On August 10, when Sanjay Rathod walked to his lush cotton field in Lasina village in Yavatmal, Maharashtra, he noticed some closed yellow flowers. When he opened them, he found to his horror the tiny larvae of the pink bollworm. He shared a photo with other farmers on Whatsapp groups and immediately got a response on what pesticides he should use. Accordingly, he sprayed an insecticide Larvin and some neem spray. They didn’t have any effect. He is now terrified of a repeat of last year when he lost half the cotton on his six acres of land, to the pink bollworm menace.

From the main road, his field in a 15-20 minute walk and you can sink knee deep into the soft soil. Walking around, he obsessively checks each flower and finds a number of the pests. “They are early this year,” he says, downcast. He has installed pheromone traps, in which he finds nothing, and a light trap as well.

The next day, the district agricultural officers paid a visit to his farm and found that the pest attack was not serious and below the economic threshold level (ETL). “It’s a healthy field,” proclaimed Pramod Yadgiriwar, associate director, research, zonal agricultural research station, Dr. Punjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth, Akola. However, Rathod is not very convinced. He is still anxious that he will lose his crop as the scientists didn’t check the whole field.

The pink bollworm have spread in the cotton fields in Yavatmal district, Maharashtra. Attempts to curb them have been ineffective and and have caused immense stress on the cotton farmers. Photo credit: Meena Menon

Over a week later, he found few pink bollworms but noticed sap-sucking pests and is now seeking advice from Yadgiriwar on how to deal with them. One of the issues with Bt cotton has been a resurgence of secondary pests, the mealy bug among them.

Light traps and pheromone traps dot the cotton landscape in Yavatmal district in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. This is the epicentre of farmer suicides in the country and in addition to the farm distress, since the last few years, farmers are challenged by pests like the pink bollworm (larvae of the moth Pectinophora gossypiella) on cotton which is assuming menacing proportions. This year too, farmers have noticed with alarm, an early onset of the pest.

The pink bollworm has not caused much trouble in India unlike the green or American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) which used to devastate cotton. Bt cotton, a genetically modified pest resistant variety, was launched to tackle the green bollworm in 2002. However, last year (2017), pink bollworm damage was widespread in Maharashtra and many farmers are still waiting for the compensation announced by the government. This pest has added to the complex theatre of distress in Yavatmal.

Pesticide poisoning

Cotton has been grown in Yavatmal for over 100 years and the cotton acreage keeps fluctuating, but it is the mainstay of the local economy. Since 2002, farmers adopted Bt cotton in a big way and now they also plant herbicide tolerant Bt cotton which is as yet illegal in the country and has not been approved for planting. In 2017, the sudden increase in pests, mainly the pink bollworm from July onwards, prompted intensive chemical spraying which resulted in 22 deaths in Yavatmal district and over 60 overall in the state.

In the government hospital at Yavatmal alone there were 507 admissions and 13 deaths, according to official figures. There were extensive crop losses due to the pink bollworm and this year, the cotton area has reduced to between 3.6 million and 3.8 mha compared to 4.2 mha in 2017-18 in Maharashtra, according to the Central Institute for Cotton Research.

The effects of spraying a dangerous mix of chemicals are being felt already and there have been 72 admissions in the Yavatmal government hospital till August 28 this year, with five new admissions on that day. There are 22 people in the ward, with six critically ill and one on a ventilator. So far 50 have been discharged.

The doctors said the patients do not use safety kits and tend to use organophosphates and weed killers, which have an impact on their body. Prompted by last year’s influx, the hospital dean, Dr Man Shrigiriwar has set up a special unit for inhalation and contact poisoning patients and closely monitors their progress.

The hospital runs acetyl cholinesterase serum tests to detect the presence of organophosphates and monitors new patients with oximeters round the clock till they get better. In the special unit, Manohar Chavan from Pimpalkuta village said he only tied a kerchief around his mouth and nose while spraying — that didn’t help him. He is terrified he will die, as last year there was a death from pesticide poisoning in his village. He now wants to give up farming. Sitaram Hole lying in the next bed, is not sure what he has sprayed. He too felt giddy and sweated profusely after two days of continuous spraying and had to seek help.

Battling the pink bollworm

After last year’s debacle, for the first time, the Punjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth, Akola, has set up a zone-wise monitoring committee for the pink bollworm in Vidarbha this year, said Yadgiriwar, who heads the committee for central Vidarbha. The committees have been active in all 11 districts of the region since July and will continue their work till February of next year. There were few instances of the pink bollworm crossing the economic threshold level, he said. Only two villages in Pusad and Umerkhed talukas of Yavatmal district had reported that and now, towards August end, the pest was under control in those places. He advised using light traps for two-three hours early morning and after dusk.

NM Kolapkar, district superintendent agricultural officer, Yavatmal, said the government published regular advisories on tackling the pink bollworm. Pheromone traps have just been granted a 90% subsidy even though farmers find them to be ineffective. The department has recommended multi-cropping and increasing biodiversity, advice not readily accepted. All over the region, special awareness programmes are run by the government and even by private pesticide companies on the dangers of poisoning by spraying, advocating the use of protective body kits to minimise effects, apart from guidance on pest control. WhatsApp groups initiated by the district agricultural department share advice, information and photographs on campaigns.

There seems to be an all-out battle against the pink bollworm. The effectiveness of these measures remains to be seen. For now, it is the unregulated pesticide dealers who are making the most by advocating toxic cocktails which desperate farmers are spraying on their crop.

