Cotton crisis goes much beyond Bt and those two villages

 Jaideep Hardikar

This one’s not to argue, but debate (which is significantly different a notion than argument) Mr Milind Murugkar’s observations in his piecepublished in the Economic Times of September 27, 2012.

First, the two villages Mr Murugkar quotes in his piece – Bhambraja and Antargaon (in Yavatmal district of Vidarbha) – are torn between the Bt cotton-seed producing companies and a section of Bt-cotton critics; more due to the former lobby’s insistence that GM cotton has helped farmers reap a harvest of gold!

They have been the showcase villages for Monsanto in a sense that some journalists and writers have been taken by the company in the past to visit them as a successful project. For local journalists (including me) covering Vidarbha for over a decade, it’s a matter of great astonishment of how these companies successfully manage to co-opt a section of influential writers. The two villages are used as models to make out a more generalized case in favour of Bt, or genetically modified, cotton, never mind though that the facts fly in the face of those claims.

Mr Murugkar is the latest to join the party! He argues that the “critics’ concern about monopolies is understandable, but this should not prevent recognition of the popularity of Bt cotton varieties.” But much through his piece he doesn’t furnish any data to push his claims, barring quoting a few recent studies that have not been peer-reviewed. The piece seems like one to defend those PR stories in the newspaper than even defending Bt-cotton.

That he travels to the same two villages that have been at the epicenter of a paid-news controversy is intriguing. Economic Times in which the piece appears is a paper from the same stable that found itself embroiled in the controversy. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture has earlier this year mentioned how it found in the very two villages a different story, contrary to what the ToI full-page Monsanto-sponsored feature on the success of Bt stated. Mr Murugkar’s piece now contrasts Standing Committee’s findings in the two villages (I had attended meetings in both the villages). The debate therefore is again wide open.

Nevertheless, as a reporter who’s covered Vidarbha for a decade, I offer a few points, which to me are crucial to the debate. I shall come to the technology later; the central point is that the rain-fed marginal ‘cotton’ farmer of Vidarbha (perhaps that of the entire country) is in crisis, an acknowledgement to which lies in a 2003-04 door-to-door study of the state government. That study pointed out that over 13 lakh of the 18 lakh cotton farming households in this western Vidarbha region are in crisis, nearly a third in acute crisis. It identified a multiple reasons for the crisis: declining farm incomes, growing indebtedness (70 per cent of Vidarbha farmers are out of formal credit network, according to the Planning Commission’s Adarsh Mishra-fact finding committee report), and increasing living expenditure in a highly inflationary economy in which the government takes out money from rural India but subsidizes the urban living. Successive studies vindicated that study more or less. The crisis goes beyond suicides and Bt cotton.

Mr Srijit Misra of the IGIDR led one such study commissioned by the then Vilasrao Deshmukh-government in Maharashtra. His findings have underlined the faultlines and were in line with that of many other studies, including that of TISS.

Suicides to me are but one symptom; migration and shift away from agriculture (not as an option or choice but desperation) are far more serious problems than farm suicides per se.

Antargaon and Bhambraja – quoted by Mr Murugkar to clinch his point – have both, suicides and migrations. Last year, vast stretches of land in the two villages were kept fallow. So much for the success of Bt. It meant less losses.

Where had the farmers gone? To work in sugar mills in Satara! They still do. Why? Working there is financially more rewarding than growing cotton (Bt or otherwise) in a volatile economy even if it meant keeping the land fallow. In both villages, farmers don’t cultivate cotton alone. Nearly half of them sow soybeans, despite an overwhelming presence of Bt cotton.

Vidarbha farmers depend solely on one crop (as in one crop season, no winter crop), with no allied agriculture income to add to the family finances. It was against the backdrop of a raging crisis, drop in incomes, increase in the production costs and generally a bad agriculture scenario that the government allowed introduction of the Bt cotton technology. That was in 2002. What were the other coinciding policy steps taken? The following season, 2003 that is, Maharashtra suspended its monopoly cotton procurement scheme (and with the advance bonus system) and allowed private buyers to buy cotton.

Those were the NDA years in the Centre. Between 1998 and 2004 we imported around 8 million bales of cheap and subsidized cotton from global markets flooding Indian cotton markets resulting in a glut and subsequent crash in prices. Check for data, those were the best years for Indian textile mills: cheap and subsidized cotton at their command, they made a killing.

The NDA also, in order to keep inflation in tact, devalued the rupee, handed over liquidity to government employees through fifth pay scale and opened up IT revolution.

From then until 2004, the NDA successively withdrew money from rural economy (several economists have pointed that out) and put that into the urban and service sectors.

In 2001, Indian cotton acreage stood around 8.5 million hectares (nearly 70 per cent of it was hybrid cotton). Bt cotton was introduced the following year. That year the Vidarbha acreage was close to 1.8 million hectares. The following two years: 2003 and 2004, the acreage of cotton countrywide actually dropped below the long term average of 8 million hectares; in Vidarbha soybean came in. This, when the much-hyped pest-resistant Bt cotton that promises high productivity and income, entered the fray. Farm suicides picked up in the region after 2003. Not just because of Bt, fair enough. There were larger policies at play. But the Bt gets introduced as a soothing panacea. I have witnessed their campaign every single year with astonishment. Some years the Bt cotton propaganda has even dwarfed poll campaigns.

What was the promise? In one advertisement in which Nana Patekar arguably posed as a model (only to withdraw a year later when he realized “his mistake” of “misleading the farmers”): Sow this and you get double your yields and incomes. The state government pushed Bt through its own systems too. Between 2002 and 2008, Bt cotton hybrids had well-ensconced itself in Vidarbha, nay across the country, from some 7 per cent first year to over 85 % of the total seeds. In those very years, India lost its straight line varieties and companies stopped producing non-Bt Hybrids. Shops did not display those even if farmers went begging for non-Bt hybrids. In any case, since companies did not insist on keeping buffer, who will sow non-Bt if your neighbourers are all Bt? It’s a technical issue, but experts have explained to us over the years, that neither the state agriculture department nor companies ever educated farmers to keep a buffer between Bt cotton crops. That was not ignorance. That was deliberate. Now for a farmer to make a fair choice, he needs Bt, non-Bt hybrids, and straight line varieties. And cotton varieties of all staple lengths. Where was the choice? And who decides what farmers will grow: short staple or long ones?

Anyway, the first three years, yields shot up, and then, as a region-wide data (available with three agencies, agriculture department, Maharashtra state cooperative cotton growers’ marketing federation, and the seed producing companies) show, declined steeply. Not only that, the BG-I hybrids became pest tolerant. That’s when the companies prepared for the introduction of BG-II.

Between 2006 and 09, they sell both I and II, and now it’s predominantly II; we understand BG-III is on the anvil and round-up ready weedicide is already in the market.

