I will not grow cotton anymore. I have two children to feed, and I just can't risk losses on my farm," says Manorama Santosh Ahir of village Naygaon, district Buldhana. "I will plant 'jowar' (the staple millet in the region) and 'tur' (popular local legume). Cotton costs too much. One needs seeds, labor, pesticides and fertilizers, it's an expensive proposition. And it requires so much attention."
This is what most farmers in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra - popularly known as India's cotton belt - have to say when asked why they no longer wish to cultivate the main cash crop of the region.
The 3.2 million-plus cotton growers have been hard-hit in recent years by plunging cotton prices and the rising cost of fertilizers and other inputs. Crushed by mounting debts, thousands of farmers have committed suicide. Experts studying Vidarbha's agrarian crises have often suggested that if farmers cannot secure a good price for cotton they should not plant it. (The falling support price for cotton has been a rallying point between the Maharashtra government and the farmers of Vidarbha.)
So far, the suggestion had not met with much enthusiasm from the farming community. However, a growing number of women farmers - especially widows of farmers who committed suicide - appear to have toyed with the idea. Their reasons are basic: time and money. Unlike 'jowar' or 'tur' or even soyabean - all of which require weeding just once or twice in the entire season - cotton needs regular weeding. For the farmer, this translates into time lost in sourcing and supervising laborers; and into expenses incurred because of their wages. Furthermore, the prices of inputs - seeds, pesticides and fertilizers - have skyrocketed in the last eight years. Irregular returns are cited as another major deterrent.
Shobha Bodkhe of Nimgaon village in district Buldhana is running from pillar to post to secure a promised 'anganwadi' (village childcare centre) teacher job. She is also engaged in a tussle with her in-laws over land rights. "Where do I have the time to manage a fussy crop like cotton?" she asks, "A man can manage, but I have to do all the household work, take care of my son, deal with the legal issues, as well as manage the farm. I can't even visit my farm every day." Last season, Bodkhe planted soyabean and corn on her 3.5 acres of land. "The returns were not very good," she admits but adds, "how can I say cotton would have been better?"
Kusum Mahadevrao Ingle of Kanheri Sarap village in Akola district, had opted out of BT (genetically modified) cotton last year after her husband committed suicide. "BT requires lots of attention, lots of labor and lots of water, all of which I don't have," explains Ingle, a mother of two school-going boys.
In village Saikheda of Yavatmal district, widow Chandrakala Meshram cites another reason. "I can't opt for a crop loan because my land is still in my husband's name. Without a loan, I simply cannot meet the expenses of planting cotton. Men can manage. They can get money from anywhere, private lending sources, etc. But who will give me money?" she says.
While the women cite various reasons for not cultivating cotton, one wonders about the implication of such a trend. Gajanan Amdabadkar, a farmer-activist who has been touring the rural areas of Vidarbha - documenting and researching farm suicides of his own accord - says, "It is not easy to determine the effects. The decision to stay away from cotton comes mostly out of a sense of being unable to manage and not out of the conviction that it will make better economic sense. Still, a section of women farmers are opting out, though it is too early to predict what it will mean for their family economies."
Amdabadkar's wife Vijaya, who manages their 20-acre farm in village Ladegaon, (Washim district) almost single-handedly, has also decided not to plant cotton this year. "It is just not worth it," she says, "The price does not even cover the expense. The input costs have gone up but the support price has dropped. We need a support price of at least Rs 3,000 per quintal (100 kg) to make cotton work." Last year, the Maharashtra government cut the minimum support price from Rs 2,000 to 1,750 rupees per quintal (US$1=Rs42).
So does she think not planting cotton makes better economic sense? "I don't know. The other crops like 'tur', 'jowar' and soybean do not give good financial returns. I don't mean I will not plant cotton at all... just less than last year."
Journalist Jaideep Hardikar, who has been studying the crisis for quite some time now, feels that the shift to food crops will not mean a better income, but stability. "Food crops mean a lower loan burden, and sufficient food in the house would mean less desperation," he says.
But Amdabadkar begs to differ, "Those who say 'don't plant cotton' don't know what cotton means to the farmer of Vidarbha. Cotton means cash, and cash means education for children and repayment of pending loans."
Chandrakant Wankhede, editor of Marathi daily 'Sakal', who has spent 20 years in the villages as an activist, says, "Farm economies are complex and not easy to figure out. Moving back to food crops might sound good from a certain idealistic standpoint, but that is, again, based on the easy urban assumption that farmers need nothing but food."
Moreover, says Wankhede, cotton being a labor-intensive crop, much of the farmer's investment in the crop goes in wages, which means livelihood for farm laborers. "Simply opting out of cotton may or may not be a solution for the farmer's own problem, but it surely means unemployment for the rural landless laborers."
He may be right. A closer look at the economies of the women farmers who are thinking of giving the cotton crop a pass reveals that they have better economic support than others. Ahir has a job as an 'anganwadi' helper, which means at least a regular, though meager, income, independent of farming. Bodkhe and Ingle are in queue for similar jobs and have hopes of better economic prospects.
Women, whose families are entirely dependent on incomes from farming, are finding it more difficult to drop cotton. "I have a daughter who is studying and another who needs constant medical attention," says Saraswati Ambarwar, of village Tailang Takli (district Yavatmal). "Where will I get money for all this if not from cotton?" she says. In the previous season, Ambarwar could not raise funds for weeding and for pesticide sprays for the cotton crop and the yield fell substantially. But she is sure she will still grow cotton again this year. "There is no other option," she says despondently.
Elaborates Vijaya, "The problem is not with cotton... but with its price. Cotton has always been a high-investment crop, but it has also been the secret of Vidarbha's prosperity. Even 20 years ago, the price of one quintal of cotton used to be at par with the price of one tola (10 grams) of gold. Even a moderate yield meant a good profit. Now the price has fallen to less than one-third of that, and input costs have gone up. Even bumper yields do not mean anything. We suffer if we plant cotton, we suffer if we don't."