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pink bollworm: As if bales of problems weren’t enough, pink bollworm hits Northern farmers hard

For Manish Mehta, a farmer in Dabwali village in Haryana’s Sirsa district, cotton has been a reliable crop for years. This time, he grew cotton in 40 acres of land.

After all, cotton requires less water than paddy, and in the fast groundwater-depleting belt in Sirsa, it has been fetching a good price in the market – Rs 10,000-11,000 per quintal.

But Mehta had not foreseen the pink bollworm attack that hit cotton output in northern India this year. The pest attack not only affected cotton yield and quality, but has also delayed the wheat sowing period. “It has been a double whammy for the farmer,” said Mehta.

The infestation has hit the cotton-growing northern zone belt of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

“Pink bollworm attacks the crop at a later stage, when larva enters the ball. We realized the pest is affecting the crop around September, but did not realise how bad the infestation would be,” said Mehta. “Crop yield has come down and the quality is also affected.”

Since the quality of cotton is affected, its prices have plummeted to Rs 6,000 per quintal from Rs 10,000-11,000 per quintal, said Mehta, adding that labour cost, too, has increased, as labourers find it difficult to pick an infested crop. “Earlier, we were paying Rs 10 per kg to the labourer (he would pick 10 kg per day), but now we haven’t got labourers when we are ready to pay even Rs 30 per kg. The picking has been slow and wheat has not been sown on time,” he said.South Asia Biotechnology Centre director Bhagirath Choudhary, who works on endemic and invasive pest management, said, “This year, the pink bollworm was at the peak of infestation in the north. It destroyed the quality of cotton balls. Cotton production has come down to 29.4 million bales.”To support farmers, the government undertakes minimum support price operations through the Cotton Corporation of India. The state-run company begins procurement from the market when prices of fair average quality-grade cotton fall below MSP. But since the quality of cotton has been affected, CCI has not been able to procure it.

“We have a quality parameter which is called FAQ cotton. At present, all FAQ-grade cotton and above is being sold in the market at a price higher than MSP. The farmers want that CCI should buy the remaining cotton in the market at MSP,” Lalit Kumar Gupta, chairman and managing director of Cotton Corporation of India, told ET. “They want to push the inferior quality, which we cannot procure.”

CCI has initiated MSP procurement in 10 states. “We have procured 2.65 lakh bales against the arrival of 50 lakh bales,” said Gupta. “The procurement is in remote areas of these states but otherwise the prevalent market price is 2-5% above MSP.” The MSP is Rs 6,620 per quintal for medium staple and Rs 7,020 per quintal for long staple.

Chaudhary, however, said there is a crisis in India, which was the primary cotton grower in the world about 10 years ago. “Cotton cultivation is in deep crisis in India. This is the only crop in the country which has been consistently sliding downward in terms of productivity since 2013-14,” he said. “In that year, the production was 39.3 million bales and we had expected to produce 45 million bales by 2023. But it will come down to 29.4 million bales in 2023-24. So, effectively, we are losing 10 million bales every year. If we put the cost of 1 bale at Rs 50,000, we are effectively losing Rs 50,000 crore annually.”

Chaudhary says: “The biggest problem is the non-compliance of conditions attached to production of Bt Cotton when it was approved in 2002.” “One of the most important conditions was that the farmer should grow Refugia or non-Bt Cotton around Bt Cotton plants. That condition was introduced because the government was addressing two main pests – American bollworm or Helicoverpa Armigera (which was the main cotton pest in the country) and the pink bollworm (it used to come later in the crop cycle).”

Since farmers did not stick to this condition, pink bollworm is now prevalent, he said. “Pink bollworm is a monophagous pest. It is a concealing pest which feeds inside the ball. No matter how much you spray the plant with insecticides, it is ineffective because the spray does not reach inside and curb it,” said Chaudhary.


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