Between 2001 and 2010, how much has been the increase in cotton acreage and coinciding yield?

If one is to believe Murugkar’s ‘poor’ farmer (Pankaj Shinde), his yields doubled. He’s indeed a rare exception. Because Vidarbha-wide data shows that it hovers between 250 and 300 kg of lint per hectare – that’s about 5-7 quintals per hectare or 2-3 quintals per acre, on the higher side. In 2001, it was between 140 and 200 kg/ha (depending upon soil and water conditions; Vidarbha has mostly shallow medium soils). What’s the country-wide data (available on Cotton Corporation of India website and collated from various papers of the CICR scientists)?

In 2001, from 80.95 lakh hectares, India produced 152 lakh bales (309 Kg lint/ha); In 2007, it peaked with 567 kg lint/ha (introduction of Bg-II which consumes 56 per cent of the Bt acreage) and produced 315 lakh bales from 95 lakh acres.

In Vidarbha, cotton acreage stood around 12-13 lakh hectares, much below the long –term average. 2011, the national cotton productivity stood at 496 kg/ha while the cotton acreage hit an all-time high of 120 lakh hectares and India produced 356 lakh bales.

This was when Bt cotton consumed 92 per cent of total cotton acreage. It could not get any better from here. In Vidarbha the current productivity, according to Mr Sharad Pawar’s reply to a parliamentary question last year, stands around 300 What was the productivity in 2004? It stood 463 kg/ha, and Bt cotton acreage then was roughly six per cent. In Haryana, Punjab, and large swathes of Gujarat’s newly watered areas, Bt was yet to reign.

So, from 2004 the country’s cotton productivity went up and down sharply – as if it were a green revolution squeezed in five-year-period – and the companies begin to switch to BG-II.

Productivity has meanwhile plateaued causing enough worries for the establishment, a reason why even agriculture minister Mr Sharad Pawar agreed for a three-member committee to travel to Brazil earlier this year to find out what they had done to take their productivity ahead of China and all other countries.

India, with all its BT success stories, stands abysmally low in productivity than 15 other countries that don’t plant Bt hybrids, including Chad, Mali and Burkina Faso. Mind you, Brazil did not allow Bt cotton, or for that matter any other GM crop. It has cautiously looked at field trials to see the results before saying that their systems were probably better than the GM crop technology. Brazil grows cotton in high density planting system (HDPS). Agreed, it has different agro-climatic features than that of India, but still…

If researchers were to spend little more time in Vidarbha and interact with old farmers, they will know that they grew cotton in high density planting system till mid-70s. Vidarbha farmers grew cotton plants that had less leaves, less bolls. (What prompted for cropping pattern changes is a matter of another article). Brazil’s HDPS is better and so the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) has insisted upon Pawar (and to its surprise has even got a favorable response) that it’s time to look for alternatives beyond Bt cotton.

If we have to move forward and bail farmers out of this crisis, HDPS might be a better option, the CICR has said. Field trials have begun across the country. Scientists are eagerly awaiting the results.

For a fair choice, farmers don’t just need a variety of good quality seeds – hybrids, straight-line, Bt or even non-Bt hybrids – but they need a choice for technology as well: a range from organic to natural to chemical. Give him a fair choice, a farmer will take a call on what suits best to him. Policies and markets have ensured you get the same burger in different brand-stores.

Murugkar says, and I quote: “The recent issue of Nature, a prestigious international weekly journal on science, has reported significant benefits of Bt cotton to Indian farmers. Citing a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it says that data collected from 533 farm households during 2002-08 shows that Bt cotton raised the yield by 24 per cent. This translated to a 50 per cent increase in profits, and during 2006-08, families that adopted Bt cotton spent 18 per cent more money than conventional farming households, suggesting an increase in living standards.”

Indeed preceding June, there was a flush of new reports arguing that the Bt yields have resulted in big income gains for farmers. That an important bill was before the Parliament – one that would open GM trials in other crops without much regulation – was just a coincidence!

Let’s take the time span though: 2002-2008, the first two-three years were not entirely Bt cotton years. Yet if one believes that yields were up by 24% cumulatively it’s not entirely due to the magic of Bt. See a comprehensive study done by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US corn. It’s on their website. The notion that Bt cotton has led to huge rises in productivity doesn’t not match up. Indeed, while there is a significant increase in productivity in the pre-Bt hybrid era, there is actually a decline in the latter half of the Bt period, a decline which continues. Let us not take a one-off single year for the data. Let us take two equivalent five-year-periods: i.e. 2001-2005 and 2006 to 2010 (the whole of the last decade) for which final official figures are available.

It is only from 2006 that Bt cotton begins to account for significant acreage of cotton under cultivation. Even as late as 2005, it accounts for less than 12 per cent. For the five year-period from 2001-2005, it accounts on average for 3.73 per cent of cotton acreage under cultivation. Or, at best 4.67 per cent if we exclude 2001 when Bt did not exist at all.

Yet, in this period cotton productivity rose from 309 kg per hectare in 2001 to 467 kg/hectare in 2005. That is an increase of 51.13 per cent.

In the period 2006-2010, when Bt accounts for over 72 per cent of cotton acreage, the per hectare yield drops from 519 kg to 495 kg, That is a decline of 4.62 per cent. Also note that the yield in 2006 (519 kg) and in 2007 (567 kg / Ha) – when Bt still accounts for just 42 % and 67 per cent of acreage, is much higher than that of 2009 (486 Kg/Ha) and 2010 (495 kg/Ha) when Bt accounts for 82% and 91 % of cotton acreage respectively! As Bt acreage goes, up, productivity in fact slides. The trend is also one of decline: there is an initial burst which sees yields of 519 and 567 kg and then it is a decline.

Indeed, the 2010 and 2011 (provisional figures) bring it back to pre-Bt hybrid yield figures – and the decline has only begun. Secondly, to bring us to the same level or range of yield after five years, input costs have doubled and trebled. Third, the 2001-05 figure is a steady climb. The 2006-2010 are a volatile roller coaster that now seems unable to hit a high again. Fourth: there are reasons beyond seed that also affect productivity in any period. Including monsoons, irrigation, pest etc., Note that in Vidarbha, for instance, irrigation from 2006 went up to around 8-10 per cent from the earlier 3 %. The Agriculture Commissioner of the period clearly stated that 97 per cent of Vidarbha’s cotton cultivation is rain-fed. Which means the benefit of expanded irrigation came in the Bt-dominance period and some of the initial productivity would have to be credited to that plus two or three good monsoons.

The data are damning. The pre-Bt hybrids were raising productivity at a fraction of the cost. Bt’s five year period has seen no comparable increase. A pre-Bt hybrid packet of seed (450gms) cost Rs. 350 to 425, as against Bt’s cost of Rs. 925 for a packet of the same size, a price abut to be raised again.

