Cotton fabric is an environmentally friendly material and should be used more extensively. Affordable prices of cotton hold the key. With the prevailing shortage and high prices of cotton, the textile industry is fearing the worst. Cotton exports worth $2 billion are under threat. India cultivates cotton on 12 million hectares but lags in productivity. The current productivity of 440 kg/ha of lint, down from its peak of 516 kg/ha five years ago, compares poorly with the global average of 775 kg/ha.

In the absence of a clear strategic policy and enabling regulatory environment, India may not be able to provide cotton at affordable price to the textile industry. India may turn into a net importer of cotton from being the largest exporter in 2013-14.

India’s cotton production trebled from 13 million bales in 2002 to a peak of 39 million bales in 2013 but dropped to 32 million bales last year. For the last five years, cotton yields have stagnated and started decelerating lately, bringing pressure on supplies. The demand-supply imbalance has triggered a price rise and hit the textile industry hard. The textile industry needs 45 million bales by 2026 for domestic purpose and to meet exports to countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam.

It is unlikely that India will produce adequate cotton in five years unless a strategy involving multiple stakeholders and Central and State ministries is urgently drawn up.

Productivity blues

As many as 62 districts accounting for 37 per cent of the cotton area have very low yields of 230 kg/ha and another 69 districts accounting for 35 per cent of the area yield a medium level 420 kg/ha. The productivity in the rest of the area is reasonably high at 615 kg/ha.

Yield losses due to pink bollworm, boll rot and sucking pest coupled with expensive weed management have become a nightmare for the cotton farmer. Farmers have to pay 20 per cent of their revenue for cotton picking. Increased cost of production is impacting the livelihood and income of 70 lakh cotton farmers.

Also, as no new biotech traits for cotton seeds have been approved for commercialisation since 2005, has resulted in inefficiencies in pest control leading to yield drops.

Many countries achieved ginning out-turn of 40-45 per cent compared to 30-35 per cent in India.

This means that we are losing 20 per cent of lint productivity compared to other nations. Lack of upgradation of agronomic practices and mechanisation of operations including picking are creating inefficiencies in cotton production.

Inadequate investments in seed research due to price control on cotton seed have meant lack of development of high quality cotton seed varieties in the last 10 years.

The way forward

There is a need for a holistic and a long-term strategic approach. Multiple links in the value chain have to be optimised and technologically upgraded, starting from cotton seed, crop protection, crop nutrition, irrigation, mechanisation, markets, ginners and the end user. There has to be an alignment between different Central ministries and between Centre and States where cotton is grown or textile units are based. We need an end-to-end integrated approach.

If India has to achieve the global average productivity it must adopt breakthrough technologies and implement new production system as outlined below.

High Density Planting System (HDPS): Increase the plant population from the current 15,000-25,000 per hectare to 75,000- 1,00,000 with customised agronomic practices thereby increasing the yield by 30 per cent. India needs to develop compact plant type that will be suitable to increase the plant population. This will call for a breeding effort from the seed industry in partnership with ICAR-CICR and ICAR-CIRCOT. Farmers have to be incentivised to adopt this method.

High Ginning Out-Turn (GOT): Seed companies need to be incentivised to invest in developing varieties with higher ginning out-turn. The Centre must also incentivise farmers to grow cotton with high GOT through a better MSP and a differentiated market price for such cotton. It is estimated that adoption of high ginning out-turn can help India increase cotton productivity by 20 per cent.

Technology deployment: (a) There is an urgent need to upgrade the biotech traits by approving the next generation insect and weed management cotton technology, which is pending for approval with the Environment Ministry. The commercial approval of BtHt cotton is absolutely essential to meet farmers’ urgent needs. It will also encourage R&D and accelerate research to tackle the pink bollworm, boll rot menace and cotton leaf curl virus. Efficient control of weeds by deploying next generation HtBt cotton can increase yields by 20-25 per cent in the near to mid term.

The Centre must streamline and operationalise the regulatory system, do away with burden of NOC from States, ensure regular functioning of GEAC and encourage the private sector to deploy advanced biotech traits.

b) Use of pneumatic planters and mechanical pickers is essential to reduce farmer’s cost of cultivation and improve his competitiveness. The farm machinery industry needs to make machines that suit Indian conditions and small farm holdings.

c) High quality PGRs (Plant Growth Regulator) should be used in HDPS for managing plant vegetative growth and canopy which makes the crop amenable to mechanical harvesting. Additionally a high quality defoliant is required to defoliate the crop before mechanical picking. Both these products have to come from the Crop Protection industry.

d) Pre-cleaners must be deployed in the ginning mills to remove trash and improve the cleanliness of cotton to ensure Indian cotton fetches better prices in international markets. The textile industry must be involved in making the necessary changes to the machines in ginning mills and spinning mills to improve cotton quality.

At the policy level, research investments by seed industry must be encouraged by the government; withdrawing price control on cotton seeds is essential.

For achieving higher lint productivity in cotton, to improve the profitability and competitiveness of cotton farmers and to make the textile industry realise its full potential in the international markets, we need to revisit the highly successful Technology Mission on Cotton (TMC) 1.0 of 2002 and repeat the momentum by undertaking modern technology deployment through the value chain.

The government must set up an inter-ministerial initiative involving agriculture, science & technology, environment and forests, textiles and commerce ministries with active inclusion of key States, industry associations of seeds, crop protection, fertilizers, textiles, machinery manufacturers and farmers to take up TMC 2.0 on a mission mode.

The writer is the Director-General, Federation of Seed Industry of India. Views expressed are personal