The author calls for a shift from Bt cotton to indigenous varieties, especially when it comes to our national flag.

Hundreds of farmers and members of the Coalition for a GM-Free India gifted an Indian national flag made of organic cotton to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a week before Independence Day. By this act, they were drawing attention to the ubiquity of Bt cotton — a proprietary genetically-modified variety owned by the controversial American multinational corporation Monsanto — and its inherent dangers. Monsanto is the largest seed company in the world and dominates the GM seed market. Over 90 per cent of cotton grown in India today is Bt cotton.

This spread of Bt cotton on Indian farms is now reflected in the making of the national flag. Recent news reports have pointed out that flag-making units at Bengeri in Hubli city and Garaga in the Dharwad district of Karnataka, which meet the nationwide demand, are wholly or partly using hand-spun Khadi yarn from Bt cotton, instead of desi or indigenous varieties used until now.

A national flag made from Bt cotton symbolises fundamental shifts in our agriculture and public policy. This development should lead us to reflect on the legacy of our freedom struggle and our independence as a nation.

In 1931, the Indian National Congress officially adopted a flag designed by Pingali Venkayya with a charkha at its centre, commonly known as the Swaraj flag. Upholding this flag was an important motif in many episodes of the freedom struggle. Since the 1920s, the charkha had fired the imagination of a people to free themselves from economic and political subjugation. In providing supplementary work to India’s rural poor, and mobilising them to take back their freedom, Khadi aimed to revitalise Indian society and rekindle its faith in itself.

A few weeks before India gained its freedom from British rule, the Constituent Assembly set up an ad hoc committee to select a flag for independent India. This committee recommended that the spinning wheel of the Congress flag be replaced by the Dharma Chakra, which appears on the abacus of the Sarnath Lion Capital of Ashoka. The historically significant and culturally meaningful Dharma Chakra – representing the law of dharma – was chosen for symbolic as well as practical reasons. Nevertheless, the replacement of the charkha on independent India’s flag may be read as the dilution of the symbolism of the spinning of Khadi as a means of self-sufficiency and economic independence for the masses. The ideology of Swadeshi and economic decentralisation, which aimed at earning self-reliance and self-respect for the common man, was thus symbolically rejected. This was an augury of the times to come, when the potential of Khadi and handloom as a source of livelihood for millions of poor people was ignored in independent India by successive governments. The replacement of desi cotton by Bt cotton in the national flag is yet another episode in Khadi’s long and vexed journey. Bt cotton is a repudiation of the idea of Swadeshi since it is controlled by a multinational corporation and threatens the seed sovereignty of the Indian farmer.

Throughout history, India’s famed textiles were woven using indigenous varieties of cotton. In the colonial period, these came to be regarded as ‘inferior’ to American long-staple cotton. The scholar C. Shambu Prasad has examined the reasons for the neglect of indigenous varieties and questioned the ‘inferior’ status accorded to them. As he tells us, various varieties of cotton were grown in different parts of the country, each suited to the local soil, water and climate. Indian cultivation practices were developed to minimise vulnerability to pests. Careful seed selection over years improved the cotton varieties in terms of specific characteristics. However, in colonial times, processing machinery developed specifically for American long-staple cotton was brought to India. American long-staple cotton was introduced for large-scale export for mill production of cloth in Britain. With these developments, the staple length of cotton became the chief characteristic that determined quality.

Thus, hardy and high-quality indigenous varieties, including short-staple varieties developed in Indian climatic conditions, carefully bred over generations and well-suited for decentralised cloth production were neglected. The enthusiasm for American long-staple high-yielding varieties continued in India after independence. According to Prasad, in 1947, 97 per cent of production was from indigenous varieties. This decreased to 37 per cent in 1990, while that of American varieties went up from three per cent to 63 per cent. In more recent times, these have been replaced by Monsanto’s genetically-modified Bt cotton. While this long and troubled history unfolded, the qualities of indigenous cotton that make it better suited to Indian conditions seem to have been forgotten.

Finally, what does a national flag made of Bt cotton mean for India’s farmers and weavers? Genetically-modified cotton and its American long-staple antecedents have brought monocultures, which require large doses of chemical fertilizer and toxic pesticide sprays, and have redrawn the agricultural map of this country. The industrial textile chain supported by cotton monocultures has little space for the Indian weaver, whose needs for yarn, inputs and markets cannot be fulfilled by an industrial economy. Food crops have been eclipsed by these monocultures, which impact our agro-biodiversity and trap farmers in a vicious cycle so that they plant cotton year after year. Rising input costs, continued pesticide usage, failed yields and mounting debts have brought despair to their doorsteps. The invasion of the countryside by transgenic Bt cotton is unsuited to the agricultural realities of smallholder communities farming in rainfed conditions, and has exacerbated the agrarian distress.

Perhaps a tiranga made from Bt cotton represents contemporary India’s political and economic realities more aptly than any other event in recent times. But if symbolism matters in the life of a people, then their national flag ought to represent their core values and aspirations. Reverting to the use of desi cotton in the Indian national flag must only be the first step towards a broader transformation to rescue Indian agrarian life from its predicament.