India Interior

The long and the short of quality cotton

Meena Menon | Updated on May 17, 2019

Suvin seed cotton   -  COTTON CORPORATION OF INDIA

Suvin green boll   -  Cotton Corporation of India

Cotton flower   -  COTTON CORPORATION OF INDIA

Incentivising farmers who grow the extra long staple variety could help increase its production

While India tops the world in cotton production, there is little to celebrate in terms of quality.

At a recent conference in Mumbai on developing a comprehensive roadmap to incentivise the production of extra long staple (ELS) cotton, particularly Suvin, the chairperson of Cotton Corporation of India (CCI), Dr P Alli Rani, asked why India should not be leading the world in terms of quality as well.

Since British times, quality in Indian cotton has been defined as longer stapled, fine cotton. One tends to forget that the finest muslin woven in the world came from a short-stapled, silky cotton grown on the banks of the river Meghna, in Bengal. That history has been consigned to dust, though a few people are trying to revive the fine muslin weave.

However, for the Indian government, it is reviving Suvin (a hybrid of Sea Island cotton from St Vincent in the Caribbean Islands, and Sujatha, an Indian variety) that has been a priority for some time. ELS denotes a category of cotton fibre with a staple length of more than 32.5 mm. India now imports 5-6 lakh bales of ELS to meet its requirement of higher quality yarn for fabrics and ready-mades.

The Central government and the Textiles Ministry have, for some time, focused on the expansion of Suvin cultivation, which has fallen behind over the years due to various reasons. The main concern is also the increasing imports of long stapled cotton by garment and luxury segments in India, which cannot find enough of it here. But the way forward doesn’t seem easy.

Dr MV Venugopalan, principal scientist, (agronomy), Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur, said the areas under ELS cannot be extended beyond a point as it cannot grow everywhere. The aim must be to recapture the areas lost to Bt cotton. There is already a roadmap prepared by the Centre last year to increase Suvin cultivation to an additional 2 lakh hectares to produce an extra five lakh bales but the problem is to generate the large amount of seeds this will require.

Ironically, India is also the second largest exporter of cotton in the world but, as Sanjay Sharan, joint secretary and textile commissioner, said, ELS production has come down from 24.5 lakh bales in 1983-84 to a mere five lakh bales now. There is an urgent need to boost ELS production, as a considerable amount of foreign exchange was spent on importing it.

However, ELS is a long duration crop (182-210 days) and the yields were low, at 15 quintals cotton per hectare. More important, the ginning out-turn was 25-33 per cent as against 34-40 per cent for other cotton. ELS is only grown in four States — Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Ajit B Chavan, secretary, textiles committee, pointed out there was a need to incentivise Suvin production by offering farmers World Trade Organisation (WTO)-compliant subsidies to produce more.

Farmers growing ELS have faced a lot of disappointment over the years. Manohar Sambandam worked with farmers in Thiruvarur district, Tamil Nadu, to grow the extra long staple cotton DCH 32 in 2013. However, the farmers didn’t get a good price and the yields were only ten quintals an acre. Sambandam leased 25 acres, paying a lease of ₹4.15 lakh but could not even recover his costs of cultivation.

However, buyers and importers of ELS cotton lament that while countries such as the US and Egypt have done considerable research to improve ELS cotton varieties like Pima and Giza, India was lagging behind. There was also the big question of contamination of cotton, prompting buyers to look for better quality abroad.

Improving fibre quality has its problems, according to Dr AH Prakash, project coordinator and head, All-India Coordinated Research project. “When you increase the yield, the fibre quality suffers. With the advent of Bt cotton, there is a total imbalance in the genetic diversity of cotton,” he pointed out.

Another issue is the investment on research, which is given least importance, according to Dr Rajesh Patil, principal scientist, department of genetics and plant breeding, University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Dharwad. In fact, he said Suvin came out of a public-private research partnership as Madura Coats had sponsored the effort for their own requirement of fine cotton.

Meanwhile, the Karnataka State Seed Corporation and UAS have worked on developing transgenic ELS cotton and the results were surprising as it outperformed Bt cotton with an extra 10 per cent yield, Dr Patil said. This year, long stapled cotton DCH 32 with the Bt gene will be given free to 100 farmers to incentivise growing ELS cotton as a demonstration, he added. That was one way to increase the area under ELS.

The writer is a senior independent journalist and author based in Maharashtra

Published on May 17, 2019

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