From cotton to millets: Rayagada's tribal farmers make a switch

Abhijit Mohanty | Aug 29, 2022 | 7 min read

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A tribal farmer standing on her Sorghum farm (Photo: Prabhat)

Debt trap, climate change and diminishing returns make them switch from Bt cotton to millets.


Rayagada, Odisha: “We thought Bt cotton would be lucrative. But in just about two years, we realised we were sowing seeds of poison. We were using too many chemical fertilisers. As a result, our soil lost its fertility,” laments Sirimajhi Pasanga (62), a tribal farmer from Paji Gerega village in Rayagada district’s Chandrapur block.

Take Pangam Jani, a farmer from Muniguda block, who got bumper yields in the initial two to three years. “From one acre, we could harvest five to seven quintals of cotton. Gradually, it began to come down. Last year, I got only three quintals from one-and-a-half acres. Because soil fertility is decreasing." 

Pasanga has taken loans to sow the seeds, and any profit he makes goes to the moneylender. “We are caught in a debt trap,’’ he tells 101Reporters, his words echoing the collective regret of several others who have met the same fate.

“We earned around Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 per acre from cotton cultivation. The cropping cycle is nine months long. Two years ago, I harvested five quintals of cotton, of which the moneylender took four,” rues Nabina Bredeka, another farmer in Pajigarega.

At least 88 percent of people residing in southern Odisha’s Rayagada belong to Scheduled Tribes. For years, tribals in the region farmed traditionally; growing multiple crops such as millets, pulses, cereals, tubers, roots and vegetables.

But over the past decade, the penetration of illegal Bt cotton seeds has eroded local crop diversity, soil health and crop productivity. In Odisha, herbicide-tolerant cotton seeds like Bt cotton are not permitted. “But in Rayagada district, Bt cotton seeds are available everywhere. Unfortunately, the genetically-modified crop has induced new pests that have the capacity to greatly disrupt the ecological stability in tribal hinterlands,” informs a retired agriculture officer, on the condition of anonymity.

 

The lure of kancha paisa

Cotton was never on the list of local crops in Rayagada. Tribal farmers were unaware of the side effects of the genetically-modified Bt cotton, too.

“But middlemen gradually penetrated the villages and knocked at their doors with unregistered Bt cotton seeds and money to cover input costs. They also provided assured markets for the produce, which further prompted many to take up cotton crop in the district,” explains Haraprasad Hepruka, sarpanch of Kuli panchayat in Rayagada block.

The region falls under the Niyamgiri hill range, which is home to Dongria Kondh, a particularly vulnerable tribal group.

Unsuspecting farmers believed in the popular punch lines endorsed by the middlemen cotton is kancha paisa (raw money), white money, etc. “That was how they fell into the trap,” Hepruka adds.

In recent years, the Odisha government has increased cotton procurement at Minimum Support Price (MSP) another reason why more farmers were tempted.

 

Too many side effects  

According to the Water Footprint Network, producing a kg of cotton consumes 22,500 litres of water. Even for post-harvest processes  cleaning, bleaching and dyeing  water is required in huge quantities.

Besides, the extensive use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers harms the agro-biodiversity of the region. It not only affects human health but also threatens wildlife. Water bodies are polluted, and the overutilisation of soil nutrients by the cotton crop brings down soil fertility further.

“Cotton is too sensitive. The crop cannot sustain when rainfall is less or erratic. Drastic changes in local weather mean crop loss for farmers,” says Pagadalu Banujani from Dekhapanga village in Chandrapur block.

Erratic rains have been troubling farmers like her. Unseasonal rainfall in January damaged cotton crops, with several farmers in Muniguda, Ramnaguda, Gudari and Padampur blocks registering losses. According to modest estimates, cotton crops in around 45,000 hectares of land were affected.

“How will we repay our loans when no incentives have been given to farmers yet,” Damburu Jani, a farmer from Muniguda, expresses his angst.

 

The way forward

Admitting that poor policies pose a constraint on initiating legal action against unauthorised Bt cotton seed suppliers, Dr Prasanna Mishra, former finance secretary, Odisha government, advocates the need for crop diversification.

“Farmers should be encouraged to intercrop red gram, black gram and oilseeds on their cotton farms. This will enrich soil productivity and strengthen farmers’ resilience to biotic and abiotic stress.” Dr Mishra told 101Reporters.

He said around six lakh small and marginal farmers in Odisha grow cotton. “If robust policies are made, cotton farming can be profitable, and environment-friendly too.”

Nanda Kishore Pradhan, who retired as a professor from the Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology, Bhubaneswar, notes that organic cotton is the way forward, as it restores soil fertility and nurtures biologically-diverse agriculture.

In India, organic cotton harvest stands at 1.23 million tonnes (MT), which is 51% of the 2.40 Mt produced globally. “But its production cost is comparatively high, while the demand stays low. It takes around three years for a conventional cotton field to become fully organic, so farmers opt for illegal Bt cotton seeds,” he explains.


A tribal farmer harvests finger millets on her farm (Photo: Prabhat)

A return to traditional methods

In the tribal villages of Chandrapur and Gudari block of Rayagada district, local NGO PRABHAT has been promoting millet cultivation with the support of Odisha Millets Mission (OMM), a flagship programme of the State Department of Agriculture and Farmers Empowerment. It covers all aspects of millet ecosystems, including production, consumption, processing, marketing and inclusion of millets in the Integrated Child Development Services, Mid-Day Meal, tribal school hostels and State Nutrition Programme

“For years, we cultivated our staple food items such as finger millets, little millets, barnyard millets and sorghum. Earlier, we did it for household consumption only. But now, the OMM has made it lucrative for us,” Shiva Pasanga, a farmer in Chandrapur panchayat, told 101Reporters.

Banujani is all praises for millets. “They require only farmyard manure, as opposed to chemical fertilisers and insecticides used in cotton farming. Millets grow easily, even when it rains less. In two years, we have expanded our millet cultivation from half an acre to three acres,” she beams.

Over 15,000 tribal farmers in the district are growing millets in 8,200 hectares, adhering to eco-friendly and improved agricultural practices, said Sharat Kumar Ghosh, OMM District Scheme Officer. The OMM programme also provides incentives to farmers in nine blocks: Chandrapur, Muniguda, Gudari, Gunpur, Rayagada, Bissam Cuttack, Kalyansingpur, Kashipur and Kolnora. Other partner NGOs implementing OMM programme in the district include Agragamee, ASHA, AKSSUS, Nirman, OPDSC and RCDC. 

According to research by the Naba Krushna Choudhury Centre for Development Studies, the OMM has raised the value of millet produce per household from Rs 3,957 to Rs 12,486, whereas the value of produce per hectare has gone up from Rs 9,447 to Rs 20,710. In four years, around 94,000 farmers in Odisha have benefited from MSP by selling 6.39 lakh quintals of finger millets through local mandis set up by the Tribal Development Co-operative Corporation of Odisha Ltd.

Trinath Taraputia, the Regional Coordinator at the OMM, tells 101Reporters, “Reviving traditional agricultural crops is a feasible solution to mitigate climate crisis, and also to address the rising nutritional insecurity in tribal areas.”

Over 43% of children in Rayagada under the age of five are stunted, while 50% are anaemic. As for women, 33% are underweight, reveals a 2019 study by Niti Aayog

Paraja Majhi, a farmer from Laxmanguda village in Gudari, adds, “Cotton crop residues are useless. But millet farming provides fodder for our livestock too.”

 

Edited by Gia Claudette Fernandes

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