Bt cotton kills pests or farmers?
2.Fields of exploitation
1.Bt cotton kills pests or farmers?
Tehelka, 5 July 2012
*Neha Saigal says the lives of farmers are more important than the profits of MNCs
IN THE 1920s, the freedom struggle was marked by Mahatma Gandhi promoting handspun khadi (cotton) and initiating a movement to boycott foreign cloth. I choose to remember this part of our struggle for independence as I feel it becomes significant and symbolic in the fight against Bt cotton. Then, it was about challenging the takeover of British imperialistic forces of our textile market, now it is about an American multinational seed giant taking control over the very basis of our cotton sector, the seed, using the tool of genetic engineering.
Bt cotton was controversial at the time it was introduced in 2002 and a decade later the controversy still remains, though you can hear many a time the biotech seed industry ranting falsely about its success.
Bt cotton is created by inserting the Cry protein (endotoxin) gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the cotton plant which will then make every cell of the plant produce this bacterial endotoxin, rendering the plant poisonous to a class of insects called leptidopterans which includes the bollworm, which is the primary pest of cotton.
The complete failure of synthetic pesticides to control this pest along with aggressive marketing by the biotech seed companies lured many a farmers into the neverending trap of Bt cotton. It is to be remembered here that Bt cotton is nothing but a continuation of the treadmill technologies that synthetic pesticides are also a part of.
What we saw in the last 10 years was a well thought out plan by Monsanto and its cronies in India, of monopolising the cotton seed market. Today, approximately 90 percent of the total cotton cultivation in the country of 11.14 million hectares is covered by Bt cotton. This seems to be the basis on which our policymakers have come to the conclusion that Bt cotton is a success story. But that’s only half the picture, the other half which comprises of dirty tricks used by the companies to first lure desperate farmers using advertisements promising high yields and reduced use of synthetic chemicals along with systematic removal of non Bt seeds from the market is hardly seen by the policymaker. The tragedy is that our policymakers continue to ignore this at the cost of lives of thousands of cotton farmers in our country.
Cotton is cultivated in 11.14 million hectares of land in the country, which has made India the largest producer of cotton in the world after China. Among cotton farmers, 85 percent of them are in rainfed areas or marginal farmers with less than 1 acre of land. If you were to ask one of them about Bt cotton’s success, you will not get the same shining picture that the industry paints.
I had the opportunity to be part of a national conference which reviewed the 10 years of Bt cotton in India. The conference held at New Delhi jointly hosted by Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, Centre for Environmental Education, Ahmedabad and Council for Social Development, New Delhi saw various stakeholders including agriculture scientists from various universities, private seed sector representatives, socio-economists, farmer union and civil society representatives sharing their experiences on Bt cotton (http://indiagminfo.org/?p=416).
While arguments and counter-arguments were made relentlessly on the success of Bt cotton, one thing which everyone seems to agree to and something that study after study documented is that the cost of cultivation is high for Bt cotton. There is an increased usage of chemical fertiliser, irrigation and surprisingly pesticides. The last one is because of an increased attack of secondary pests. Some of the studies also talked about bollworms getting resistant to Bt cotton. There was also an agreement that Bt cotton probably is not right for non-irrigated regions. Well, this means that Bt cotton is not suitable for 65 percent of cotton area in the country.
The macro-economic studies showed another interesting factor. If we take the 10 years of Bt cotton in India, the rate of growth of cotton yields was highest in the period 2002-07 when Bt cotton area grew from zero to 41 percent of the total cotton area. In the next five-year period, when the area under Bt cotton increased to almost 90 percent. The growth in yield has stagnated and even slumped. So it proves that Bt cotton adoption alone is not the reason for increase in growth.
AS MANY of the speakers at the conference including Jairam Ramesh, the Union Minister for Rural Development, who chaired the concluding session, said, “The growth in cotton production cannot be solely attributed to Bt cotton.” It seems like other factors like increased adoption of hybrids, increased irrigation and low bollworm instances seemed to have played a role in it.
Bt cotton is not the success it is made out to be and conclusions from the conference brought this to light. Once again it has been established that the performance and impact of the Bt technology is variable and depends critically on a wide range of climatic, social, institutional, economic and agronomic factors.
