Babu Lal and his wife Mirdi Bai have been traditionally cultivating wheat, maize and bajra (millet) on their farmland in Palesar village (Kotra block of Udaipur district, Rajasthan). This provided food for several months in a year to the 10-member family, apart from providing fodder for farm and dairy animals who are essential components of this mixed farming system.
However some time back agents of some companies came to their family and lured them with the promise of a lump-sum payment. They finally convinced Babu Lal to plant and produce Bt Cotton seeds in two of his fields.
Babu Lal soon found that he had to spend a lot of money on chemical fertiliser and pesticides for this seed production. He got several cans of highly poisonous pesticides. His entire family including children worked hard to produce Bt Cotton seeds, bearing somehow the ill effects of the poisons they had to handle, all in the hope of getting the promised lump-sum payment.
When the time for payment came, however, the agent informed Babu Lal that the seeds produced in his farm had been declared to have ‘failed’ in tests and so he wouldn’t be getting any payment. Babu Lal and his family now faced economic ruin. The food harvest was much lower than normal as the best fields and most labour and resources had been devoted to Bt Cotton. Also there was hardly any fodder. So Babu Lal had no option but to borrow from private moneylenders at a high interest rate to meet immediate needs of food and fodder. The family then had to work extra hard on the fields of others to pay back their loan.
This was not the end of Babu Lal’s cup of woes. Not satisfied with holding back his payment, the company’s agent started harassing Babu Lal for a payment of about Rs. 10,000 in lieu of the fertilisers and pesticides etc. provided to him. Till the time of this writer’s visit to Palesar village some weeks ago, this harassment was continuing.
Babu Lal and Mirdi Bai say that they’ll never again fall into the trap of deceit and deception set by Bt cotton seed agents. This is also the view of several other tribal farmers of Kotra block who have tried their hand at Bt cotton seed production. This is evident from the fact that the number of such Bt cotton seed producers has fallen significantly during the last one year.
This trend started about five years back and reached its peak about three years back. But recently there has been a downward trend due to experiences of farmers like Babu Lal. But still some farmers continue to try their hand at Bt cotton seed production.
Indira Devi of Gura village is one such farmer. She admits that in her extended family two members had suffered terrible health complications as they consumed pesticide in a fit of despair or anger. Once her husband - who led a team of workers - was affected by poison from a contaminated bucket. Twice her plot has been declared to have failed. She agrees that the soil of fields in which Bt cotton is grown has been badly damaged. Despite all this the lure of a lump sum payment has kept her tied to Bt cotton seed production.
There is another reason. Sarfraz, an activist associated with Adivasi Vikas Manch explains, “Companies use influential villagers to get new farmers to take up this work. Adivasi farmers are reluctant to say no to them.”
Farmers Narayan Lal Pargi, Kishan Lal Pargi, Raoji, Kaloo ji and others who’ve taken up this work in the past try to calculate all the costs and benefits. Their conclusion is that if the wages of all family members employed in this work are calculated, there is actually very little gain other than the wage payment at a low rate. When production is declared as having failed, a one-sided decision, then the entire hard work goes unpaid and the family gets indebted. In the long term, there are adverse consequences in the form of soil and water pollution as well as serious health hazards of high exposure to pesticides etc.
In Gura village children who want to buy water-melon from a hawker give him used pesticides containers as a form of payment. But such containers can easily infect cut fruit or other food. These containers are also used daily for carrying water. Suicides have gone up in a big way as poisonous chemicals are available close by in many rural households.
Keeping in view all these factors there is clear need for introspection regarding the rapid changes introduced in tribal farming by agents of Bt. seed companies. There is growing evidence that this has disrupted food security apart from introducing many health hazards and ecological threats, short-term as well as long-term. Many activists and farmers believe that a much better alternative is to concentrate on producing local food crops using organic, low-cost self-reliant methods.
(The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.)