Cropping Patterns: Non-Bt desi cotton makes comeback in North-West India

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Farmers in Punjab, Haryana and northern Rajasthan have more than trebled their area planted to non-Bt desi cotton varieties and hybrids this year. This has happened even as total cotton acreage in this belt has shrunk, thanks to the widespread damage from whitefly pest attacks last year, making farmers less inclined to sow the fibre crop.

A total of 72,280 hectares area has come this year under desi non-Bt varieties and hybrids in the largely irrigated cotton belt of North-West India. That includes 36,932 hectares in Haryana, 21,924 hectares in Sri Ganganagar and Hanumangarh districts of North Rajasthan, and 13,424 hectares in Punjab. Last year, an estimated 9,000 hectares was sown under desi cottons in Haryana, 9,000-10,000 hectares in Rajasthan and a mere 4,000 hectares in Punjab.

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“The desi varieties/hybrids are less susceptible to whitefly (a deadly sap-sucking insect pest) and resistant to cotton leaf-curl virus (that causes stunting of the plants). Although they aren’t resistant to bollworm pests unlike the Bt cotton hybrids, farmers in this region are currently more bothered about whitefly and leaf-curl virus,” notes Dilip Monga, head of the Central Institute for Cotton Research’s (CICR) regional station at Sirsa, Haryana.

Desi cottons are mainly from the indigenous Gossypium arboreum species. The bulk of the cotton grown in India today comprises Bt hybrids based on the “American” Gossypium hirsutum species. Although the latter produce fibre with longer staple length, more tensile strength and fineness — making them better suited for use in modern spinning mills — the coarse lint from desi cottons has better absorptive capacity. As a result, it finds use for surgical purposes and also for making mattresses, quilts, denims and stuffed toys.

Ramanpreet Singh, a farmer from Panniwala Mahla in Abohar tehsil of Punjab’s Fazilka district, grew Bt cotton on 50 acres last year. But this time, he has cut down his total cotton area to 30 acres, out of which a third is under RG-8, a non-Bt desi variety developed by the Agricultural Research Station at Sri Ganganagar “After last year’s whitefly attacks, a new trend is visible in our area, wherein many growers are now

interested in planting the desi varieties,” he points out.

His fellow-villager Baldev Singh’s lament is over the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) doing very little to develop more non-Bt cotton varieties. “We became dependent on Bt hybrids because its seeds were the only ones easily available. It was a rat race and everyone was planting only Bt,” says this 32-acre farmer, whose entire Bt cotton crop on 8 acres last year was ravaged by whitefly. This year, he has devoted only 3 acres to cotton and the whole of it to RG-8: “I am waiting for the results. If the yields are good, I may increase the area further next year”.

Manphool Benipal from Ban Sudhar in Haryana’s Sirsa district is another farmer who has sown a desi variety, CICR-1, in two out of his five-acre land. Last year, he had suffered losses from planting Bt cotton on his entire holding. According to Ram Pal, an agricultural development officer with the Haryana government, in the four villages of Ban Sudhar, Jhorar Nali, Chamal and Kelnian — all in Sirsa tehsil — about 125 hectares have been brought under non-Bt varieties this year: “This is a real comeback because for the past many years, not a single farmer was growing non-Bt cotton in this area”.

Vinod Jyani, a large landowner from Katehra village in Fazilka, has been cultivating non-Bt cotton in the last couple of years. This time, too, he has sown Vihani-161, a desi variety from Rajasthan, on five acres and RG-8 on one acre. “Unlike others who grew Bt cotton, my crop did not suffer any whitefly damage last year. The only problem with the desi cottons is that their boll size is less compared to that from Bt American hybrids. So, they require twice the labour for picking,” he observes.

Many farmers who are trying out desi varieties this time aren’t sure about yields either. Shivkaran Singh from Chak 5-O Lakhian village in Sri Ganganagar’s Karanpur tehsil has planted RG-8 in seven out of his 14 acres under cotton this year, as opposed to Bt hybrids in all the 14 acres in 2015. “My average yield from Bt cotton is 10 quintals-plus per acre. I don’t know what these will be from the desi non-Bt varieties,” remarks this farmer who has an MBA and was working earlier with IBM.

CICR’s Monga believes that the desi cottons can give 10-12 quintals per acre in irrigated conditions, if there are no pest and diseases. Being less prone to whitefly attacks is certainly an advantage in today’s circumstances. “We want to increase the share of desi varieties/hybrids in the total area under cotton in this region to 25 per cent in next couple of years”, he adds.

“We did a lot of promotion for desi cotton this year, including through sowing of varieties such as FDR-124, LDR-949 and LD-327 on some 500 demonstration plots. But there was an issue of availability of seeds”, admits Paramjit Singh, director of PAU’s regional research station at Bathinda.

The Haryana Agricultural University even issued an advisory to farmers to sow desi varieties in place of Bt hybrids. It led to a significant increase in area under non-Bt desi varieties in all the five cotton-belt districts of the state: Sirsa, Fatehabad, Jind, Hisar and Bhiwani. But again, a common complain voiced by farmers was non-availability of seeds in the university or authorised stores.

The overall cotton area in Punjab has reduced from 4.50 lakh hectares (lh) in 2015 to 2.56 lh this year, while similarly falling from 6.30 lh to 4.98 lh in Haryana and rising marginally from 3.49 lh to 3.51 lh in Rajasthan.