The point is, if there were gains, how come some of the major relief packages and loan waivers to farmers had to be given during this very period. It was also a period when farm suicide rate went up steeply in cotton producing regions where Bt cotton had been introduced as a panacea to crisis.

Farmers are spending more money, some studies point out, but on what? And what is the source of income? These two questions need a deeper inquiry. The NSSO data shows the money is being spent more on health now than even on food. And indebtedness is limping back on farmers since the 2008-9 waiver; as the public sector banks said earlier this year.

In Wardha, where a comprehensive study by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation is available, over 17 per cent land is now kept fallow by the farmers; indeed fallowisation process is deepening and it needs an immediate attention of the public-policy makers.

Ultimately, who are we growing cotton for? Where’s the end-user? Over the past thirty years, Vidarbha has lost its textile mills to other regions. So what farmers grow here is of little use. They lose the money to be made in its high-end value-chain.

Another moot question is: Does Bt improve yields? It doesn’t. The technology is geared to take care of boll-worm, not productivity. Two, it doesn’t take care of sucking pests, which is now a bigger pest-management problem in the region.

Lastly, the more significant issue is the question of price. Cotton prices, both the market price and the minimum support price, went up in 2008, just before the 2009 Parliamentary elections. That’s when you see a shift of farmers even in non-cotton areas (ex: northern Maharashtra) towards cotton. That the steep rise in production could be offset with that rise in prices is well-established. If you note the rise and fall in the prices, you see the rise and fall in the cotton acreage. This year cotton acreage has stayed stagnant. That was because prices held on to their levels toward the end of the last season after declining sharply in the first half.

If the prices remain robust this year, as the indications and predictions are they will, expect the acreage to go up next year.

If the choice is soybean or cotton, what will a farmer grow? Even in Antargaon or Bhambraja, it depends on relative prices of the two crops and a farmer’s judgment about them in the context of resources, money and labourers, available to him, Bt or non-Bt. Since non-Bt is not to be seen anywhere on the shelves, the obvious choice is for a Bt-hybrid: We have over 3000 hybrids of them now: from Bt-Mallika to Bt-Bipasha!

Reducing the issue of a skewed choice to the issue of popularity presents a wrong picture of a more complex market dynamic. If it were indeed a paying option, Vidarbha farmers would be enjoying cotton yields, not killing themselves on its hay or giving up farming, as they do, at an alarming rate.

Traveling beyond Antargaon and Bhambraja tells us that.

(Correction: I stand corrected on Brazil. That country has about a million hectare land under GM crops, but it has adopted a cautious approach since and has restricted the spread of GM crops following its experiences so far. Meanwhile, Russia has banned use and import of Monsanto GM corn following a recent French study.)

