01, January 14 - 27, 2006

Failure in Nimar

ANNIE ZAIDI in Badwani

Bt cotton farmers face heavy losses in Madhya Pradesh but the State government is doing little to help them.


SHAJU JOHN:  Bt cotton (RCH-2) seedlings at the Rasi biotech laboratory near Salem in Tamil Nadu.

A PAMPHLET fluttering on a wall in Badwani proclaims, "Yes, yes! There's a difference!". It is about RCH-2, one of the brand names under which Bt cotton seeds are marketed. The `difference', however, is an unexpected one: the fields stand desolate; much of the cotton crop died prematurely. Many farmers have not even bothered to remove the skeleton of the crop that promised "white gold".

The cotton farmers of Madhya Pradesh's Nimar region are known to be a prosperous lot. This year, however, they are feeling betrayed by the seed companies that sold them Bt cotton.

Nimar, which includes the districts of Khandwa, Burhanpur, Khargone, Badwani and Dhar, succumbed to the promise of `Bt', which was promoted aggressively as a product that would lead to high yields with lower investments, and was suitable for all types of soil and water conditions. At least three lakh seed packets were sold in the region, covering at least 22 per cent of its 6.34 lakh hectares of cotton-sown area.

Unfortunately, the farmers were not warned about the fine print at the bottom edge of the packets. While the posters and pamphlets loudly promised gains in both irrigated and non-irrigated land, the seed companies were careful to print a disclaimer at the bottom, saying that they were not to be held responsible for losses, since the performance of the crop varied with water availability and since the company could not ensure that all the instructions were followed.

Farmers organised a public hearing on October 23 in Kukshi in Dhar district. Dhoorjibhai Patidar, a farmer, pointed out that he had sown Bt (brand MECH-184) on two acres (0.8 hectare) and it yielded six quintals. He also sowed a non-Bt hybrid (Anmol) on four acres (1.6 ha), which yielded 42 quintals. The farmers want to know why the Bt cotton brands are marketed as bringing higher yields.

Chogalal Rathor of Bhanwariya village sowed Mahyco-Monsanto's MECH-184. "I sowed on May 25 and by August 15, it started drying up. The little that had fruited until then was picked; I lost the rest gradually. I went to complain to Nisarpur (to the Senior Agriculture Development Officer) and to the Tehsildar. On September 1, I gave a written complaint. Nothing has come of it. The scientists came, took photos and went off," he said.

Purshottam Patidar, of the neighbouring Susariya village, said that the non-Bt plants did not dry up. Frontline visited his fields, where the crop was still standing, and saw that indeed the three rows of non-Bt that surrounded his field, as stipulated, was still green. The Bt-cotton plants were dry.

The worst-affected districts are Badwani and Dhar. In Bhanwariya, Frontline spoke to Mohanlal Patidar, chairman of the Kukshi Krishi Upaj Mandi Samiti. He said: "You should see the pamphlets. They print pictures of those farmers who had a good crop endorsing Bt seeds. One farmer was shown claiming that one packet of seeds yielded 20 quintals of cotton. We tracked down this farmer; his name was Radheshyam Patidar. He told us that he never made any such claim, and that actually five packets of seeds yielded 20 quintals, which is only four quintals an acre."

In Khaparkheda village in Dhar district, Frontline met Prakash Udhavji Tomar, who had a long list of those who had complained against the Bt seed companies. He said: "Last year, I used non-Bt seeds and got 15 quintals an acre. This year, I sowed Bt on four acres and the whole area gave me only nine quintals. While marketing, they promise us 20-25 quintal an acre. If the government does not force them to compensate us, we will go to the consumer court."

The government, however, does not seem anxious to act against the seed manufacturers. When several complaints of crops drying up were reported, the State government set up a high-level committee, chaired by the Principal Scientist, two Senior Scientists and a Joint Director of the Agriculture Department. Four teams, comprising cotton scientists and local officials, visited the region between November 23 and 30, according to sources in the department. The scientists concluded that only two development blocks were affected badly - Nisarpur in Dhar and Pati in Badwani. The problem was diagnosed as `new wilt', a physiological disorder. They also found Bt cotton to be more susceptible than non-Bt hybrids. The report claims that `new wilt' affected those crops that were sown in May, before the rains, and those lands where the soil was `light'. Finally, it held the lack of rainfall also responsible for the problem, saying that it rained after intervals of 10 to 22 days in August.

However, the farmers refuse to attribute their losses to nature. They claim that the irrigated fields suffered as much as non-irrigated ones. Also, losses occurred in both light and heavy soils. Both crops that were sown in May and as those that were sworn after it began to rain suffered losses. The only thing they had in common was that they used genetically engineered Bollgard seeds, for which the patent is held by Monsanto and which is marketed by companies such as Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech, Rasi, Ankur, and Nuziveedu, under brand names such as MECH-184, MECH-162, MECH-12, MRC-6301, RCH-138 or Shakti-9, RCH-2 (also called Rasi 2), RCH-118 (Sai), Ankur-09, Ankur-651 and others.

