Punjab: Baldev Sharma, 39, from Bathinda's Talwandi Sabo is a third generation cotton farmer. This year he sowed cotton on 12 acres of land compared to last year when the whitefly epidemic, which ravaged cotton crop worth nearly 4,200 crores in Punjab, forced his family to sow only three acres of cotton in the same area.
This year, the Punjab government claims farmers like Mr Sharma are likely have a bumper cotton harvest, with cotton acreage doubling in the Malwa region to about 3.9 lakh acres -- against last year's 2.4 lakh acres -- and the government's awareness and action-against-whitefly campaigns in place.
"We have prepared a strategy to prevent the attack of the whitefly in which we have 500 scouts and 50 supervisors to spread awareness among farmers. We don't think farm suicides are happening directly because of damaged crops, there are other factors, too, but yes input costs are increasing and our Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) are not increasing," said JS Bains, Director Agriculture, Punjab.
For 12 years, the majority of Punjab's farmers have been growing Bt cotton, or genetically modified cotton seeds, which have protected their crops from pests like bollworms. Their yields have doubled too. However, in the last few years, Bt cotton has displayed a remarkable vulnerability to a large number of sap feeding pests like white-flies, which have a high tolerance of Bt toxins, and which require increased pesticides, raising both the farmers' production costs and soil toxicity.
No wonder Mr Sharma is worried, as his income hasn't gone up even though he is supposedly sowing more this year. "Look at how much we have to spend on diesel. The prices of everything have doubled, yet we are choosing to be happy about the fact that the cotton area has doubled. In reality, the profits are meagre," he said.
Others like 42-year-old Makkhan Singh were only able to sow four acres this season. "When a farmer's debt increases, he cannot pay to lease more land nor for wages to those who work on his farms. Distress and debt will ultimately get the better of him. We have sown this year's acreage, now let's wait and see what the harvest is like," he said.
In the past two months, the Malwa belt has reported nearly 30-40 farmer suicides, according to locals.
In Fazilka's Pakan village, about 335 km from Chandigarh, where locals claim nearly 40 farmers have committed suicide in the last eight years, there is also a feeling that the government isn't doing enough.
"A lot of farmers here got fake seeds this time and that has dealt a major blow to us. There is debt and worst of all there is no productivity," said 39-year-old Dharmpal Singh.
"More than the crop, it is a failure of the cropping model. The cotton crop being grown presently is a product of intensive agriculture, it includes Bt seeds (genetically modified), extensive irrigation where the input of pesticides, fertilisers and water is tremendous. It is not only unsustainable but effectively uneconomic for farmers," said Umedra Dutt of Kheti Virasat Mission that is working to promote organic farming in Punjab.
Punjab's ruling Congress government has said it is working on a package to deliver a loan waiver to farmers worth nearly Rs 80,000 crore. A commission headed by T Haque, former Chairperson of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), is also ascertaining the quantum of agricultural debt owed by Punjab's farmers and devising the modalities of the loan waiver, a popular electoral promise of Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh
Mr Singh, who formed the government in the state in March this year, has said the announcement of the loan waiver can be expected in the upcoming budget session starting June 14, with the state budget scheduled for June 20.