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
Many cotton farmers have relied heavily on pesticides to protect their
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
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
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.
For more information visit www.csa-india.org.
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