As cotton fields thrive, so do concerns

A decade after Bt cotton was approved, it remains mired in controversy

Pramit Bhattacharya Mail Me

First Published: Tue, Oct 02 2012. 10 06 PM IST

Changed preferences: Farmers in Khamba used to cultivate groundnuts, but switched to cotton in mid-1990s. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Changed preferences: Farmers in Khamba used to cultivate groundnuts, but switched to cotton in mid-1990s. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Updated: Wed, Oct 03 2012. 01 03 AM IST
Khambha (Gujarat): The farmer in Nanudi village in south Gujarat, roughly 350km from Ahmedabad, is among the overwhelming majority of Indian cotton growers who have sown Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton this year.
Unlike most farmers though, he’s using bina bill wala beej (seeds sold without the bill), or illegal Bt seeds, available on credit at roughly three-fifths of the price of officially certified seeds in Gujarat.
Bt cotton is a genetically modified (GM) crop, named after a soil bacterium, the gene of which has been inserted into the cotton plant to produce a toxin that works as an in-built insecticide to control bollworm, a major cotton pest.
“I have sown only the uncertified seeds this year,” said the farmer. More than 60 years old, he owns two hectares or roughly five acres of land in Nanudi, located in the Khambha block of Amreli district, and grows cotton and castor.
He tried the costlier certified seeds last year, but did not find any difference in yield, and has switched back to the illegal brands that he has been sowing for roughly a decade. “I paid only Rs.600 for one packet (450gm) of Bt seed, and I have the flexibility to pay the seed dealer after the harvest,” said the farmer, explaining his preference for the uncertified seeds. Certified Bt cotton seeds are sold at a state-mandated price of Rs.930.
Illegal Bt seeds have a history in Gujarat, preceding the official approval given to Bt cotton in the spring of 2002. It was the success of an uncertified Bt cotton seed, Navbharat-151, in controlling bollworms amid a heavy pest attack on other cultivars in 2001 which paved the way for official approval of Bt cotton in the country despite a raging controversy over its safety and utility at that time.
Since then, Gujarat’s cotton yields have raced ahead than the national average. The state accounts for roughly one-fourth of the area under cotton in the country, but produces one-third of the cotton output. The state’s farmers have played a leading role in raising the country’s cotton productivity to historic highs and in making India a net exporter of cotton.
The farmer, whose farm is irrigated by an open well, said average cotton yield more than doubled to 30 quintals after he switched from a public-sector-bred hybrid, Shankar-IV, to Bt cotton. Profit more than doubled in the initial years because of the increase in yields and savings in pesticide costs, but have dropped over the past few years owing to the increased cost of inputs such as fertilizers.
Scholars attribute Gujarat’s success story in agriculture partly to Bt cotton, and in particular to the availability of cheap illegal Bt seeds well-suited to local conditions. Despite a ban on Navbharat-151, the market for illegal seeds has continued to thrive, providing small farmers low-cost access to superior technology.
Growers elsewhere in the country haven’t fared as well and this has sparked controversy on the impact of Bt cotton on yields and incomes, even as roughly nine of 10 farmers adopt the Bt seeds.
Ten years after India’s first and only GM crop was approved, both Bt cotton and GM crops seem to be facing trouble. A parliamentary standing committee on agriculture report last month slammed the regulatory regime on GM crops as inadequate and linked the introduction of Bt cotton to agrarian distress, although it acknowledged that Gujarat’s farmers might have benefited from the technology. In Maharashtra, the second-largest cotton-growing state in the country after Gujarat, the state government plans to review whether technologies such as Bt cotton are suitable in rain-fed and suicide-prone regions such as Vidarbha.
At first glance, the contrast between Gujarat and Maharashtra seems to present a paradox: GM cotton has brought prosperity in one state and distress in another. The difference between the cotton productivity of Gujarat and Maharashtra has more than doubled in the past 10 years.
The answer to the paradox lies in some key factors: differing initial conditions in the two states, the contrasting performance of the respective state governments in areas such as management of water and power, wider seed choice in Gujarat, and to some extent, plain luck.
Historically, Gujarat’s cotton yields have been higher than those of Maharashtra. Gujarat has greater soil depth and farmers there have better access to formal sources of credit, partly owing to the cotton cooperative movement’s legacy.
In the 1990s, Gujarat’s yield averaged 353.8kg of cotton lint per hectare compared with Maharashtra’s 136kg. According to provisional data from the Nagpur-based Central Institute for Cotton Research, cotton yields in Gujarat doubled over the past decade to 659kg in 2011-12, while that of Maharashtra rose 59% to 310kg over the same period. Irrigation accounts for a large part of the difference. Gujarat’s cotton area under irrigation was 40% in 2000 and 49% in 2007. The comparative figures for Maharashtra were 4.3% and 2.7%, respectively.
In the past decade though, the rapid expansion of micro-irrigation projects in the rain-fed areas of Gujarat, led by both governmental and community efforts, fuelled the rise in cotton yields.
In Khambha, the expansion in check-dams and rain-water harvesting started in the late 1990s, led by a local non-governmental organization, Shikshan Ane Samaj Kalyan Kendra (SASKK). Khambha lies in the rain-fed region of Saurashtra, where a history of droughts since the mid-1980s led NGOs and later the state government to devise extensive water conservation and micro-irrigation schemes.
Khambha has historically been a groundnut-growing belt and it was only in the mid-1990s that farmers started raising cotton. Since the advent of Bt cotton, it has eclipsed the traditional crop. Groundnuts are nitrogen-fixing crops and help raise soil fertility, adding to cotton yield.
Yields in Gujarat and most other cotton-growing regions have declined in the past couple of years and costs of cultivation have increased, but the impact on Khambha’s farmers has been muted owing to relatively better links with the formal economy. In most families, someone has a job in industries located in nearby towns and cities. For instance, the son of the farmer cited at the start of this story polishes diamonds in Surat. Also, almost everyone has access to cheap farm loans unlike Vidarbha, where money lenders enjoy a roaring business. Such factors aside, technological change has driven the cotton revolution in the state, said Yoginder Alagh, former Union minister for science and technology and chairman of the Institute of Rural Management in Anand. But Alagh also said that illegal seeds have played a major role in Gujarat’s cotton boom and such underground markets pose bio-safety risks.
Between 2000 and 2007-08, the period when cotton yields rose fastest, illegal Bt seeds accounted for most of the cotton grown in the state, according to surveys by N. Lalitha and P.K. Viswanathan, professors at the Ahmedabad-based Gujarat Institute of Development Research.
Since then, the use of illegal seeds has dropped, partly because of a higher proportion of fakes and partly due to price controls that have lowered the premium on certified Bt seeds. Large farmers mostly use certified seeds now. Illegal seeds now account for only 25-30% of Gujarat’s Bt seed market, a senior seed industry executive said on condition of anonymity.
In Amreli, a little less than half of the Bt cotton seeds sold are illegal, estimated Vipul Sheladiya, a large land owner who also works for SASKK. SASKK has formed a producer company to supply low-cost inputs to farmers and its outlet is among a handful in the district that doesn’t stock uncertified seeds.
Monsanto India Ltd spokesperson said “rumours” of seeds with unapproved technologies had been heard but their use seems to have declined.
Ahmedabad-based Navbharat Seeds Pvt. Ltd stopped producing the Navbharat-151 variety in 2001 after a ban by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) following a complaint by Mahyco–Monsanto Biotech Ltd (MMB), which found its proprietary Bt protein in Navbharat-151. GEAC also asked for the illegal plantations to be burnt.
Farmers rallied against the order and the Gujarat government took their side. The ban stayed, but local seed companies started selling clones, often using the Navbharat brand name. Several studies, including one by Lalitha, showed that the illegal Bt initially performed better than the approved ones.
Navbharat chairman D.B. Desai said the 151 variety (and its clones) succeeded as it was better suited to local conditions.
Small firms such as Navbharat should have been integrated with bigger ones so they remained under regulatory watch, said Alagh. “We could have adopted a strategy similar to what we have for generics in the pharmaceuticals industry.”
The number of official Bt hybrids rose over the years and so did the number of illegal brands. Given that hybrids must be cross-pollinated manually, most seed production takes place in north Gujarat, where labour is cheap and often underage. Seed companies outsource production to local organizers or smaller companies, which tend to produce more seeds than required. The excess is sold illegally, without royalty being paid to MMB.
A part of the trade is just farmer-to-farmer transfer and hence is legal, said Lalitha. But a large fraction is sold through seed dealers. To avoid a direct confrontation with the law, the illegal packets are sold without bills and carry a message that says that they are being used only for farmer-to-farmer transfers.
In the latest twist to the illegal Bt story, an upgraded version of Bt cotton, the round-up ready flex (RRFlex) GM cotton developed by Monsanto— which enables use of the herbicide glyphosate to kill weeds without any impact on the RRflex Bt crop—has made an entry into the country illegally, even before its official approval. The RRFlex cotton seeds are being used mostly in the Kutch region where there is an acute shortage of labour, said the seed industry executive cited above. A seed dealer in Amreli confirmed that RRFlex seeds are available in the market.
Gujarat seems to be repeating its history with Bt.

Vidarbha’s tryst with Bt Cotton

While yields, profits increased initially, rise in input costs, non-remunerative prices have reduced earnings

