Bt cotton cultivation spreads strife and discontent among tribals

Despite a Parliamentary Panel recently seeking a ban on production of genetically modified crops in the country, Bt cotton cultivation continues to grow in new areas of Rajasthan. And with it, the problem of child labour keeps mushrooming.

While trafficking of children to Gujarat’s Bt cotton fields has substantially come down with vigilant police and activists, tribals of Kotra block of Udaipur district and some other parts of the tribal belt in Rajasthan are shifting to Bt cotton seed production and are employing the children themselves. Their height, nimbleness of fingers, scope for being exploited and low wages make them preferred labour for Bt fields.

Also, escalating costs and other problems have reduced the percentage of farmers growing GM crops in Gujarat. While 80 per cent of Khedbrahma’s farmers were known to be growing Bt cotton till recently, of late the figure has reduced to 10 to 15 per cent. Arvind Bhai, a leading Bt farmer in earlier days, said with exasperation, “I tried all kinds of treatments, spent a lot of money, but my Bt cotton crop did not recover. So I decided to give up this crop.” A similar experience was shared by other farmers of the village like Ashok Bhai.

As seed production declined in North Gujarat and complaints against trafficked child workers from Rajasthan increased (there were even reports of child workers being chained at night by employers last year), new tactics of spreading Bt cotton crop in areas which had been the source of migrant child labour were implemented.

Dharamchand, President of Adivasi Vikas Manch (AVM) in Kotra says, “Bt cotton was spread through a network of agents and sub-agents most of whom were tribals. The sub-agent at the lowest level was given a target of enticing a certain number of farmers to Bt seed production using a system of cash advance. The farmers who accepted this cash had to commit their land to growing Bt cotton and following intensively administered practices of seed production. Besides involving a lot of work, this also involved exposure to highly hazardous chemicals.”

R.D. Vyas, a senior activist of voluntary organization Aastha pointed out the harmful consequences for food security. As subsistence tribal farmers give up staple crops like wheat and maize, and the fertility of their fields gets eroded by heavy use of dangerous pesticides, it is also risky to spread Bt cotton in largely rainfed conditions with very low access to irrigation.

Raghuvir Singh, an activist of AVM says, “A farmer gets paid only after passing tests regarding germination etc. But often samples are not passed and farmers have reported of arbitrary non payments. Sometimes agents also cheat farmers and steal the crop without making payments.” This has lead to strife and discontent among ordinary tribals. For example, a tribal sub-agent who had enticed 30 farmers (his neighbours or relatives), to take up Bt cotton cultivation, is likely to be harassed for payments which he cannot deliver.