Light traps are used to attract and terminate pests, but their effectiveness hasn’t been beneficial for the farmers. Photo credit: Meena Menon

Mangesh Jarile from Pimpri Butti village in Yavatmal shows bills of various pesticides worth Rs 25,000 from the local dealer at Akola Bazar who has advocated Danitol (a synthetic pyrethroid, widely recommended by pesticide dealers), Profex, Elevator and many other brands. He has been spraying a mixture of this on his cotton crop to kill the pink bollworm, but to no effect. He feels dizzy while spraying and has to rest often despite being one of the five in the village to be given free safety kits. He and his friend Suresh Thakur have installed makeshift light traps which work depending on the electricity supply which is erratic.

Last year too this village suffered crop loss and there have been over 10 suicides reported from here over the years. Increasing debt and despair seems to haunt these farmers and they want to move out of farming and look for paid jobs. “It is better to sell our land and go somewhere and work, at least we will have a steady income,” said a frustrated Jarile. The village depends on moneylenders for credit and rarely do they get crop insurance.

The danger with light traps which are supposed to attract the small grey moths of Pectinophora gossypiella, whose larvae is the pink bollworm, is that they are left on all day and night. The traps attract all kinds of insects and moths, killing the beneficial ones as well. Central Institute for Cotton Research has advocated that light traps must be kept only next to gins, to attract moths, and not on fields. However, this advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

Pheromone traps are provided at a subsidised rate to the farmers. But farmers have found them to be ineffective in trapping pests. Photo credit: Meena Menon

Yadgiriwar said the light traps used were not the scientific ones; farmers complain the pheromone traps are not working and they didn’t notice any moths in them. It is also difficult to go and switch off the light trap at night, so it’s left on all the time.

They fear a more intense attack on cotton this year. Contrary to government assurance that the pink bollworm was under control, in Kalamb, large farmers like Anandrao Jagtap who has 24 acres at Parsodi Budruk, said he found larvae of the pink bollworm in the yellow cotton flowers in August itself and the neem spray that the government recommended was not having an effect. Unlike last year this time, Yogesh Dhande, another farmer, said they were better prepared but still they are worried about crop loss.

Central Institute for Cotton Research advised farmers to sow cotton between June 15 and the first week of July and then uproot it by December. However, most farmers allow the crop to stand till April, since they get more pickings. They do not accept the Central Institute for Cotton Research’s advice as it means their harvest will come down by many quintals.

Mounting frustration

In Bothbodhan village, there is anger and frustration from repeated crop losses. This year depending on their harvest, farmers have decided to take a collective decision to sell the land in their village. “We are fed up with this cotton farming. It is so unpredictable,” said Anup Chavan, former head of the village. “We will go and sell tea somewhere,” he remarked. Chavan, a farmer with over 60 acres, gave up a more lucrative Maharashtra Public Service Commission posting to take up farming and is regretting it. Some people like Naresh Rathod had to sell their land (3.5 acres) for health treatment.

Credit is hard to come by and young Anasuya Rathod had to raise Rs 5,000 by pledging her mangalsutra as collateral to the moneylender so her husband Suresh could buy fertilisers for their farm. The rate of interest is a hefty 36 percent per annum but the family had no choice. The repayment capacity of this village is so low that they find it difficult to get credit from banks and even the usurious money lenders refuse them loans.

Anup Chavan, cotton farmer and former head of Bothbodan village, and other farmers of the village are considering selling their land, give up farming to look for alternate jobs. Photo credit: Meena Menon

Devrao Rathod lost much of his cotton crop last year and is in debt by Rs 90,000. He got only 3.5 quintals per acre as against the usual 8 quintals. Yet this this year too he has planted cotton as like most farmers, he has little choice. He spends over Rs 20,000 per acre to grow cotton. The government announced a compensation of Rs. 6,800 per hectare for losses due to the pink bollworm and he is slated to receive some money but it’s a pittance compared to what he has spent.

Loans for educated unemployed also don’t come to this village as Prahlad Rathod discovered. He too lost much of his crop in 2017. “I wanted a loan from the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana (a government credit scheme) for my son, so he could set up a business, but it was refused,” he said.

A little ahead in Hivri village, Vijay Nival, a Shetkari Sanghatana (farmers union) activist and farmer himself, has employed labourers to remove the pink bollworm from infected plants and has been spraying chemicals like Monocil and Confidor.

The making of an “insecticide resistant monster”

Studies by Central Institute for Cotton Research in 2015 had already established that the pink bollworm had developed resistance to the pesticide Bollgard 2. Lack of alternatives to Bt cotton which seems to have a diminishing impact on pests along with a lack of proper advice on dealing with pests, has left farmers to bear the brunt of crop loss and debt.

VN Waghmare, director (acting), Central Institute for Cotton Research, said since last year, the pink bollworm has developed resistance but this is not uniformly distributed, it is low in some places and higher in irrigated areas. Extending the cotton crop beyond December or mid-January has also contributed to increasing the pest attack. The Central Institute for Cotton Research is advocating spraying neem-based pesticides, avoiding chemicals in the beginning and spraying synthetic pyrethroids only after 120 days.

Waghmare said the pink bollworm is a minor pest usually occurring in October and it has a life cycle of 30 to 35 days. Usually it has one or two life cycles but since the cotton lasts till April in most places, its life cycle continues, he pointed out.

Uncontrolled spraying of synthetic pyrethroids made the American or green bollworm an “insecticide resistant monster”, as former Central Institute for Cotton Research director KR Kranthi described it. Not having learnt any lessons, we seem to be headed in a similar direction for the pink bollworm. Meanwhile the farmers suffer.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.