Business Today

Cotton's second coming

N. Madhavan travels to Perambalur district of Tamil Nadu to check out how BT cotton has changed the lives of farmers there.

N. Madhavan | Print Edition: November 2, 2008

September 18, 2008
Perambalur District (Tamil Nadu)

Growing aspirations: Farmers like Kamaraj have seen the quality of life improve with BT cotton; (inset) Kamaraj in his new house
Growing aspirations
We see several Pucca houses being constructed in place of dilapidated and tiled structures on both sides of the road as our car speeds past Siruvachhur, Sirkanpur, Nathakadu and Illupaikudi villages in the Perambalur district of Tamil Nadu. To describe the construction activity as feverish would be an understatement. On the fields, scores of people are busy de-weeding the fields and preparing them for sowing. Tata Ace trucks, popularly referred to as chinna yannai (small elephant in Tamil), crisscross the village roads packed with farm workers-predominantly women. Signs of prosperity are unmistakable. It is difficult to believe that a little over five years ago, farmers in this area were steeped in massive debt after a large-scale pest attack had crippled the cotton crop.

We (photographer R. Senthil Kumaran and I) get off NH-47 (connecting Chennai and Kanyakumari) a few kilometres before Perambalur town, some 50 km to the northeast of Tiruchirapalli in central Tamil Nadu. We are in the Perambalur district to study the effects of genetically-modified cotton (BT cotton) on the lives of farmers six years after it was cleared for commercial cultivation in India. We chose this predominantly dry district in central Tamil Nadu as the entire cotton-growing area of 80,000 acres (largest in the state) is under BT cotton cultivation. What's more, the farmers have seen both the eras: they grew the conventional cotton varieties for decades till the massive crop failure of 2002-03. The magnitude of loss was so great that they gave up on cotton for the next few years and shifted to cultivating maize. Only after the introduction of BT cotton (in 2004-05) did the farmers gradually return to their preferred crop.

Muthusamy, 60, Kurumbalur
Our first stop is Nathakadu village, 18 km from Perambalur town. We meet 34-year-old Singaram Kamaraj, who owns 16 acres of land. Asked how his life has changed since the advent of BT cotton, he points over our shoulder to a newly-built house on the other side of the road. "I just constructed this house for Rs 7 lakh. That apart, I have paid off my debts and bought four more acres of farm land," he says, adding: "all this is due to BT cotton."

Has BT cotton really lived up to the hype of higher yields and protection against pest? "Earlier, I got yields of 10 quintals per acre with the conventional cotton crop. Now, I get 15 quintals with BT cotton seeds. Last year, I sprayed just four rounds of fertilisers and micro-nutrients compared to 14 rounds that we needed to spray for the conventional cotton crop. This saves approximately Rs 7,000 to Rs 8,000 per acre on pesticide costs alone. My overall profit was Rs 25,600 per acre," he says. With the conventional variety he made, at best, Rs 6,000 per acre.

Marudapillai, 60, Illupaikudi
We drive further east and meet M. Marudapillai (60) at his five-acre farm in Illupaikudi, 24 km from Perambalur. "Last year, I got yields of only 11 quintals per acre. Though this is lower than what other farmers got, I managed to make a profit of Rs 15,000 per acre on account of lower pesticide costs," he says. He was one of the farmers badly hit by the 2002-03 crisis. Today, he has redeemed the pledged jewels and repaid all his loans. In addition, he saved up enough money to send his son, a construction worker, to Bahrain for employment.

We reach the next destination. Kurumbalur, across the Perambalur 4 p.m. We zero in on a farmer, who has irrigation facilities. P. Muthusamy (60) is watering his multi-crop field, which includes, apart from BT cotton, crops of turmeric, banana and lemon. 

"In 2007-08, the average yield was 20 quintals per acre. I was also able to get better prices for cotton. Rs 3,200 per quintal against the average rate of Rs 2,800 earlier.and my profit was Rs 49,000 per acre," explains Muthusamy. He has bought land for Rs 7 lakh in Perambalur town to build a hospital for his elder son, who is currently a house surgeon. He has also invested in unitlinked insurance plan (ULIP) with an annual premium of Rs 20,000.

We hear similar stories from the cross section of farmers in the district. Better yields and lower pesticide costs have resulted in higher income, which have been typically used to pay off debts, purchase jewels, land or ULIPs.

Seeds of prosperity: Women de-weeding a recently sown BT cotton field
Seeds of prosperity: Women de-weeding a recently sown BT cotton field
"Till a couple of years ago, I used to sell insurance policies worth a premium of Rs 15 lakh a year. Now, I do policies worth a premium of Rs 1 crore. Over the last two or three years, farmers are investing heavily in ULIPs," says P. Rajavel, an LIC agent.

What about instances of soil degradation (root rot disease), animal deaths or allergies to people involved in plucking BT cotton as has been observed by some NGOs in Andhra Pradesh? The farmers say they have not come across such instances here. BT cotton technology seems to have won them over. If the numbers doled out by the seed companies are any indication, around 90 per cent of India's cotton area of 23 million acres is under BT cotton and, consequently, the country's cotton output has jumped from just 13.6 million bales in 2002-03 to 31.5 million bales in 2007-08. But environmental activist Vandana Shiva of Navdanya disputes these numbers. She attributes the higher cotton output to increased acreage rather than BT cotton. "When BT cotton cultivation is legal only in four states, where is the question of it accounting for 90 per cent of the cotton area?" she asks. But activists like her are increasingly in a minority. For now, at least, BT cotton is the farmers' best friend.

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