Fitful rains fleece Sirwar’s cotton farms

Agriculture Capstone Sirwar Taluk

Cotton farming in the villages in Sirwar has taken a hit due to irregular and unpredictable rainfall. The yield has reduced drastically. Farmers growing this crop are facing heavy losses. They are forced to live in poor conditions or migrate to the town for better job opportunities.

April 5, 2020

Flanked by swathes of cotton farms all around, the slow and tranquil Sirwar is cocooned in one of the most fertile cotton-producing regions in northern Karnataka. Cotton, being the second most widely-grown crop after paddy, is one of the chief sources of livelihood for farmers in this taluk, which is a part of Raichur district. However, uncertainty and irregularity of rainfall in recent years has hit cotton-farming in the region. This spells disaster for farmers, who for years have depended on this crop.

Mr. Ramesh Naik, a farmer from the remote village of Murkigudda in Sirwar, laments his crop failure this year, “Rainfall here has been very irregular in recent years. Last year, there was a dearth of it. But this year, it has been excessive and devastating. In uncertain weather conditions like this, growing cotton is untenable.” His friend, Mr. Parameshwar, who is also a cotton farmer, echoes similar sentiments. “For quite some time now, cotton has not been bringing in enough money for me to get by,” he says, “And since I have no other job, I have had to open a small general store.” Mr. Parameshwar’s humble store, where he sells grocery along with tea and the occasional pakoda, provides him with just enough to make ends meet.

Such is the plight of cotton-farmers in Sirwar. Uncertain rainfall patterns in recent times have stumped cotton-farming in the taluk. Sometimes, these farmers have to do with a yield as low as five quintals per acre, as against the normal yield of 10 quintals per acre, they say. Some of them have been forced to migrate to the Raichur town nearby in search of better job opportunities. Others, like Mr. Parameshwar, start additional small businesses.

“Cotton-farming requires a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers. These are expensive. And because of the uncertain rains, we are not getting the desired returns even after putting in a lot of money and effort,” said Mr. Naik, who has started shifting away from cotton-farming to other crops like nuts and chillies, where the probability of loss is lower. In February, nitrogen fertilisers were being sold in Sirwar at Rs. 70-80 per kg.

For years, cotton has been one of the major crops in Karnataka. In 2003, the state accounted for about 29 per cent of the cotton produced in the country. However, this share was reduced to a mere 3.5 per cent in 2017-18, data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare shows.

Rainfall reports by the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre (KSNDMC) show an arbitrary distribution of rainfall in the district over the years. While 34 per cent and 10 per cent excesses in annual rainfall were recorded in 2013 and 2014 respectively, the next two years —2015 and 2016 — saw an annual deficit of 32 per cent each. In 2017, the rainfall exceeded the normal by 25 per cent. However, in the monsoon last year, rainfall in the taluk was again in deficit but then picked up in October and November.

The agri-informatics portal iKisan says that cotton requires 500 mm equally distributed, mean annual rainfall. In Sirwar, the crop is harvested from late August or early September to December–January. Excessive rainfall during later stages damages the quality of the crop.

The cotton grown here is of the Bt variety, a genetically modified crop that produces natural toxins against insects and other pests. Bt is the most widely grown type of cotton in India. News reports show that in 2019, 93.6 per cent of the area cultivated for cotton came under Bt.

Mr. Shekarappa, another farmer and a former Sarpanch in the gram panchayat, explained, “Too much rain after a point causes the cotton flowers to shed. When this happens, the quality of the produce is adversely impacted.”

Not only Karnataka, but the entire country has seen a decline in cotton yields in the past few years. In 2018, several news reports quoted experts predicting cotton exports to fall by 20 per cent owing to erratic monsoons.

However, the decline, when it came, was even worse. Exports for 2018-19 stood fell by 32 per cent, standing at 47 lakh bales (in India, 1 bale = 170 kilograms), data from the Cotton Association of India (CAI) shows. Another report by the CAI shows that the productivity of cotton in India in 2019 was the lowest in a decade. Data compiled from the government’s press releases and reports from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation have also shown that the yield in several regions of the state is steadily decreasing, owing to the climate change.

“We take loans from the banks to tide us over. But if such conditions persist, what option is left to the farmer except suicide?” asks Mr. Naik, who has himself taken loans amounting to Rs. 2,30,000. About Rs. 70,000 of this is borrowed from a private lender.

Mr. Naik says he is aware of the dangers of borrowing from private lenders. “I have heard stories of people working as bonded labourers for these lenders because they were unable to repay loans. But when faced with an urgent need for quick cash, I have no other option but to seek their help.”

The latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data released shows that Karnataka had the second highest number of farmer suicides in 2018, after Maharashtra. The state recorded 2,405 farmer suicides. The Hyderabad-Karnataka region, under which Sirwar falls, accounted for a quarter of these suicides, news reports show.

Sirwar is hailed by local government officials and common people alike as one of the fastest growing towns in Karnataka. Indeed, small businesses seem to be keen on expanding in the taluk. The Bengaluru-based online platform SMERGERS, which allows small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to connect with investors and advisors online, lists more than 600 businesses in the small taluk open for investment.

However, daily life in the taluk is still intricately connected with agriculture. It is common to see people dividing their time between their retail shops in the evening and their farms during the day. Inability of the farmers to deal with the uncertain weather has a direct impact on their standard of living. Their children, especially girls, face the risk of dropping out of school or even an early marriage.

“I have always been very keen on getting my daughter educated. But I don’t know whether I’ll be able to fund her education three or four years from now,” said Mr. Naik, whose eight-year old daughter studies in the government primary school in the locality.

However, Mr. Rahman Malik, Deputy Director of Agriculture in Raichur, said that conditions for farming are still much better today than what they were before. “The agricultural land under cotton is much more today than what it was five-seven years ago. Besides, there used to be incidents where cotton crops were destroyed by insects. Things have taken a turn for the better since then,” he said.

Data from the Office of the Joint Director of the Agriculture Department in Raichur, shows that cotton covers 74,654 hectares of agricultural land in the district. Karnataka stands fourth in the country in terms of cotton produced and ninth in terms of area under cotton. About 32.6 per cent of the agricultural land in the state is used for production of cotton.

Mr. Malik also said that central schemes like the Minimum Support Price (MSP) were enough to help the farmers if their crops failed.

However, Dr. A. G. Sreenivas, head of the Center for Agro-Climatic studies at the University of Agriculture Sciences (UAS) in Raichur, disagrees. “The MSP does not take into account the realistic costs that are put in by a farmer. Fertilisers, seeds and labour are expensive. The scheme does little to protect farmers if there is a crop failure.”

The MSP for medium-staple and long-staple cotton is Rs. 5150 per quintal and Rs. 5450 per quintal, respectively. However, the cost of production is much higher. Fertilisers alone cost Rs. 700-800 per acre, in addition to the labour costs and the cost of seed.

This year, Mr. Naik and Mr. Parameshwar sold their produce at market prices ranging from Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 5,000. “There have been times when excessive rainfall has damaged the cotton flowers so much that the produce has been sold even at Rs. 2,000. The MSP is not effective as it does not put cash into our hands. We are surviving on loans,” Mr. Naik said.

On the abnormal rainfall seen in recent years, Dr. Srinivas said it is just a part of the ongoing process of climate change. “A blanket ban on all activities that harm the environment, like burning of garbage and the like, are necessary. But that is a long-term process. What the government must also focus on is an upgrading of the equipment used by meteorological departments all over the country. If we can predict rains better, we can help farmers better.” He also stressed that better use must be made of the two rivers that flow through the region, Krishna and Tungabhadra, for irrigation.


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