Agriculture, the principal occupation in India has been acutely inequitable to its practitioners over the last couple of decades. With former late Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s credo ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ lain to waste, farmer suicides have since been the cause of much socio-economic debate. It is estimated that a farmer owning 15 acres of land and considered well-off has an income of just a little more than what he would have earned if he were to earn a yearly legal minimum wage. Budget 2010 earmarked considerations for automatic management systems and cold storage. Whether these will offer tangible relief to agriculture is still to be seen. Yet, it is becoming essential for the government to lay greater emphasis on the affairs of cultivation by developing adequate sensitivity to the support infrastructure required today.
A time bomb in the making is the issue of Endosulfan. Since India overtook the global production of Endosulfan, Indian farmers have reaped the benefits of the pesticide for a wide range of crops including cotton, tea and coffee. In use for almost three decades in India in the states of West Bengal, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, the beneficial-friendly, cost-effective farming pest-protection costs a farmer Rs 250/litre. In case of a ban on Endosulfan, Indian cultivators will be forced to purchase patented European pesticides at much higher prices. Imidachloprid, a product touted as a replacement to Endosulfan costs Rs 2,000/litre. Other alternative pesticides such as Thiamethoxam (Rs 3,200/litre) and Coregen (Rs 700/litre) are expensive as well. Unlike Endosulfan, most alternatives destroy much-needed honeybees and other beneficial populations required for pollination. It may force farmers to look for highly expensive alternatives for pollination. Besides, the alternatives to Endosulfan also develop resistance of use within 3–5 years of product introduction.
In India, farmers depend on naturally occurring colonies of honeybees and beneficials like ladybird beetle, chrysoperla, trichograma for the pollination of their crops. As they are naturally occurring, they play their part at no cost to farmers. Most of Endosulfan’s substitutes are harsh on bees and are therefore banned in many nations. Today farmers in countries where Endosulfan is banned depend on the use of bee boxes for pollination. Such bumblebees initiate pollination at a cost of US$1 per bee (approximately Rs 45). At that rate, it would cost Rs 90,000 for the Indian farmer to pollinate a 1-hectare field of crops in the absence of honeybees. Not only will the use of such pesticides result in almost a ten-fold cost increase for farmers, but also destroy the agro-ecosystem.
Today, NGOs and local polity in southern India are heavily espousing the benefits of organic farming in Kerala where Endosulfan has been banned. However, with limited financial resources to purchase costly pesticides or absorb losses from ineffective pest-control, cultivators do not have many options. Recent news reports suggest that the situation has now compelled farmers in the region to resort to smuggling the pesticide into the state in common cans and bottles.
Due to increasing costs being incurred by farmers and not enough returns, most of them are already debt-ridden. Some are already selling off valuable stretches of their fertile lands to industries and urban developers. With no substantial scientific evidence to prove the Endosulfan claims in Kerala and Dakshina Kannada, it is prudent to decide whether the whims of vested interests are significant enough to effect a change that is sure to impact India’s colossal farming population.
M Rajivlochan "Farmers and fire-fighters" in Indian Express, August 28, 2007