Navdanya travels to the cotton growing Malwa belt of Punjab to report the damage done by the whitefly on Bt cotton in October ’15. Despite spraying pesticides 10- 15 times, 1.2 million acres of cotton was destroyed by the whitefly, a common pest. This short film is an attempt to make the pain of the Bt Cotton farmers be heard and make the lives our farmers’ lives matter.
Film and production by Shaani and Indra Shekhar Singh | Edited by Roanna Rahman.
Biotech fails – farmers pay the price
by Indra Shekhar Singh
— Seed Freedom (@occupytheseed) December 16, 2015
Walking around Kuldeep Singh devoured Bt cotton fields in Chuge Kalan, Bathinda, we could still smell a variety noxious pesticides. Each of which could not stop the Whitefly, common suckling pest from destroying 95 percent of his Bt cotton. For Kuldeep, Monsanto’s promise of less pesticide use and higher yields had failed. Debt ridden and hopeless he ended his life by consuming ‘Salphas’ a common insecticide during a Bt Cotton protest in Bathinda. Chuge Kalan, a 400 hundred year old village about 20 kms from Bhatinda, lost more than a young son that day. It had lost its resilient spirit to a commodity Bt Cotton.
Expensive seeds, pesticides, chemical fertilisers and a large rent had put Kuldeep under heavy debt. A failed harvest led him to commit suicide at the farmers protest in Bathinda. But this is not just Kuldeep, it is the tale of Rajbeer Singh, Sukhminder Singh and countless other chemical farmers. Each of them have lost 90-95 percent Bt crop this year to a common pest whitefly inspite taking all prescribed precautions. With no choice left, each of them consumed the same pesticides that failed them.
Navdanya set out to find the real extent of the damage in Punjab. In the Bathinda region, we found most farmers had to either uproot their crops without harvesting any cotton, the average yields of Bt cotton were as low as 40 kgs per acre, whereas the organic cotton growers harvested 5-8 quintals/per acre of cotton this season. With each quintal cotton at the mandi (wholesale) pegged between Rs 3500- 3800, some of these farmers got as little as Rs 1400 per acre. The chemical farmers had invested roughly between 30-50 thousand per acre. Most of this money was spent on procuring expensive Bt Seeds, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, water, labour and land rents.
The junk Bt technology failed to deliver high yields and the over use of pesticides led to the evolution of super weeds and pests which now threaten the crops of Punjab. The high input cost has caught small farm holders, tenants farmers and agricultural workers most distress. While small holder sell land to recover from debt, there is little hope for tenant and labourers as they have lost all of their livelihood with the harvest.
This situation has got Bt cotton farmers of Bhatinda in a debt trap. The only way to save their land for most is to commit suicide. As per reports, today 3-4 farmers or labourers are committing suicide each day. The local newspapers are filled with reports of deaths each day, there are large section isolated in their villages still whose deaths go unreported each day. We would say that one out of three cases of farmers’ suicide is unreported by the media.
By October 9th, 2015 the Malwa cotton belt region of Punjab sunk deep into an agrarian crisis as 1.2 million acres of cotton crop was ruined by a pest infestation. Despite 13-15 rounds of spraying pesticides, Bt cotton was still devoured by the whitefly. As per reports that “almost all” of the crop destroyed was of the Bt cotton variety, organic cotton grower successfully reported to ward of the infestation and produced an average of 4-7 quintals per acre.
After the first wave in early October, media sources reported 15 farmers had committed suicide as 2/3rd of the cotton crop failed. The losses ran in upwards of Rs 4200 crore and peaceful protesting farmers in an act of non-cooperation blocked the arterial railway tracks around Bhatinda. As the protests grew strict censorship was imposed.
The farmers demands for a fair compensation of 40,000 per acre for each farmer and Rs 20,000 for each labourers’ family. But this was denied after which Bt cotton farmers organised themselves and marched upto to blockade the major railway lines in around Bhatinda.
Over hundreds of women and men set up the blockades at Pathrala, Mansa, Rampura, Shergerh, etc. The protest continued for a few days peacefully, after which as per protesters at each blockade reported that the state government through the police were trying to disrupt their food supplies( Langar). Everyday the police would put more pressure on the farmers, by harassing them or preventing them to resupply.
The Indian railways after a week filed an FIR against the protestors as they were blocking the railway tracks and causing huge losses to the exchequer.
The government also announced a compensation package of Rs 8000 per acre for the Cotton farmers. But this is was a paltry amount when we compare it with the high input costs. There were public shaming of the state agricultural minister and department, who sold the junk Bt seeds to the farmers. Their was also a deep resentment for companies such as Bayer and Monsanto who had looted the farmers with the promises of higher yields from Bt seeds and protection from pests.
Aftermath and current crisis
After Navdanya left Bathinda, the Rail roko (rail blockades) were called off and the protesting farmers called for a general strike in Bathinda and other major cities of the Malwa belt. While the farmers’ union leaders were trying negotiate a deal with the state government. The protestors were being baton charged and beaten. After the talks between the government failed to yield results, the agitations were intensified.
But a major blow came to their demands came, when allegedly some groups desecrated the Guru Granth Sahib. Suddenly an agrarian crisis was made out to be a communal one. The police took control over the state and 3 people were reported killed in police firing, with hundreds other injured across the state.
The farmers’ protest was disbanded soon after. The Bt cotton of farmers Malwa are still waiting to receive their 8 thousand rupees cheque, hopeful that their government will come to their aid. But most don’t have the luxury of time, as loan sharks and banks are now forcing small farmers for money. Sadly, for many death has become the easier alternative. With the large debts upon them they can take another loan refinance their previous loan, or risk losing their sole piece of land to the banks or the money lenders.
This has also led to the sharp fall in land prices in the area. In fact land rates after the crisis were at at their lowest. The loss of cotton harvest has not only ruined the rural cotton economy, but painful heralded an age, where the Punjabi farmers have given up and are defeated.