Pramit Bhattacharya Mail Me

First Published: Tue, Oct 02 2012. 10 09 PM IST
In Maharashtra, the second largest cotton growing state in the country after Gujarat, the state government plans to review whether agricultural technologies such as Bt are suitable in rain-fed or non-irrigated regions such as Vidarbha. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
In Maharashtra, the second largest cotton growing state in the country after Gujarat, the state government plans to review whether agricultural technologies such as Bt are suitable in rain-fed or non-irrigated regions such as Vidarbha. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Wardha (Maharashtra): In the winter of 2005, a sleepy village in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra served a wake-up call to the nation when its villagers said they were putting the entire village, roughly 600 acres, up for sale.
The act of desperation by 40 debt-laden families of Dorli village, barely 20km away from Wardha, became one of the most poignant symbols of Vidarbha’s agrarian crisis. Vidarbha, the eastern part of Maharashtra, poses a stark contrast to the prosperous cotton-growing region of south Gujarat and also to the sugarcane belt of western Maharashtra. Dominated by resource-poor cotton farmers, the region has been notorious for farmer suicides since the nineties.
“Our lands are worth far more than what we owed in farm loans, and it seemed reasonable to sell off that land and move to the cities instead of committing suicide,” said Chandrashekhar Dorlikar, a 45-year-old member of Dorli’s panchayat (village council). “Increasing costs and low returns were making farming unsustainable.”
There were no takers for Dorli though. No one even bothered to ask the price, said Dorlikar, an agriculture graduate whose family owns 35 acres.
Since then, one major change in the village and across the region has been the advent of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton varieties, which most farmers started cultivating in 2006. Yields and farm profits have increased since then, although increased costs of inputs such as fertilizers, labour and pesticides along with non-remunerative cotton prices have reduced profits in the past couple of years, villagers said.
“After Bt cotton’s success, almost everyone has stopped cultivating traditional varieties,” said 41-year-oldRashtrapal Zarunde, who owns 12 acres of land in Dorli.
A decade after India’s first and only genetically modified (GM) crop was approved, the technology remains mired in controversy. In Maharashtra, the second largest cotton growing state in the country after Gujarat, the state government plans to review whether agricultural technologies such as Bt are suitable in rain-fed or non-irrigated regions such as Vidarbha.
By protecting against bollworm attacks, Bt saves yields and reduces the use of pesticides, raising profitability. But anti-Bt activists question its safety and economic feasibility, arguing that the variety is costlier and more input-intensive, and therefore an undesirable burden on resource-poor farmers.
Scientists say much of the criticism is misdirected. The Bt technology only inserts one trait, of bollworm resistance, in cultivars and several alleged failures of the technology actually arise from improper choice of cultivars. A cultivar refers to a particular plant or plant variety, selected for cultivation for certain desirable characteristics.
“Bt technology has done its job,” said K.R. Kranthi, one of India’s leading cotton scientists and director, Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR). “But the problem with Bt in India is that it is available only as Bt hybrids and not as straight varieties.”
Two different cultivars are crossed to develop a hybrid, often to boost yields. Cotton hybrids are late-maturing, requiring water for a longer stretch and are more responsive to fertilizers. The proliferation of approved Bt hybrids has led to the introduction of inappropriate hybrids, many of which are susceptible to sucking pests and other insects, said Kranthi.
Companies such as Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB), which own the licence for the Bt trait, and seed companies find it profitable to sell hybrids because farmers have to purchase seeds every year, Kranthi pointed out.
The right inputs as well as knowledge and education about farming practices to manage unpredictability caused by a varying environment provides optimal yield and income, a Monsanto spokesperson said. While farmers have received better seeds, much needs to be done in the area of soil fertility through testing and education, so they know what to use when by way of right nutrient applications, water use, and during pest attacks, he added.
Hybrids accounted for around half the cotton acreage 10 years back but with the advent of Bt, nearly all cotton grown in the country is using hybrids. In states such as Gujarat, where the soil is deep and water is assured, the spread of hybrids and technologies such as Bt have played a key role in driving up yields (see the first part of the series). But the results have not been as favourable in rain-fed regions.
Maharashtra, where most of the area under cotton is in Vidarbha, saw a 59% jump in cotton yields over the past decade while yields doubled in Gujarat over the same period. As in Gujarat, farming here has become more input-intensive over the past decade, but the lack of a commensurate increase in availability of water, worse soil, high credit costs and the absence of effective state interventions have made cotton farming less remunerative.
Still, as Dorli’s tryst with Bt indicates, Bt cotton has brought some benefits even in suicide-prone Vidarbha.
Profits increased after Bt’s introduction as yields nearly doubled compared with earlier varieties in the initial years, said Dorlikar, who also works as the field coordinator for a Secunderabad-based non-governmental organization, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) that promotes alternative farming practices and is opposed to GM crops such as Bt cotton.
The biggest change in the past decade has been the reduced use of bollworm pesticides, which farmers were spraying indiscriminately earlier, said Atul Sharma, entomologist and dean of extension, Shiksha Mandal, Wardha. Bollworm attack has fallen partly because of Bt and partly because of more innovative pesticides.
“Bt is an effective tool to control pesticide use but activists are unwilling to acknowledge that,” said Sharma.
The battle against Bt cotton in India is a part of a larger battle between the biotech lobby and an international alliance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), some of which have an interest in promoting organic non-GM alternatives, according to Cornell University political scientist Ronald Herring, who has extensively researched the politics related to GM crops.
Despite lacking evidence for systematic conclusions, a small number of anti-GM activists have succeeded in shaping policy debates across the world although a large number of cotton farmers are against their agenda and numerous scientific studies attest to Bt’s performance, said Herring, over email. He added that the standing committee report is not unique in bypassing scientific evidence; politicians in other countries have done likewise.
Claims that Bt cotton is causing farmers to commit suicide or cattle are dying after ingesting Bt cotton plant parts serve to raise attention and mobilize opinion against GM crops, Herring has argued in his writings.
The spurt in farmer suicides in Vidarbha occurred in the late nineties, preceding Bt, but haven’t stopped since then. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows average suicides per year in Maharashtra between 2006 and 2010, when the Bt adoption rate in the state rose from 22% to 96%, was 3,701. The average was marginally higher at 3,828 in the preceding five years when Bt cotton was either absent or accounted for a small fraction of the crop.
Vidarbha suffers from two key natural disadvantages: Soils are shallow and rains are erratic, making farming a risky business. Cotton, considered a hardy crop, is among the few that can survive these conditions.
The lack of state support, either through investments in micro-irrigation projects or in effective extension support to farmers, has compounded Vidarbha’s woes. Bank credit continues to be scarce, forcing farmers to take loans at exorbitant rates from moneylenders, exacerbating the risks.
Indebtedness to moneylenders seems to be a common thread in the suicides of Donoda village, in Yavatmal district. Around 60km from Dorli, the village is infamous for farmer suicides, with 12 between 1998 and 2008.
The impact of Bt has been more mixed in Donoda, compared to Dorli.
“We gave up cultivating cotton for soyabean four years back as it was no longer remunerative,” saidRambhau Shamraoji Patil, a 70-year-old farmer whose son committed suicide in 2005. Daughter-in-law Bharti, in her mid-thirties, manages the seven-acre farm and also works as a farm labourer.
Patil said his decision has little to do with Bt cotton seeds, and the family is unlikely to grow cotton even with non-Bt varieties.
Another widow from the same village, 42-year-old Godavari Bhoyr, who has been managing the family land since her husband committed suicide in 2001, seems to have had a brighter experience with Bt. Bhoyr said yields and profits have improved since the mid-2000s, after she started growing Bt cotton and used more fertilizer.
Still, Bhoyr continues to depend on relatives and moneylenders for most of her loans. So does Bharti, at rates of interest that vary 20-30% per year.
“The banks neither give us adequate loans, nor do they give loans on time,” said Deepak Kadam, Donada’s sarpanch (village headman).
Kadam said profits have declined over the past couple of years as costs of key inputs such as labour and fertilizers have shot up while the procurement price has not kept pace.
“The government has failed to support us either with adequate prices or by ensuring credit,” said Kadam.
It is wrong to blame just seed companies or Bt, said Dorlikar. “The real problem is the lack of guidance for farmers, who tend to over-spend on inputs, and end up in debt.”
Extension workers who are supposed to fill that role are often poorly trained, and their numbers are often inadequate to cover a majority of farmers.
Most farmers instead depend on input dealers for advice. They tend to mis-sell products such as insecticides and herbicides, said Sharma.
The distress in Vidarbha is also due to the withdrawal of the state from its role supporting agriculture, said Vijay Jawandhia, Wardha-based farmer leader and a founding member of Shetkari Sanghathana, one of Maharashtra’s most prominent farmer groups.
“Even in the so-called developed economies, farmers survive because of huge state support,” said Jawandhia. “How do you expect farmers to survive with declining state support in these rain-fed regions then?” The state has never bothered to formulate special policies for rain-fed regions or invest in research to develop technologies appropriate for these regions, although more than half of the country’s agricultural lands are rain-fed, said Jawandhia.
Rain-fed regions such as Vidarbha need innovative strategies to use straight varieties, which are more appropriate, said Kranthi. CICR is currently testing a model of high-density farming of straight varieties, the so-called Brazilian model, which aims to compensate their lower yield by planting more of them on a plot. Kranthi promises a “revolution” in rain-fed cotton farms if the experiment succeeds. The excessive focus on Bt has detracted attention from other issues in cotton farming so far, said Bhausaheb Barate, head of Wardha’s agricultural department, who is helping Kranthi test the high-density model.

