Today I met Ajit Chavan (name changed) who is from Yavatmal, a district in Vidarbha which is the cotton-growing region of Maharashtra. He works as a driver in our locality and he could only speak Marathi, which I, thankfully, am conversant enough to carry on a conversation. He had recently migrated to the city, which was the reason I became interested in his story.
I asked him why farmers were committing suicide in the cotton growing areas of Vidharbha. From 2012 to April this year, a total of 3,145 farmers committed suicide in the six districts in Vidarbha region – Amravati, Yavatmal, Wardha, Washim, Akola and Buldhana. He said it is because of BT Cotton, the cotton seeds sold by Monsanto’s subsidiary Mahyco. Having been a farmer himself, he could shed light on the real reason why there is a spate of suicides among cotton growers in this region. He had migrated because his family could no longer cultivate cotton which was the traditional crop of that area. He knew the economics of Mahyco’s supposedly superior seeds which are driving cotton farmers to desperation. Here’s what he had to say.
The seeds aren’t cheap, they cost Rs 2400 per 400 gram and you need Rs 6,200 worth of seeds for one acre of land. He has seven acres of land. Monsanto’s seeds have to be sprayed with its own herbicide Roundup (a lethal chemical and a carcinogen called Glyphosate) which cost Rs 1500 for 100 millilitres. (I am not going into the toxicity of Glyphosate in this short article.) Roundup has to be sprayed five times during the crop’s life cycle so it is an additional Rs 7500 for an acre, assuming 100 millilitres will suffice for an acre. And, he hasn’t included labour costs in this. By this time the farmer has already spent Rs 100,000 and is in debt. Mahyco’s seeds are supposed to give better crop, but it isn’t so. The finished cotton when sold in the market fetches Rs 5,000 per 100 kilograms.
BT Cotton Seed per acre = Rs 6,200
Roundup (herbicide) per acre = Rs 7,500
Total of BT Cotton and Roundup per acre = Rs 13,700
For seven acres it works to = (13,700 x 7) Rs 95,900 ... (1)
Labour cost (weeding, sowing, harvesting) = Rs 25,000 ... (2)
Total expenditure (1 + 2) for 7 acres of land Rs = Rs 1,20,900
To recover his investment he will have to get 2500 kg of cotton (@ sales price of Rs 5000 per 100 kilograms). He doesn’t even get that much.
After investing so much money – often borrowed from unscrupulous moneylenders – the subsistence farmer is not able to recover his investment, leave alone meet his food expenses. How could he maintain a family? BT cotton needs constant care and also needs more water in the water-scarce area of Yavatmal. This is what drives a farmer to suicide.
A word about traditional Indian agriculture would, I am sure, be of interest. Indian farmers being poor don’t buy seeds; they store seeds from their own crop to sow in the next season, because it is free. May I call this seed cycle? Mahyco wants them to buy their expensive seeds and herbicide every season. That’s an expensive proposition leading to high costs for the subsistence farmer.
So, Ajit’s family has abandoned BT cotton cultivation and has taken up soyabean and pulses cultivation, on which expenses are low. These crops don’t require constant tending and also requires less water. And, since he is working in the city as a driver he is able to send some money home to meet expenses.
Recently, the government has approved cultivation of GMO mustard seed in India. Monsanto’s brinjal, okra and other products will follow. A multinational can trot out many reasons to convince us that their seeds are better because they are genetically modified and are, therefore, high technology. But at the poor and illiterate farmer’s level, the above economic assessment shows that farmers end up being ruined and have to think of selling their land and migrating to cities to survive.