Shetkari Sanghatana, a union of farmers, will usher in the new year by breaking the law. On January 5, the union members will meet at a farm near Yavatmal city and freely distribute the illegally harvested second-generation Herbicide Tolerant BT (HTBT) cotton seeds.

Illegal planting of HTBT seeds is an offence under the Environment Protection Act and the Seeds Act. The union has been spearheading a movement for faster approval of HTBT cotton seeds. In May, the union broke the law and freely distributed the seeds.

Rampant cultivation

The process of illegal distribution and sale of genetically modified cotton seeds has been happening for the last three years. In late 2017, the Union Ministry of Science and Technology set up a field inspection and scientific evaluation committee to investigate illegal cultivation. It found extensive use of HTBT seeds by farmers.

The State government had also instituted a police investigation and a few cases were filed against the farmers, but the cases were not pursued. Chief of Shetkari Sanghatana’s (SS) Technology Cell Ajit Narde told BusinessLine that the SS does not have the exact statistics about the area planted with HTBT cotton.

A Central government survey said it could be 15 per cent of the total cotton planted area. In the forthcoming cotton year (commencing in May) the area could increase. It will also depend on the seed production of illegal cotton breeders, who are mostly based in Gujarat, he said.

Cotton acreage

A project report prepared by All India Coordinated Research Project on Cotton under Indian Council of Agriculture Research has said that the total area under cotton cultivation in 2018-19 was 41.19 lakh hectares.

Narde said the cotton season (2018-19) has come to end and the second-generation seeds, which almost has the same traits as the first generation HTBT are with the farmers. These seeds will be distributed again to other farmers to pressurise the Centre to legalise HTBT, he said.

Narde said that for the last 10 years the approval of HTBT seeds has been stalled for various reasons. Planting of HTBT cotton seeds has not adversely affected the environment, he added.

HTBT advantage

Weed is a major problem in cotton fields and there is a shortage of labour for manually removing the weeds in Maharashtra. Since HTBT seed is herbicide-tolerant, farmers can spray herbicides, which kill the weeds and not the cotton plants. SS studies have found one-acre manual removal of weeds cost ₹10,000 while herbicide spray costs ₹1,000, he said. Shetkari Sanghatana was founded in 1979 by former civil servant Sharad Joshi.