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March 2007
Against All Odds
The Satya Interview with Kavitha Kuruganti


India is considered the birthplace of cotton in the Old World, where cotton cultivation dates back thousands of years. Cotton was once a symbol of pride, wealth and beauty for India, but today cotton farmers are in severe jeopardy of losing their land, livelihoods and lives.

Kavitha Kuruganti, a consultant for India’s Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), is very concerned about the fate of India’s farmers. Prior to her work with the CSA, Kavitha worked with Action Aid and Greenpeace and spent six years with the Deccan Development Society promoting sustainable farming with women in Andhra Pradesh.

She recalls the words of Goni Lalitha, the wife of 26 year-old cotton farmer Raji Reddy who invested in genetically modified Bt cotton: “He went to the land one day and came back looking very depressed. We told him it was okay. We might still be able to survive. He said, ‘no, last year (2004) too we thought the same and took more loans for this season.’ One day, we found him hanging from the ceiling. There is no hope in life anymore—not for me or my children.”

Raji Reddy was not alone. India has witnessed thousands of farmer suicides over the past few years. Many struggled to compete in the global market and invested heavily in costly cultivation methods including pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified seed to increase their yields. Despite these measures, many farmers still witnessed a decline or total crop failure leaving them in a position of debt with no relief in sight.

Sangamithra Iyer had a chance to ask Kavitha Kuruganti about the state of cotton production in India, and hope and alternatives for India’s farmers.

Cotton farming was once a great pride for India. How would you summarize the state of cotton production in India today?
You are right. The cottons of India were world famous. Indians knew not just the weaving of cotton into beautiful fabrics, but cotton production intimately. Today, cotton farmers are facing wrong technological choices relating to seed and pest, soil and water management, compounded by lack of support from outside the cotton fields. This relates to the erosion of farmers’ knowledge about production, the increasing costs of cultivation, which are often met by exploitative credit sources, and most importantly, a lack of supportive markets in the liberalized environment.

Many cotton farmers have relied heavily on pesticides to protect their crops. Monsanto’s genetically modified Bt cotton was perceived to be an alternative to heavy pesticide use. What has the reality been for Bt cotton farmers in India??
Bt cotton might have reduced the use of some pesticides meant to target the bollworm, but farmers have to deal with new pests and diseases on cotton, and pesticide costs are still high. The only alternative would be a recasting of pest management paradigms—give up pesticides and begin relying on nature’s products and processes for pest control.

Approximately, what percentage of Indian cotton farmers use Bt cotton?
From the industry’s figures, it appears that 39 percent of the 22 million acres of cotton planted during 2006 Kharif cropping season was Bt cotton. But no official data is being maintained on this.

There has been an alarming trend of farmer suicides in India, particularly among cotton farmers. How many suicides have there been? Why are these suicides considered by some to be state sponsored genocide?
From recent reports citing official statistics, farmer suicides over the past decades have crossed 150 thousand. Farmers are not given any space for informed choices and lack financial support systems, leading them to make wrong technological choices and accrue massive debt. They also lack community organization, which in other places, has been a major positive trigger for making agriculture more sustainable and for reducing many vulnerabilities that farmers as individuals face.

Farmers’ suicides due to a deep agrarian crisis can certainly be attributed to government policies, the anti-farmer policy environment that has been created and the sheer apathy exhibited even now. The state is responsible for bringing the livelihoods of millions of people to such desperation they feel suicide is the only way out. Community buffer systems have also been eroded as the nation “develops.”

What is the Indian government doing to address these suicides??
They have some rehabilitation packages, with small parts being implemented. But the ridiculousness of this rehabilitation package is apparent when juxtaposed against the problem and its causes.

What do you think the government needs to do to alleviate these hardships? How could it better address agriculture issues?
The decision the government really has to make is whether they are concerned only about Indian agriculture output or about farming communities. If it is about people, then the very vision for agriculture and its development has to become vastly different from what it is today. The government is creating the crisis in the first instance by its liberalized trade and privatization policies.

What is the impact of U.S. cotton subsidies on Indian farmers?
Quite direct and high. Indian cotton imports have increased in the past decade as compared to exports. Such imports also consist of subsidized cotton from the U.S.

Tell us about your work with the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. How are you addressing some of these issues farmers are facing? What other options do these farmers have?
CSA promotes ecological alternatives that rely on nature’s processes and products so the cost of cultivation comes down and the sustainability of resources are ensured. We also believe in community and state support systems for mitigating the vulnerabilities in agriculture and for active promotion of ecological alternatives. This, we believe, is about sustainable livelihoods and for ensuring that farmers—who have very few options outside farming—lead a dignified life within farming.

With a growing population and an increase in urbanization, what are your hopes and concerns for Indian agriculture in the next 10 years?
Decreasing land for agricultural use and the equitable distribution of land are fundamental concerns. Profit-seeking corporations replacing India’s intelligent, wise, resourceful and caring farmers is also a concern. Given the terrible disadvantage they have in the mainstream growth-pushing economy, such displaced farmers have little option left for any dignified life.

The hope for Indian farming remains in the little pockets of alternative agriculture. Today, with the efforts of civil society groups like Kheti Virasat Mission in Punjab to the Tamil Nadu Organic Agriculturists’ Movement, value-based organic farming is taking root and spreading rapidly. This is a great hope—that farmers themselves will somehow, through organized efforts, change the course of Indian agriculture for the better, despite all the odds stacked against them.

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