Soaring costs and poor yields have made cultivation of genetically modified crop untenable

By  Latha Jishnu, Down To Earth July 6, 2012

Bhimrao Kaviram Kadam of Dhanora Tathod village in Maharashtra’s Washim district is, in more than one way, going back to his farming roots. And so is Pandurang Shende of Brahmankheda in Yavatmal district.

They are among 160 farmers across the Vidarbha region who have turned their backs on genetically modified or Bt cotton, which they have been growing for several years and plumped instead for Desi (Indian) cotton varieties.


This is a dramatic change and it has been prompted by soaring costs of inputs and poor yields that have made cultivation of Bt cotton hybrids untenable in the extremely harsh, rain-shadow terrain of Vidarbha.


It’s here in Vidarbha, notorious as the suicide belt of debt-ridden farmers, that the state has finally stepped in to seek ways of making cotton cultivation sustainable through a productivity improvement programme that marks a clear shift from dependence on high-tech solutions.

Leading the initiative is the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), which has put together a package that provides farmers its best varieties of Desi cotton (G arboreum and G herbaceum species) and superior medium and long staple varieties along with an old but discarded technique of cultivation—high-density planting system (HDPS) in which cotton plants are packed tightly together at eight to 10 times the normal rate and planted in rows.

  HDPS, like the varieties, was used traditionally in Vidarbha until hybrids made their entry in the 1970s and gradually took over the market.

As such, the CICR project, which is backed by Maharashtra, marks a return to their roots for the farmers who have overwhelmingly taken to Bt cotton since its debut in 2002.

But with Bt cotton failing to live up to its promise of high yields and reduced pesticide use, desperate farmers now appear ready to return to their roots.

In Vidarbha, in particular, Bt cotton has proved to be a bitter experience for farmers who were not cautioned that the technology is premised on the availability of irrigation facilities almost absent in the region. Drought is now compounding the problem.


Accordingly, the worst soils and the toughest terrain of Vidarbha have been selected for the project. Explains CICR director Keshav Kranthi: “The aim is to find a sustainable solution for Vidarbha farmers.   I am convinced this is the way. By October-November when the cotton crop is ready we will know if this is, indeed, the answer for Vidarbha’s crisis.”

Initially, 40 villages in eight of Vidarbha’s 11 districts—Akola, Amaravati, Yavatmal, Washim, Chandrapur, Wardha, Buldhana and Nagpur—have been covered in the demonstration projects that are being taken up by Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) and the Maharashtra Agriculture Department.

Total cost: just about Rs 10 lakh for the 64 hectares (ha). The objective: to validate production technologies for rainfed regions of Vidarbha and to establish sustainable yield levels of over 1,800 kg per hectare of seed cotton compared with current yield of just seven to eight quintals.

If successful, the project will be widened to parts of Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha with industry linkages. The idea is to meet the surging demand for surgical cotton.

CICR is footing the bill for this initiative, which Kranthi is pushing even before getting formal approval. “I felt we couldn’t wait any longer because the situation in Vidarbha is critical,” he said.

To make certain that farmers follow HDPS norms scrupulously, CICR has marshalled 17 of its scientists to monitor the project in different locations apart from the complement of KVK and agriculture department officials who are coordinating the pilots. “We are providing all the technological inputs and CICR is taking sole responsibility for the project,” declares Kranthi.

The focus is on slashing costs. According to estimates by CICR, input cost (fertiliser, pesticide, growth regulator and weedicide) comes to just Rs 4,525 per acre (0.4 ha) of HDPS compared with at least Rs 10,000 for growing Bt cotton. There are other benefits, too. Zero cost of seed because farmers can reuse their seeds, low outgo on labour because unlike hybrids Desi varieties require much less weeding.

Kranthi is endorsing what a number of agriculture experts have been saying for the past decade: Bt cotton is not suitable at all for rainfed areas.

In fact, a 2006 fact-finding survey by the Planning Commission had underscored “the wrong or uninformed choice by the farmers in adopting varieties of seeds which were not suitable for rainfed conditions”.

Although packets carried the caution “Best grown in irrigated conditions”, farmers did not pay heed to this as it was in very small letters. “The adviser was the input dealer and the State machinery did not take precautions or measures to warn the farmers,” the report had pointed out.

While some farmers’ organisations and activists campaigning for sustainable agriculture have welcomed the Vidarbha initiative, however late in the day it may have come, there is scepticism—anger, too.

Kishore Tiwari, president of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti dismisses the exercise as a pointless undertaking of discredited agencies like CICR, which had promoted Bt cotton of its own.

Tiwari has been carrying on an unrelenting campaign for a ban on Bt cotton in Maharashtra because he believes the costly GM technology is responsible for the huge number of farmer suicides in the state, the largest number being from Vidarbha.

“Sharad Pawar (agriculture minister) has admitted that the average yield of Bt cotton in dry land areas of Maharashtra is only 125 kg and that’s why farmers who opted for Bt cotton in four million hectares are likely to lose Rs 10,000 crore according to the initial estimate by the government.” Maharashtra had announced a compensation package of Rs 2,000 crore for Bt cotton failure in February.

Officials are unwilling to comment on the demand for a ban on Bt cotton but Maharashtra is keen to increase the area under Desi and HDPS.


CICR, too, is determined to revive the fortunes of Desi cotton which was grown in two million hectares until 2005. Currently, its acreage is less than 100,000 ha, relegated to marginal land although it boasts huge advantages: resistance to sucking pests, immunity to new leaf curl virus and tolerance for moisture stress.

