Lack of irrigation found to be one of the major causes of farmer suicides

Lack of irrigation is one of the major causes leading to cotton farmer suicides in Maharashtra, a new study by the Council of Social Development (CSD) has stated. Titled ‘Socio-economic impact assessment of Bt cotton in India,’ the study has yet again raised the question of whether the marginal land of Vidarbha is suited for Bt cotton at all.

Commissioned by the Bharat Krishak Samaj, the study points out the dependence of Bt cotton farmers on rainfed agriculture, the increasing irrigation costs and the lack of institutional credit.

The study, in which farmers and farm labourers in Jalgaon and Yawatmal districts were interviewed, says, “70 per cent of the farmers stated that irrigation expenditure was more on Bt cotton than on non-Bt cotton.” Though it claims that productivity increased by 4.49 per cent from the pre-Bt to post-Bt period, costs too increased: especially fertilizer costs, which increased from 29 per cent in the pre-Bt period to 71 per cent in the post-Bt period. In all 140 farmers and 40 agricultural labourers were a part of the study.

“Farmers in the central Indian region blamed the suicides mainly on low and erratic nature of rainfall as this was a rainfed region,” it states. This adds to many of the recent indicators that question the sustainability of Bt cotton in Vidarbha.

Vinayak Deshpande, member of the Kelkar Committee, appointed by the Maharashtra government to study the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha region and professor at the RTM Nagpur University said productivity of Bt cotton is closely linked to irrigation. “The region faces the largest irrigation backlog in the State, at 57.3 per cent. In physical terms, the irrigation backlog is at 10,76,000 hectares. The cost of this in 2008 was Rs. 10,767 crore,” Dr. Deshpande told The Hindu on Thursday.

The irrigation against potential in Vidarbha is only 40 per cent, whereas in the rest of Maharashtra it is more than 70 per cent, he added.

Dr. Deshpande said subsidies for fertilizers and pesticides were also given more in irrigated areas. “High yielding varieties of crops like Bt cotton need more water as well, along with fertilizers. In the end, it is all linked to irrigation,” he said.

The government itself has acknowledged that irrigation is mandatory for Bt cotton. Speaking at an event organised by seed giant Monsanto in Pune in March this year, Maharashtra Agricultural Commissioner Umakant Dangat urged farmers to plant Bt cotton only in irrigated areas. “The farmers should use their discretion and plant BT cotton on irrigated land. The amount of water needed is definitely more,” he had said.

In the last few months, the water scarcity situation in the State highlighted issue of irrigation backlog, forcing the State government to announce that a white paper on the costs and expenditure of irrigation projects will soon be brought out. Even as that is awaited, Dr. Deshpande states that the priority will be to take up projects in Vidarbha. “Along with big dams, water conservation projects and drip irrigation must be introduced,” he said. Though the final report of the committee headed by economist Dr. Vijay Kelkar has not been submitted yet, Dr. Deshpande said these would be recommendations.

Another element in the study states that as opposed to farmers in the rest of the country, a majority of whom had heard of Bt cotton from neighbours and relatives who had benefited, in Maharashtra 79 per cent of the farmers had heard of Bt cotton from seed dealers. In Yavatmal’s Hiwra village, this correspondent was told by cotton farmers that non-Bt cotton seeds were not available. “The cotton prices have gone down. There is no water for the Bt cotton needs. We cannot afford planting Bt anymore. But, we cannot buy non-Bt seeds in the market. The dealers tell us that there is no supply,” Sumant Meshram, a farmer said. Pointing at the nearby Pachpahur irrigation project that lies unfinished, another farmer Dharmaji Pendhur says that there is no water for cattle too. “We have to sell our cattle, we cannot afford to keep them anymore,” he said.

Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) said the government was not serious about clearing the irrigation backlog of the State, even as it continued to affect the farmers. “Only two per cent of irrigated land was added in Vidarbha from 2006 to 2011. Obviously Bt cotton is not sustainable in such a scenario. The farmers themselves have realised that now, after so many years. The distress continues as there is no proactive help from the government,” he states.

Dr. Deshpande suggests that the Maharashtra government draw up a separate policy for the Vidarbha region. “It needs to be discussed whether Bt crops, which have entered into the market, are suitable for a particular region. We have lagged behind in providing these extension services which monitor agriculture at the micro level. The level of social awareness is not matching the movement of the market,” he states. “Is the government able to provide a cushion for its farmers?” he asks.