Nov 17, 2015

Farmers are being pushed deeper and deeper into a death trap.

In Mahabharata there is this classic story of the brave Abhimanyu who knew how to get through the seven rings of Chakarvyuha. We know that Abhimanyu had learnt this in the mother’s womb. But what he didn’t know was the way to get out of the Chakarvyuha. The story tells us that by the time his father was ready to share the secret his mother had gone off to sleep.

The Indian farmer is also like Abhimanyu in the Chakravyuha. We have thrown the Chakravyuha around the farmer. We’ve pushed him deeper and deeper into the Chakravyuha or the trap. It is high time now that instead of pushing him still deeper with more potent chemical pesticides and now with genetically modified crops we need to pull him out of the Chakravyuha. Otherwise the Indian farmer will also meet the same fate as Abhimanyu. Mahabharata tells us that Abhimanyu died fighting valiantly. The Indian farmer’s fate is no different than that of Abhimanyu.

Cotton farmers too have been systematically pushed deeper and deeper over the years into a chakravyuah from which the farmer is finding it difficult to come out unscathed. The more the attack of dreaded insect pests, the more is the use and abuse of chemical pesticides throwing a series of rings around the farmer. It has now been replaced with Bt cotton, which not only tightens the noose but also adds to more application of chemical pesticides thereby worsening the crisis. With the Nagpur-based Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) detecting failure of Bollgard-II variety of Bt cotton to control the harmful bollworm pests, I still doubt if the multinational seed industry will allow the farmers to get out of the chakravyuah.

Let’s first look at how the chakravyuah has operated all these years. After the Second World War, chemical pesticides began to be used profusely on cotton in India. It started with the first generation pesticides, like DDT. After a few years, the bollworm insect (popularly called sundi) became resistant. This was replaced by a more harmful second generation pesticides. After a few years of its application, the insect again became resistant to this chemical. Considering that roughly 50 per cent of the total pesticides used in India are applied on cotton alone, you can well understand the commercial interest to keep farmers dependent upon pesticides.

When the fourth generation pesticides, called synthetic pyrethroids -- were introduced on cotton, I had warned against the vicious cycle, which was making cotton cultivation highly risky and environmentally unsustainable. My warning was ignored and the farmer was merrily pushed into what I call as the fourth ring of the chakrayvuah. The chemical was so potent that it would kill even birds and animals which came in contact. But with its application, the insect came under control. So not only farmers, but also agricultural scientists and the pesticides industry were visibly satisfied. A few years later, the bollworm insects – including a new species called American Bollworm, had become resistant to even this chemical. The resistance was so severe that even if you put the insect into a bottle of pesticides, it wouldn’t die.

Chemical pesticide was replaced with genetically modified Bt cotton. This variety produced toxin within the plant, which when eaten by the bollworm pest would result in its death. This was the fifth ring of the chakravyuah. Introduced in 2002, the bollworm insects too became resistant by 2009. Monsanto, the company that originally brought Bt technology into India, then promised to bring in a still harder variety called Bollgard-II. This variety had two genes of Bt and therefore was more potent and effective. Meanwhile, instead of reducing pesticides usage, consumption of pesticides went up. While the sixth ring of the chakravyuah was in operation, pesticides usage had actually multiplied. Regardless of industry claims, the fact remains that the usage of pesticides had gone up phenomenally. In 2005, Rs 649-crore worth of chemical pesticides was used on cotton in India. In 2010, when roughly 92 per cent area under cotton shifted to Bt cotton varieties, the pesticides usage in terms of value increased to Rs 880.40 crore. In 2015, Bt cotton occupied more than 98 per cent area under cotton in the country.

Now even this variety is failing to control bollworm pests. It has also turned some minor insects – like whitefly and mealy bug – into major pests’ now devastating cotton in vast areas in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. Bollgard-II is the sixth ring of the chakravyuah.

With Bollgard-II failing to control bollworm insects I am told the industry is experimenting with a still more potent version. I am told Bollgard-III will have three genes and therefore be more effective. To push farmers still deeper into the seventh ring of the chakravyuah would be not only be a scientific but a policy failure. Considering the terrible consequences of a continuing vicious cycle of pesticides and GM crops, the challenge should be on how to take these farmers out of the deadly trap. 70 per cent of the 3 lakh farmers who have committed suicide in past 20 years have been cotton growers.

Is there a way out? Yes, there is a much safer exit provided scientists and policy makers are willing to throw away the dependence on chemical pesticides and GM crops. You will be surprised to know there are villages which did not use any chemical pesticides – irrespective of the brand -- to control cotton pests. These villages have year after year been recording a high production without facing any negative consequences. These villages stand like an oasis in a heavily polluted chemical desert. Perhaps the only lesson to control any future attack of whitefly or for that matter bollworm and mealy bug attack on cotton lies in non-pesticides management.

Farmers in Nidana and Lalit Khera, two tiny and non-descript villages in Jind district of Haryana, do not spray any chemical pesticides for several years now and have instead been using benign insects to control harmful pests. This year too, they allowed the natural predators of whitefly to proliferate, which in turn killed the whitefly. In other words, these farmers have learnt the art of maintaining insect equilibrium in such a manner that the benign insects take care of the pests by not allowing insect population to cross the threshold level. These 18 villages stand like an oasis in the polluted pesticides environment all around. Its time farmers too learn to make an effort to get out of the chakravyuah death trap. They can’t always go on blaming the government or the companies. They too can make an effort to learn how to survive with dignity and pride. #

Break Hold of Pesticides. Orissa Post. Nov 17, 2015 

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