But while championing Desi, CICR is also working on compact multi-gene “super Bt cotton” dwarf varieties for HDPS. It is an ambitious network project involving public research institutions and universities and will build on novel genes that have already been discovered but not commercialised.

Vidarbha Reports Four more farmers’ suicides in last 72 Hours

Vidarbha Reports Four more farmers’ suicides in last 72 Hours

NAGPUR –June 4, 2012
The crop failure and delayed relief aid being adjusted in pending crop loan without restructuring  crop loan as per NABARD directives, credit and relief aid starved four more vidarbha distressed farmers killed themselves  in last 72 hours as per reports  available here ,the recent innocent  farmers who become the victims of vidarbha agrarian crisis are identified as
1.Ramesh Sahare of village Athali in Bhandara 
2.Bharat Barai of village kinahla in Wardha
3.Pundlik Rathode of village Rohana devi  in Yavatmal
4.Dhyaneshwar  Akhare of village Hiwarkhed in Amarvati
This takes totally of farmers suicides in vidarbha as per documentation done on the basis local media reports and input provide by local activist network has touched 351 mark where as official crime data report recently published by leading marathi daily  tally is well above 500 as informed by vidarbha cotton farmer’s advocacy group Vidarbha Jandolan Samiti (VJAS).
“In December 2011 Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan announced Rs.2000 crore as relief aid to dying distressed farmers after complete crop cotton ,paddy and soya crop failed due to dry spell and drought in complete vidarbha and marathwada region which is mostly dry land region  but failed to arrange fund till 15th may 2012 but now as amount relief aid  is being credited in to drought hit farmers it is being adjusted in it’s earlier crop loan forcibly even after repeated instruction administration not to do such adjustments .when Govt. has officially  admitted crop failure  and given relief to compensate losses as per NABRAD standing directives all pending short and medium term loan needs reconstructed which has not been done in vidarbha where as in western Maharashtra CM and union agriculture minister too special interest in reconstruction and fresh enhanced crop loan  hence we demand the same for dying farmers of vidarbha”
Tiwari added.
Vidarbha dry land farmers who are subjected for rain sensitive cash crop like cotton and sugarcane needs long term solution after the  recent admission of Mr Sharad Pawar, Union agriculture minister, himself a great proponent of Bt.cotton seed and responsible for it’s permission and promotion in 2005  , in Parliament on Dec-ember 19, 2011: “Vidarbha produces about 1.2 quintals [cotton lint] per hectare on an average.” This is less than 20% of what conventional non-Bt farmers used to get in the late 1990s and early 2000. Vidarbha farmers are losing about Rs 2,000 crore per year, leading to increasing suicides by cotton farmers has exposed truth of success story and dream of second green revolution landing mass genocide of innocent cotton farmers of rain fed area of Maharashtra hence most vocal vidarbha cotton farmer’s advocacy group Vidarbha Jandolan Samiti (VJASa) will start door to door campaign urging all dry land farmers to say ‘Goodbuy’ to Bt.cotton cultivation as it is not sustainable and suitable for dry land farmers  , Kishor Tiwari of vidarbha advocacy group Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti (VJAS.) informed today.
“Vidarbha is agrarian crisis is directly linked with as all farmer suicide prone district mono crop  which is predominantly cultivated is Bt.cotton since 2005 and now it is proven fact that it’s classic example  of promoting wrong technology  to wrong class agrarian community as rain sensitive crop has proven killer seed in west vidarbha as 95% farmers opted this technology are dry land farmers hence we have decided to the message of union agriculture   Mr Sharad Pawar that to save vidarbha cotton farmers’ they should say Good buy to Bt.cotton moreover advisory of ICAR to agriculture ministry after reviewing performance of Bt.cotton through out world Govt. ahs been advised to withdrew but business  interest  of union agriculture   Mr Sharad Pawar delay henc this door to door awareness campaign” Tiwari added.
Activist will urge vidarbha cotton farmers look at the facts that  the told  claims Bt.cotton cultivation are baseless and misleading . In 2004-5 when only 5% of cotton area in India had Bt, the yield was 470 kg per hectar. In 2011-12, when 90% of Indian cotton farms are growing Bt, the estimates are 480kgs per hectar wjere as in Maharashtra the yiels is  measly increase of 4 kg per acre! In Vidarbha, Maharashtra 96% of all cotton is Bt.cotton and the claims that were made to you with expensive Bt cotton seed when it was introduced – that it will reduce pesticide usage, increase yields, reduce cost of cultivation and improve your profits? Ten years later, you know that this did not materialise. Now it is very clear that these are only false hype and failed promises. Government’s own research and data show that Bt cotton is unsuitable for unirrigated conditions and shallow soils. In Maharashtra, pesticide use has been steadily increasing despite large scale adoption of Bt cotton and expansion of cotton (from 3198 metric tonnes of technical grade material in 2005-06 to 4639 MT). Further, while the annual average number of farm suicides in the state was 2833 between 1997-2002 (before the entry of Bt cotton), which shot up to 4067, between 2003-08, in the years that Bt cotton expanded rapidly in the state. Meanwhile, nearly 93% of India’s cotton seed market is controlled by just one American MNC, today. Crores of rupees have been pocketed by seed companies, even as the pesticides industry is posting good growth, year after year. Original problem was pests. Then, over the years, the problem became pesticides, when they hyped up pesticides as the only solution to your pest problems in cultivation. With Bt cotton, they said that the pesticides problem would be solved. However, today, farmers are dependent on external exploiters for seed, pesticides and fertilisers, with the returns not matching the costs or claims hence it is time we are urging cotton farmers to save ourselves , Tiwari said
“We are appealing dry land farmers who are innocent victims better Bt.cotton seed to look at  neighboring Andhra Pradesh, who farmers have adopted NPM practices in nearly 3.5 lakh acres, across different crops. Debts and migration are coming down in villages with NPM. Savings on spending otherwise going to line companies’ pockets is running into crores of rupees. Yields are not falling. Net returns of farmers are increasing. Come, even as we fight the government for all its anti-farmer policies, let us also do what we can at our own level. Let us stop the exploiters from looting us. Let us adopt ecological practices like NPM in our agriculture, and benefit to some extent” Tiwari added.