The government needs to take a serious step to assess the 10 years of Bt cotton from a scientific, social, economic, environmental point of view. This becomes especially important as we do not want to repeat the bitter mistakes of the Green Revolution and adopt a technology for short-term gain of a few companies.
Cotton farmers in our country have been pushed into vicious cycles, first the chemical intensive agriculture and now Bt cotton. There is a way out and the government needs to see this. There are ecological and socially sustainable alternatives like the non-pesticide management practiced in Andhra Pradesh which has been successful and fast spreading. Most importantly as a farmer pointed out, ‘those organic farmers do not commit suicide’.
So before policymakers jump to any conclusions about Bt cotton by looking at the experiences of a few irrigated pockets in Gujarat or Punjab, let’s listen to the experiences of the larger section of the cotton farmers in our country, those poor rainfed, small and marginal ones in Vidarbha, Warrangal or Jhabua. As the Mahatma himself said you have to measure progress in the country by the poorest of poor.
So this is a fight for independence and our sovereignty. Any complacence on our side will leave our farming and food security at the mercy of the multinational seed companies.
Neha Saigal is a campaigner for sustainable agriculture with Greenpeace India. The views expressed here are personal.
2.Fields of exploitation
The Hindu, June 29 2012
*With the Bt cotton season in Gujarat round the corner, families in rural Rajasthan continue to be lured with advance payments to send their children to the fields
The contractors or mats have already started distributing advance payments to parents of prospective child labourers in the hillocks of Dungarpur. This year, the mats are moving fast and pre-booking children for next month, when the season starts, to work in Bt cotton fields of Gujarat. The children will go, unless the government moves faster than the mats and finds ways of stopping them, says Deepak Kalra, Chairperson, Rajasthan State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (RSCPCR) .
“It is time for urgent action and not planning,” she tells government officials and NGO representatives gathered to brainstorm on ways to arrest child trafficking to Bt cotton fields of Gujarat.
Mats are mostly jeep drivers, sometimes from the village itself, who motivate parents to send children to Gujarat in lieu of a payment that is as low as Rs 1500 for three months. The Rajasthan police, in association with the Labour Department, have set up 34 check posts along the State border and every jeep is checked for children being transported.
But the mats have become smarter. “With help from the huge Bt cotton lobby in Gujarat, they now avoid the main highways and take the inside routes,” says an official on conditions of anonymity. “Despite continued dialogue with them, the Gujarat government refuses to admit the presence of child labour in their Bt fields,” the official added.
More than 600 children migrate or are trafficked every year from 20 panchayats alone, to the neighbouring state of Gujarat, according to non governmental organisation Save the Children. The total number of children trafficked to the fields of Gujarat from several states has been estimated to be in thousands, while from Rajasthan, children are sent from districts of Udaipur, Dungarpur and Banswara to artificially pollinate the cotton in Banaskantha, Sabarkantha and Patan.
Ramesh (name changed), who went to the fields last year told The Hindu that they were made to sleep in the open and were woken up at four in the morning to remove the pollen. The hours of work were usually long and dragged well into the day.
Save the Children intervenes by communicating with the families of the prospective child labourers and convincing them to not send their kids to Gujarat. “The parents want to send the children to school, but when they see that they are not getting any education there, they think it is better to let them earn something rather than sit idle at home,” said Neema Pant from the NGO.
With rampant teacher absenteeism in the region, the Right to Education is yet to make any mark in Dungarpur. With failure of the primary education system being the biggest cause of child labour flourishing in the region, other factors also need to be addressed if child labour has to be contained. Agriculture does not fall under the hazardous category of child labour, which is used as an excuse to let the practise go unchecked. Besides, jobs under National Rural Employment Guarantee Act are not being implemented during this period, which makes families vulnerable to falling prey to sending their children away for labour elsewhere. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, in a report in October last year, had raised concern about children who are trafficked and asked the two State governments to take steps to curb this malpractice.
As Gujarat’s economy continues to improve, labour from other states are increasingly migrating there for work. Child labour in the State is reportedly on the rise not only in the Bt cotton fields, but also in carpet making, brick kilns, mining, bangle making and polishing industries, according to child rights activists. If the Right to Education Act has to be effective, then the State government needs to take urgent steps in containing this menace, says a social scientist.