Two months from now, cotton farmers in Northern India, who suffered heavy losses in the last kharif, will commence cotton sowing for forthcoming Kharif 2023.

The cotton productivity estimate was reported to be at its lowest in the North zone comprising of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan at 518.4 kg lint per hectare. North zone cotton, which recorded the highest cotton yield at 678.3 kg lint per hectare in 2019-20 is now down by over 30 per cent.

The losses are mounting due to the rising cost of cultivation, climate induced change in pest dynamics and rampant sale of unauthorised seeds and unchecked pesticides sprays.

The boom and tractor mounted sprayers are back with unimaginable consequences on human health and environment.

Declining cotton productivity is threatening the income and livelihood of farmers in vast stretches of North zone which has a favourable cotton-wheat cropping system.

The story is similar for other 60 lakh smallholder cotton growers in Central and Southern cotton growing zones. Climate change induced weather aberration, widespread infestation of boll devouring pink bollworm, new tobacco streak virus disease and boll rot have recently threatened cotton farmers.

The white fly transmitted severe cotton leaf curl virus and sudden outbreak of para wilt have worsened the situation for North zone farmers.

The impact is visible in cotton-based textile industry compounded by surge in domestic market price, hoarding and trade related developments emanating from the US ban on import of fashion and textile products from China’s Xinjiang region, which mostly source raw cotton from India and the earthquake-hit Turkish textile manufacturing.

Down-down cotton

According to the Agriculture Ministry’s second advance estimates, cotton output is estimated at 322 lakh bales (of 170 kg each), down by 48 lakh bales from the target of 370 lakh bales in 2022-23.

Cotton productivity, which peaked at 566 kg lint per hectare in 2013-14, has continuously been decelerating since then, causing imbalance in demand-supply of cotton and uncertainty in the cotton textile industry.

In 2021-22, cotton yield reduced to 445 kg lint per hectare, down by 121 kg lint per hectare, an estimated loss of 85.4 lakh bales in 2021-22 alone over the optimal yield level of 2013-14.

This dip in cotton production has forced the textile industry to rely on imports, which increased to 35.3 lakh bales worth ₹8,339.26 crore in 2018-19. The relaxation in import duty structure would hit the balance of trade in cotton, which remained favourable over the last two decades.

On the other hand, cotton exports, which peaked at 116.96 lakh bales worth ₹23,153.24 crore in 2014-15, have since declined to 47 lakh bales worth ₹8,731.32 crore in 2020-21.

The cotton sector seems to be dogged by some serious structural deficiencies.

Three-pronged strategy

First, the cropping system of cotton must gradually undergo a systematic change to high density planting system (HDPS), which is a new cropping system of accommodating more plants per unit area supported by technological inputs for weed management, defoliation and mechanical picking.

Currently our farmers practice dibbling based sowing of bushy-type, long duration hybrid cotton seeds at a large spacing accommodating fewer plants per acre and harvest seed cotton 3-4 times in a season spanning 180 to 280 days in different cotton growing zones. New erect type hybrid cotton genotypes have been introduced to optimise plant population, however, but this forms just one-fourth of what is being practiced under HDPS in countries with high cotton yield.

Cropping pattern change

The new cropping system requires an entirely new plant type, shifting from hybrid to varietal seeds coupled with new age technologies for machine sowing, weed management, defoliation and mechanical picking. HDPS cotton must be brought in soon which requires a coherent approach driven by robust public-private partnership.

Second, the government-led policy paradigm on cotton must give way to progressive evidence-based policies on pricing of seeds and safeguarding intellectual property, not only for biotech traits under Indian Patent Act but also ensuring the rights of breeders and farmers under PPVFRA.

Enforcement of IPR on new varieties suitable for HDPS while ensuring farmers’ rights must be strengthened to attract investment in R&D and breeding of high-density suitable genotypes. Exchange of pre-breeding germplasm under material transfer agreement (MTA) and access and benefit sharing (ABS) mechanism for cross border material transfer must be prioritised.

The unending price control of cotton seeds under the Cotton Seed Price (Control) Order, 2015 has discouraged breeding activities and stalled introduction of much needed technologies for weed management and fuelled the growth of illegal market for herbicide tolerant (HT) cotton.

An exhaustive analysis by International Cotton Advisory Committee (IAC) shows that based on the cost of cultivation in 2002, the increase in seed cost is just 35 per cent as against the 237 per cent increase in labour cost in 2021-22, forcing farmers to take illegal route to HT cotton.

Finally, the 2023-24 Budget, expected to launch the Technology Mission on Cotton 2.0, announced a minor sop for enhancing the productivity of speciality extra-long staple cotton (ELS) by promoting a cluster-based and value chain approach through public-private partnerships (PPP). India is traditionally deficit in ELS cotton production and the textile industry imports around one million bales annually.

The cotton and textile industry was hoping that the Budget would launch an ambitious TMC 2.0 to transform ailing cotton sector, but even that would have been like clutching at the straws for the cotton and textile industry.

The writers are from the South Asia Biotechnology Centre, Jodhpur