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India’s Cotton Farmers Fight for Their Lives and Land

This article is adapted from a thesis project, as part of Anurag Jain’s Strategic Design and Management curriculum. You can read the complete project here. Photo by India Water Portal.

Naagappa is a cotton farmer in Vidarbha village of Maharashtra, one of India’s largest states and where the skill of growing cotton is passed down from one generation to the other.  Despite his lifelong experience of growing cotton on his four-acre farm, things have changed for him over the past few years, and he’s reconsidering his future. “Today, I have to buy everything from cotton seeds to water to harvest our crops,” says Naagappa. “Even the land I am standing on is not mine. I am even facing a bit of trouble buying food this year.” 

Naagappa’s income from growing cotton is a mere $512 a year, and yet he must support a family of three on this sum. He is trying his best to make ends meet. Ultimately, he hopes to send his kids to private school for education, so they don’t have to work in the family business of cotton farming.

The Twentieth Century saw massive changes in farming around the world. The Agricultural Revolution completely transitioned the concept of agriculture from small-scale land and peasant-focused to large-scale mechanized farming. These changes contain dark stories that are rarely told. With the transition of farm ownership from communities to private entities, traceability of materials was compromised. Consumers no longer have full knowledge of how their products are manufactured.

What’s more, the intensification of agriculture resulted in heavy uses of genetically modified seeds, pesticides and fertilizers, and mechanized operations, especially in cotton. Many Indian farmers started investing in these methods through loans with the hope of higher yields. Instead, they ended up in the trap of debt and accruing loan interest. Using heavy dosages of pesticides and fertilizers, the nation’s farming communities also saw a deterioration not only in the quality of groundwater and soil but also in their own health. These dramatic changes to cotton farming has lead to three crisis impacting farmers in developing countries—financial, health, and environmental—that has left farmers fighting for their future.

Three Crisis Face Cotton Farmers In Developing Countries

Financial Crisis

The distress of cotton farmers in the third world is significantly higher than in UK or US. There are many factors that explain the discrepancy and plight of third-world farmers. The first is lack of education and training in the proper supplements and seeds that are suitable for a healthy yield. As a result, farmers either overbuy or end up buying the wrong products. Their harvest gets compromised as they don’t have knowledge of conducting cotton farming techniques with modern resources.

Secondly, farmers in third world countries often go through numerous cycles of debt. Perhaps a cotton farmer goes into debt and has to sell his cow to get out of it. The next year, he tries again to succeed at cotton farming and goes into debt and sells his house. Many ultimately have had to sell their farms as a result of debt. From there, they have no option but to work on rented lands. Most of the time, there is no set rent price of that land. Instead, they have to pay a certain percentage of the revenue from their yields in place of rent. Since all this happens under the unorganized sector, government can do nothing to regulate rent on these farmlands and protect farmers from unscrupulous landlords.

Thirdly, there is a huge contrast between how cotton is sold between the developing and developed world. American cotton farmers work in cooperatives, which ensures they are paid the market price, whereas, third world farmers sell their cotton through middlemen. These middlemen not only compromise the transparency of cotton, but they also take the major share of the market price of cotton for themselves.

Health Crisis

It’s well documented that heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers leads to health issues for farmers, from skin disorders to lung cancer, and can sicken people in surrounding areas. In 2017, 50 farmers died in Maharashtra due to suspected pesticide poisoning, and hundreds more fell sick. There is also mounting evidence that farmers exposed to certain types of pesticides can suffer neurological damage as well, leading to anxiety and depression, which might eventually push a farmer to commit suicide. There’s no doubt that financial stress is a vital reason for farmers ending their life, but there is evidence to show that the epidemic is backed by other factors like changes to the nervous system which may be prevented through bans or regulations.

Environmental Crisis

An environmental crisis in India’s cotton sector is degrading the soil and water due to an overuse of nitrogen-containing compounds used to support a robust production of cotton. There are few strict regulations on growing cotton, as it is the only crop that is not edible. However, we do know that heavy use of chemicals and water usage can create a lot of instability in the ecosystem where cotton is grown. The drying up of the Aral Sea, once half the size of England, due to over irrigation from cotton farming is one notorious example. We really can’t tell how these activities will impact the future of the planet.

What Can Be Done

The question at hand is how to implement ethical cotton farming practices. There are initiatives from the Indian government to forgive the farmer’s debt from time to time. Despite being a solution to the plight of individual farmers, the solution won’t add up to long-term changes. We need radical initiatives to transform cotton farming as we know it today, or it won’t be surprising if our future generation will get to see and feel cotton only in museums. Although the initiatives are radical, the implementation doesn’t need to be very complex:

1.     Cut out the middlemen.

Middlemen in developing countries buy cotton from farmers at a lesser rate and sell it to the market at a higher rate. This scenario can be resolved by empowering farming communities to create their own cooperatives that can directly make the connection to textile mills, eradicating the middlemen.

2.     Promote farmer mental health.

We can empower organizations that work on farmer’s wellbeing to create awareness of clinical depression among farming communities and connect the farmers-in-need to medical service providers for treatment. Government intervention is also required to develop insurance policies that cater to the mental wellbeing of rural farmers and their families.

3.     Explore new growing technologies.

Although the idea is niche and expensive as of now, farmers could use controlled and monitored Hydroponics systems for cotton crops, which could eliminate the use of soil and minimize the use of water. The controlled environment would eliminate the need of having farmland with preferable climate and soil, and hence, provide employment opportunities to cotton farmers anywhere in the world without the need of owning agricultural land. 

There are millions of farmers like Naggapa in the world who are uncertain about what the future holds for them. Their own resources are not enough to help them get out of the situations they find themselves in. They are mere pawns to the privatized agricultural industry. We have seen the government, helpless in front of farmer’s despair. The change needs to come from entities that are creating the demand for cotton; the other side of the world that enjoy cheap fast fashion cotton clothing at the cost of farmer’s lives and well-being. Brands need to be accountable for what they sell and responsible to take initiatives to make sure everyone in the supply chain gets treated humanely. Then only, we will see a turning point, a new chapter, where we will acknowledge that everything we wear was touched by human hands.

Further Resources

Weave – A podcast series by Sarah Resnick and Lachaun Moore exploring farmers, weavers, and textile mill owners. 

The Bitter Seeds – A 2011 documentary about the impact of GMO cotton on Indian farmers. 

Unsustainable – A 2006 book by Patrick Hossay looking at how colonialism, capitalism, and industrial growth yields damaging results for farmers. 

Navdanya – An organization by activist Vandan Shiva that sets up seed banks in India, trains farmers in seed sovereignty and sustainable agriculture, and established the largest direct marketing, fair trade organic network in the country.

Vishram – Indian community based initiative to promote mental health in cotton farming communities in India.

Amul – One of the biggest dairy cooperatives in India.

anurag jain
Anurag Jain

Anurag Jain’s career started as a fashion designer with specialization in Leather Accessories and Apparel Design. He has a master’s in Strategic Design and Management from Parsons School of Design. He is passionate about sustainability, ethical procurement and consumer behavior.

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