Cotton farmers in the northern cotton zone have experienced the worst pink bollworm attack on their crops in two decades this year; however, pest attacks on cotton crops have occurred on a regular basis in recent years. Farmers are being forced to switch to other crops due to continued losses and uncertainty.
Ground visits by Down To Earth (DTE) to Punjab and Haryana have revealed that many farmers are experimenting with horticulture and paddy as an alternative to cotton farming. The landscape that once displayed white cotton carpet stretched for kilometres is now being replaced by paddy and orange plantations.
In Khariya village of Sirsa district in Haryana, Rajesh Nain has experimented with growing paddy on 1.5 acres of land. “I planted cotton on 20 acres of land and 90 per cent of it is lost to pink bollworm. The paddy demands more water than cotton, which means exploiting more groundwater, but if successful, I will switch to paddy altogether,” he said.
Paddy cultivation requires less labour and has reduced risks of infestation, said another farmer, Navin Surendrakumar, from the same village. “Even if the quality is not optimal, it will sell for a good price,” he explained.
Cotton has a higher minimum support price (MSP), according to Surendrakumar. “Paddy fetches around Rs 3,200, but it is higher if you sow basmati varieties,” he said. The MSP for cotton is Rs 6,235 per quintal.
But despite the lower price in the market, the investment cost of pesticides and labour costs are far less for paddy, he pointed out.
Ranvir Kumar of Maujagarh, Punjab, converted his 20-acre cotton farm into an orange orchard. The farmer suffered cotton crop losses in 2021 as a result of pink bollworm and whitefly attacks.
Growing an orange orchard, according to the 32-year-old, is low-maintenance. As a result, investing in the crop appears more reliable, whereas growing cotton involves significant risks and is similar to gambling.
Farmers in the traditional cotton belt of Punjab are increasingly switching to horticulture or paddy. As per the state agriculture department, the cotton cultivation area has decreased from 421,000 hectares in 2014-15 to 248,900 hectares in 2022-23.
The production of cotton has halved from 1,347 bales to 444 bales in the period. Whereas paddy cultivation has increased from 2,895,000 hectares to 3,167,800 hectares for the same timeframe.
Rajvinder Singh (72), from Teona Pujarian village in Bathinda, Punjab, said most cotton farmers in the region have switched to paddy cultivation.
“The soil and the water pH levels are not suitable for paddy here. I experimented with eight acres of paddy, out of which I lost three. But the losses are still better than cotton, which results in losing the entire investment,” he said.
Many farmers switching to paddy are not thinking about the long-term impacts as paddy has a very high water requirement, an agriculture officer said on condition of anonymity. “Exploiting high levels of groundwater will have environmental repercussions. But immediate profits and economic gains become more crucial for survival than future implications,” he said.
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Farmers in Rajasthan do not even have the option of diversifying their crops. “The soil is unfit for paddy cultivation, and the water is saline. We are stuck with growing cotton even if it runs into losses,” said Ram Pratap, a resident of Bamboowali Dhani in Hanumangarh, Rajasthan.
Pratap said there was no other alternative for farmers like him. “Our geographic location forces us to stick with cotton farming and the government must help us out by bringing in improved seeds to the market,” he said.
“Pink bollworm attacking Bt Cotton crops was first identified in 2008, but the authorities are still not coming up with seeds resistant to its attacks. Why are we still using seeds created in 2006 and technology has not been used to upgrade it,” Pratap asked.
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