Time to protect threatened Jayadhar cotton

Jayadhar is a herbaceum variety that was quite popular with many rainfed cotton farmers of Karnataka and it was a variety released by University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad. While in several other parts of the country cotton used to be grown along with pigeonpea as an intercrop (especially before the advent of Bt Cotton), here, it is with chilli! Interestingly, this cultivation of Jayadhar cotton is in the vicinity of the seed industry’s strongholds in Davanagere and close to the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad.

The immediate reason for the exploration was to find out what makes farmers resist the onslaught of Bt Cotton (more than 6,000 hectares in a handful of villages). A more important reason was to find out how the public sector is allowing itself to become irrelevant, even though its ability to play an important role is evident from the Jayadhar cotton seed story.

After the entry of Bt Cotton in India, the market was left to the aggressive push by seed companies to hype up promises and claims through a variety of marketing tactics. No seed in this country would have been sold with the kind of publicity that accompanied Bt Cotton. Public sector undertakings, including seeds corporations, quietly started abdicating their responsibilities — production of cotton seed other than branded Bt Cotton by the seed companies, waned dramatically. In some states, cotton seed produced by seeds corporations was being supplied as the non-Bt Cotton refuge seed for branded Bt Cotton.

It is in this context that understanding Jayadhar cotton seed’s contribution to the lives of farmers became important, and thereby, the potential role that the public sector can play, if it chooses to be pro-farmer.

A few farmers gathered in house in Hulgur village where it was discovered that almost all cotton farmers in the village have gone in for Bt Cotton but also keep up to a quarter of their cotton land to grow Jayadhar cotton. They are clear about why they want to grow Jayadhar — their animals prefer cotton seedcake of Jayadhar and do not like consuming Bt Cotton; in fact animals fell ill after Bt Cotton consumption in the form of green stalks or seedcakes. Further, their chilli crop and Jayadhar cotton go well with each other as intercrops. Jayadhar does not need any irrigation and it grows on residual moisture.
What’s more, it does not need any fertilisers or pesticides. So unlike Bt Cotton, Jayadhar cotton does not demand any inputs like water and agri-chemicals.

It was heartening to see that farmers who recognised the value of their livestock are making specific crop choice by going in for Jayadhar. They seem to go out of their way to pay more for cotton seed cake from Jayadhar, which is being supplied separately in this area. Modern agriculture unfortunately only knows how to promote fodder species separately, rather than integrate this need with existing multi-purpose crops.

Reduced cultivation

Despite all this, the farmers are predicting that Jayadhar land will reduce some more, as it has been over the recent past. Why, we wanted to know. For one thing, it is a physical trait of Jayadhar that meant losses to farmers — unseasonal rains on a crop where the boll goes downwards meant that the cotton lint gets tangled in the branches with each such rain and harvesting becomes difficult. Besides, they are unable to deal with agricultural labour. Farmers in Saunsi village confirmed this, saying that differential rates are charged by labourers for Jayadhar cotton and Bt Cotton.

For another thing, surprisingly, the farmers seem to live with the impression that their farm economics are better off with Bt Cotton. That did not ring true however and more questions were asked on the economics of Jayadhar cotton. What farmers report is the yield per acre of Jayadhar is actually yield from half an acre, with practically no inputs at all, given that each acre of Jayadhar cultivation has exactly half the land devoted to the chilli intercrop! Three to 4 quintals of Jayadhar is harvested along with 6-8 quintals of chilli by these farmers. Rainfed Bt Cotton does not fare better than this in terms of yield and farmers reported that yields in Bt Cotton are reducing over the years. Better yet, the price of Jayadhar cotton is higher in the market. The seeds belong to farmers and they do not need to buy it at exorbitant prices from profit-hungry companies.

On the other hand, Bt Cotton requires the seed to be purchased from outside; at least three bags of chemical fertilisers and several pesticide applications, including some listed as extremely toxic/highly toxic, are applied. However, the farmers also pointed out that declining chilli price is another factor contributing to lesser cultivation of Jayadhar.
It appears that there is a need to save Jayadhar cotton — this should be taken up by public sector institutions and by the agriculture department — since it is a product that the public sector should take pride in and do its best to conserve. There is a need to strike a dialogue with farmers, understand the specific needs to be addressed, improve the seed stock where required and encourage them to continue with the seemingly sustainable production system that evolved around Jayadhar cotton. In a state which has an official grganic farming policy, regions like this should assume special significance for concentrated efforts by the government to safeguard such areas. It is also important for the agri-varsities to revive their own relevance to the local farmers rather than abdicate their role and hand over markets on a platter to profit-greedy corporations.

(The writer is convenor of ASHA)

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