New Internationalist

The market and the monsoon

Issue 353

A quarter of the world’s farmers are Indian. In this three-part report Katharine Ainger journeys through Andhra Pradesh to uncover their problems, solutions – and a grandiose plan to transform agriculture that will ride roughshod over the lives of millions.

PART 1: Of drought and debt

The small farmers of the Warangal district of northern Andhra Pradesh are vulnerable not just to drought and deluge, as they have always been – but, now, to the vagaries of commercial markets as well.

After two months of searing drought - the worst in 50 years - late rains deluge southern India in mid-October 2002. The hard earth, sealing in months of heat, releases it all at once as a fierce, humid fist. Water pours off surfaces and rudely breaks through the channels dug to contain it. Steam mingles with smoke and rises from the straw roofs of mud houses in the villages.

The rains come too late to save the harvests of millions of Indian farmers, watching the skies anxiously, waiting for the monsoon. Many of the crops they have managed to grow are destroyed in the downpour. Early cotton bolls are matted, soggy and unsellable. Paddy has already failed to germinate and is being fed to scrawny cattle - those that haven’t already been sold to feed hungry families.

 Photo: Katharine Ainger
Photo: Katharine Ainger

Since late summer hundreds of thousands of farmers have been pouring into the towns and cities, hungry and desperate. They can be seen in every major Indian city, squatting on the pavements, waiting for daily labouring work at wages that, as the deluge of desperate human beings continues, drop slowly at first and then faster, until they reach a sixth of the minimum wage of $2 per day.

On my way into Chinta Nekonda village, in the Warangal district of northern Andhra Pradesh (AP), I pass paddy fields that are cracked and bare. Thin buffalo are ripping up what remains of the rice crop.

As is customary when a stranger comes, a crowd gathers in the village, with its dusty streets, tiny mud houses, walls plastered with adverts for pesticides and fertilizers. Half the houses here are locked: two-thirds of the villagers have left for the city to look for work.

A farmers’ conference rapidly assembles on the porch of the village sarpanch (leader) - who is a woman. Positive-discrimination policies have had some effect - but she is making the tea whilst her husband assumes her powers and directs proceedings. The electricity is off, the crickets chirrup in the night. The only light flickers from a television set run on a generator.

We don’t have any subsistence living. There is full drought,’ says one farmer.

We don’t have any wells and tanks, and all of the bore wells have dried up,’ adds another.

The farmers aren’t above exaggeration - this, after all, is the tradition when officials come from the city. But nothing has quite prepared me for the palpable sense of desperation.

 Photo: Katharine Ainger
Photo: Katharine Ainger

A woman seated behind the sarpanch speaks up: ‘How should we live? Tell us!’

It’s not just this year, though, or this drought, that is creating enormous pressure on the farming community. Small farmers are increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries not just of the weather - but of commercial markets as well.

This district, Warangal, made the news in 1998 as the centre of a spate of farmer suicides. It has one of the highest levels of pesticide consumption in India. Murali, author of a report on the farmer suicides, Debt and Deep Well, explains to me how a corporate push created a sudden upsurge in commercial, pesticide-intensive cotton grown by small and marginal farmers.

As they got deeper into debt to pay for the seed and pesticides, the cotton harvest failed. Across the state, thousands committed suicide because they could not pay back the moneylenders.

Government subsidies for agriculture have been slashed, pushing up costs even as market rates for crops have been going down. While larger farmers are better able to cope with commercial agriculture, for the 77 per cent of landholders in Andhra Pradesh who are small farmers the cycle of debt and dependency, and the building blocks of a gathering agrarian crisis, seem only to deepen. There’s no safety net from drought, nor debt.

Now Murali is worried by the most recent development - genetically modified Bt cotton. He’s concerned that it will exacerbate existing trends: ‘When farmers are in a desperate situation, it is easy for the market to exploit them.’

Katharine Ainger

The Green Revolution

In the 1960s and 1970s a wave of high-yielding seed varieties, chemical fertilizers and pesticides transformed Indian agriculture. This was the Green Revolution - but some say it is turning yellow. Initially, it boosted yields but it has brought problems in its wake. It has degraded soil leading to falling yields and a loss of local crops. Once the farmers in Warangal might have grown more drought-resistant varieties of millet and sorghum. Now even the marginal farmers are growing monocultures of commercial crops like cotton, chilli, rice and groundnut, in the hope of potential profit. Dependent on expensive inputs, the costs of farming have risen dramatically and left many poor farmers in debt.

Water-harvesting skills, so crucial to surviving the drought seasons, were lost as intensive, irrigated agriculture came in. Farmers borrowed thousands of rupees to sink bore wells for irrigation. As a result, the groundwater level is dropping dramatically.

The state is withdrawing agricultural support, creating huge pressure on farmers and forcing them to borrow at crippling interest rates from ruthless moneylenders. Many of these are agents of seed and pesticide corporations, lending farmers inputs on credit at inflated cost. Some moneylenders take part of the farmers' harvest as payment, and wield huge power over their lives. A farmer who doesn't repay can earn a bad credit rating for the whole village. Many of those who have committed suicide rather than face shame and destitution are from the lowest castes.

As a purely technological solution, the Green Revolution has not only failed to tackle issues of poverty, caste and access to land, it may have exacerbated them.

The cotton engineers

This year Pallepati Prabhakara Rao from Chintha Nekonda village in Warangal planted Monsanto/Mayhco's genetically engineered Bt cotton for the first time.

In May 2002 the Government of India approved Bt cotton for commercial growing. A case at the Supreme Court challenging 1998 field trials is still ongoing after the company was found to have misled farmers into growing Bt cotton seed without approval or information.

Mayhco staff visited Warangal in July to promote the new seeds, identifying 30 dealers in cotton districts across Andhra Pradesh to sell them. 'The seed is very expensive, 1,600 rupees ($33),' says Rao. Non-Bt cotton costs 400 rupees (around $8). Relatively well-off, with 10 acres of land, he read about Bt cotton in a newspaper and went along to a company meeting to find out more. 'They told us about the plant, that it contains a poison to kill off American boll-worm. But they did not tell us that this poison only lasts 90 days. We all thought it would last throughout the crop.'

Bt cotton is engineered with a bacterium poisonous to boll-worm - but it and other pests attacked Mr Rao's crop. Like many other farmers, Mr Rao had to spray it with pesticide three times in the first 90 days. His harvest won't cover the costs of his pesticide and seed.

Monsanto/Mahyco claimed that Bt cotton would yield 15 quintiles per acre. As it turned out, no plant yielded more than 4 quintiles per acre.

The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology reports that Bt cotton has been devastated by pest attacks in Andhra Pradesh, Gujurat, Maharastra and Madhya Pradesh and that furious farmers are demanding compensation from Monsanto/Mayhco. The company attributes the failures to root rot due to unseasonal rain. But Mr Rao of Warangal says: 'Maybe some of the failure is due to lack of rain, but you can see that my other varieties of cotton are doing better than the Bt crop.'

As the Green Revolution showed, technology alone will not solve the problems of small farmers - and the 'gene revolution' may only exacerbate them.

Mr Rao says: 'I won't plant Bt cotton again.'

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