At the public hearing, farmers pointed out that the administration had not surveyed the fields properly. Mohan Patidar said that he had travelled across the district with farmers. "At least 50 per cent of the farmers have suffered losses. Those affected lost between 25 to 90 per cent of their crop. The State officials and the seed company representatives never turned up for our public hearing although they were in the next village. They reluctantly agreed to attend after I went to call them, along with some reporters."

He added that K.S. Dabur, Senior Agriculture Development Officer from Nisarpur, claimed that 60 of the 75 written complaints had been investigated. The administration concluded that in Bhanwariya, Susariya and Babulsa villages, 60 farmers were affected and that they had all used Bt cotton seeds, mostly MECH-184. The farmers immediately cross-examined the list and it turned out that there were several irregularities. Sukhdev Budaji's name was on the list, although he claimed he was never questioned. He also said that he had used RCH-2as well. He added that no official visited his fields.

Dabur did not reply to this allegation. Most farmers allege that the official survey is a fabrication. Sukhdev told Frontline that he had suffered losses last year too. "Last year 10 per cent of the crop dried, this year 100 per cent. I even sent registered letters to the seed companies at the addresses printed on the pamphlets they give us. Rasi acknowledged my letter but Mahyco-Monsanto sent it back."

Many other allegations were made at the public hearing. Narendra Pawar from Khaparkheda recalls: "The seed company representatives would say anything to avoid responsibility. When we said the crops are dry, they said you needed more water. If we said the field was irrigated, they would say there was too much water. If we sowed in May, they said it was too early. Those who waited until July were told it was too late. They tried to say it was a fungus, but we split open the plants and there was no symptom of wilting owing to fungal infection. Then they began to say that we never gave any guarantees for high yields."

Currently, the demand for compensation is quite strident. Farmers are hopeful after last year's verdict from the Jhabua District Consumer Forum, which ruled in favour of three farmers (Indu, son of Ramsingh, and Kaliya, son of Dangriya, of Dholyavad village, and Ajay Singh, son of Nansingh of Hattipura village). The court asked Mahyco to pay Rs.1 lakh each as compensation. In the Badwani District Consumer Forum too, a case was registered against Mahyco-Monsanto. On April 27, 2004, Mohan, son of Bhimaji Yadav, bought Bollgard seeds (MECH-184 and 162). The company's field officer told him to expect 30 quintals an acre, and assured him that no pests would attack the crop. Within three months, the crop dried up suddenly. Mohan claimed Rs.2 lakhs as compensation, since he had followed the company's instructions fully.

Frontline questioned Monsanto about the failure of the crop and whether it intended to withdraw its products until further investigations were completed. The company takes refuge behind its upward-curving sales graph. Monsanto replied: "Bollgard acreage in MP [Madhya Pradesh] increased from 33,000 in 2003 to 207,000 acres in 2004 and to 355,000 in 2005. This increase in acreage and number of farmers adopting Bollgard is a testament to the continuing success and acceptance of the technology in India."

Frontline also asked, among other things, whether the company intended to compensate farmers, and whether it was ethical to market the product as they did. On both these counts, Monsanto was silent.

The company is also silent on the subject of Bollgard causing allergies. A study was conducted by Dr. Ashish Gupta, associated with the non-governmental organisation Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, and Amulya Nidhi, a social health activist in Indore. Gupta said: "We studied 23 people who were exposed to the cotton, while picking bolls and in ginning factories, and were found to have rashes, swelling and itching. Continued exposure led to a worsening of the situation. Some labourers lost wage-days. This had never happened before Bt seeds were sown." Their report admitted that the sample size was small but stressed the need to take note of the impact of Bt cotton on community health.

The State government's report, curiously, denies any impact on humans or animals. However, Frontline met villagers who were affected. Dev Kuwar Bai of Khaparkheda said that she had been hospitalised for eight days owing to a severe rash and swelling on the face and arms. Narendra Pawar stored the cotton in his house and was similarly affected when he sat against it.

The farmers also blame the Madhya Pradesh government for approving the sale of Bollgard. In 2002, a government committee comprising agricultural scientists and a Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, from Khargone, surveyed nine Bt fields. Five of these showed signs of drying up. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests had also investigated the Bt cotton crop in 2002. Six senior scientists and officials were in the team, including one representative from Mahyco. They surveyed eight villages in Khandwa and Khargone, wherein two fields dried up to 80 per cent. The team had recorded in its report that at least 20 per cent of the fields suffered extensive drying up, leading to low yields.

Nimar's farmers want to know why approval was granted at all under the circumstances, especially when the Andhra Pradesh government had banned the sale of three varieties - MECH-184, MECH-162 and MECH-12. Andhra Pradesh had also asked Mahyco-Monsanto to compensate the farmers. The company refused and the State went to the High Court, demanding Rs.4.5 crores as compensation.

Frontline questioned Monsanto about the brands that had been banned, but the company did not comment.

In the meantime, the farmers who bore losses have yet another problem, insurance. Chogalal Rathor explained: "Crops are insured against natural calamities such as drought. But the insurance company will not compensate us because there was no drought. They say the problem is with the seeds you used. The seed companies refuse to compensate us; they blame the rainfall. What should we do? Almost everybody is in debt now."

When asked whether there have been any cases of suicides, like in the case of the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, the farmers smiled ruefully. "This is just the beginning..