Dowry system fuelling farmers’ suicides in Vidarbha

Mumbai/Nagpur, May 20 (IANS) The dowry system is driving many farmers of Maharshtra’s Vidarbha region to suicide, a fact which was brought into national focus Sunday on ‘Satyamev Jayate’, Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan’s popular show.
In an interview on the show, Usha Ashtekar, 25, spoke about how her father borrowed from a money-lender but had to repay the loan even before he could get Usha married.
‘My father took a loan from a money-lender to get me married. But before he could do so, the money-lender made my father repay the loan by using force. Worried about my marriage plus the bad condition of our farm, he committed suicide two years back,’ Usha told IANS from her village Sakra in Pandharkawada tehsil of Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district.
‘later, my brother and mother took another loan and spent over Rs.3 lakh on my wedding, bowing down to the needs of my in-laws. But it was all in vain as their demands kept increasing. I had to return to my mother’s home in only three months as I could no longer bear their torture,’ she added.
Usha, who has been married for over a year, is still staying at her mother’s home and prays that her husband will call her back some day.
‘Usha is one of the many cases that have met a similar fate. According to a survey done by the Maharashtra government in 2006, out of 20 lakh households in Vidarbha, around 4 lakh households had daughters of marriageable age,’ said Kishor Tiwari, President of Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS), a farmers advocacy group.
‘But most of these girls did not get married due to lack of resources. The survey also said that the entire credit chain of these farmers was disturbed as they had to use the loan money in their daughters’ marriage instead of using them for betterment of their farms,’ Tiwari said.
Tiwari pointed out that there has been no such survey in the last six years and that VJAS is planning to demand for a similar survey.
‘It is inhuman to ask for dowry, as those seeking dowry are themselves aware of the grave crisis in Vidarbha,’ Tiwari said.

Vidarbha: The Lie of the Land-NDTV

Reported by Sreenivasan Jain | Updated: May 19, 2012 21:31 IST

Vidarbha:  In Vidarbha, rocked by farmer suicides, a new controversy is brewing. In one sweep, over the past year, the state government cleared a whopping 85 power projects across this region. For this they have sanctioned 2200 million cubic metres of water from irrigation projects, which could have watered an estimated five lakh hectares of farmland.

The BJP says it is against diverting water to power plants in Vidarbha, but are its own leaders, including party President Nitin Gadkari, direct or proxy stakeholders in the booming power business?

The route through their business dealings are several – one of them being Chintamani Agrotech.
Started with the guidance of Nitin Gadkari, it has as its members, Utam Ingle, former BJP MLA from Umerkhed, Madan Yerawar, former BJP MLA from Yavatmal and Devendra Fadnavis, MLA from Nagpur.

Mr Ingle, confirmed to us the relations between Mr Gadkari and Chintamani. When we asked him if Mr Gadkari was still associated with it, this is what he said, “Chintamani Agrotech is Nitin Gadkari’s company but I bought the land in the company’s name. I’m a Director in it with 10 other people.”

Nitin Gadkari sent in this statement in clarification. “Nitin Gadkari was once appointed independent Director of the company, but due to his commitments he could not attend even in single meeting of the company and subsequently resigned from M/s Chintamani Agrotech in 2011.”

In 2001, Mr Ingle, on behalf of Chintamani Agrotech, bought 127 acres of land from a remote tribal village in Yavatmal, the district that reported the highest number of suicides.

Tribals say that since Mr Ingle is also a tribal, they believed his claim of setting up a sugar factory which would provide jobs to them. An angry villager told us, “We demand that either you give jobs to our kids or give us the correct compensation for the land otherwise give our land back.”

But there has been no factory for ten years, and no jobs. Instead, Chintamani has announced that they are going to be setting up a 30 MW power plant on the site.

According to Mr Ingle, “The 30 MW power plant will run on biogas, from sugarcane residue.”

Mr Ingle claims it is a biofuel plant which doesn’t use coal, and so it doesn’t contradict their stand against coal-based power plants in Vidarbha.

But in their official release, Chintamani has described it as primarily a coal-based plant, and confirmed that they have coal linkages.

Angry with what they see as multiple deceptions, the tribals went on a rampage, breaking Chintamani’s field office, and demanding that their land be returned.

Vijay from the affected village says, “Chintamani company has not done any work and we have no faith left in them anymore. They did not do any work for ten years and we don’t know whether they will or not. But an entire generation lost out due to them. What benefit did we get? That is why we want our land back.”

But undeterred, Mr Gadkari’s associates have come back to the same spot with even bigger ambitions, under a different proxy. This proxy is Jinbhuvish Power, headed by the Nagpur based businessman Manish Mehta, who also was a director in Chintamani Agrotech. On Mr Mehta’s website we found photos of him with Mr Gadkari which demonstrate his closeness with the latter.

Jinbhuvish has bought 750 acres of land, to set up a huge 1260 MW coal-based plant bang next to the Chintamani land.

This has raised fresh fears. Jinbhuvish is cleared to get 20 million cubic metres of water which most likely will come from the nearby Penganga river.

For the tribals struggling to farm with acute water scarcity, this is the final insult.

But Mr Ingle claims there is no link between the two, and that Manish has left Chintamani Agrotech. Mr Ingle told us, “Manish Mehta used to be a Director in Chintamani Agrotech but he left. Now he is in Jinbhuvish.”

But the Chintamani power plant is listed in Jinbhuvish’s website, as a Jinbhuvish project! They even share the same offices in a building in Nagpur.

At the office, they were extremely apprehensive about answering our questions. Or revealing details of Manish Mehta’s location.

Manish Mehta later called us, saying he was in Bombay and promised to meet, but backed out. He did say on the phone that Chintamani and Jinbhuvish are different companies, but that he is helping them with their project in Yavatmal. Separately, one of the BJP MLAs who is a director of Chintamani went a step further and said Mr Mehta is running both companies.

As further evidence of the links, Mr Ingle confirmed that he helped Jinbhuvish acquire 625 acres of land for yet another coal-based power plant in Ningnur, also in Yavatmal. He told us, “I helped Jinbhuvish to acquire land on which they are making a 1200 MW power plant for which they have got clearance as well.”

Vidarbha Jan Andolan’s Kishore Tiwari says there is no doubt about these links. He says “Jinbhvish is a recent partner which owns these two sites – Bijaura and Kolura power plants, floated initially by Chintamani Agro. Chintamani is a sister concern of Purti Agro which is the company of Nitin Gadkari.”

On the outskirts of Nagpur, is an even more direct link between Mr Gadkari and coal based-power business.

Work is progressing on a new 270 MW power plant set up by Ideal Energy, in which Nitin Gadkari’s son, Nikhil, is an independent Director.

Ideal Energy is right next to Purti Industries, owned by Nitin Gadkari.

It is also right next to Wadgaon Dam, so its water supply is assured. Nikhil initially was unavailable for comments but later said he had resigned from Ideal Energy on 8th April 2011.

Activist Vijay Jawandiya says, “The national leader of BJP, Nitin Gadkariji has his own power plants and is entering the power industry with his friends. This is really a tragedy. Instead of solving the problems of Vidarbha farmers, this will increase their problems as water availability will be reduced.”

A Congress-NCP Government diverting water from farmers to power projects, and the BJP President and his party colleagues benefiting from it. What more proof needed that the water crisis in India’s most high-risk farming zones is less to do with weather Gods, but more with the political leadership.