BATHINDA: “It was just like the Japanese air strike in the film, Pearl Harbour,” said Naresh Kumar Lehri, a seed and pesticide dealer at Singho village in Punjab’s Bathinda district. “They appeared out of nowhere and left a trail of destruction.”
Lehri was referring to the devastating attack by whitefly, a common pest, on the cotton crop in Punjab’s Malwa region this year. It has affected about two-thirds of standing cotton crop in the state, causing an estimated loss of Rs 4,200 crore.
There are reports of at least 15 cotton farmers committing suicide. The director of Punjab’s agriculture department is under arrest as are several pesticide dealers for selling spurious pesticides. The farmers are on the roads blocking traffic and demanding compensation while the state’s Akali Dal-led NDA government has announced a compensation package of Rs 640 crore, dismissed by angry farmers as peanuts.
Punjab has nearly 12 lakh acres under cotton this year and almost all of it is Bt cotton, which is resistant to some major pests such as bollworm. But over the years, whiteflies have regularly attacked cotton plants only to be controlled by intensive spraying of chemical pesticides. But this year, despite a new pesticide being introduced and subsidized by the state government, the whitefly attack spun out of control. The reasons for this virulence are yet unclear but the farmers have a story to tell.
Several cotton farmers that TOI met in Bathinda and Faridkot districts of Punjab and adjoining Sirsa district of Haryana said that the whitefly appeared earlier than usual this year and deficient rains seem to have helped it survive longer.
“Since July, we have sprayed pesticide 10-12 times. Each spray costs about Rs 3,300 per acre. But the whitefly was unaffected,” said a downcast Manjeet Singh in Singho village, standing on four acres of his withered cotton crop.
Curiously, the crop in the adjoining field, and another in the vicinity, showed far less whitefly infestation. In fact, in the adjoining field, farmer Yadvender Singh had sprayed no chemical pesticides at all. Instead, he had used biofertilisers and other non-chemical formulations. Yadvender’s field is expected to yield 800 kg of cotton per acre compared to 300 kg that Manjeet would hope to harvest. In the other plot, a non-Bt variety of cotton too was far less affected by whitefly.
Yadvender’s field, where chemical pesticides were not used, showed spider webs on the plants. These are natural predators of whitefly. In fields where pesticide is heavily sprayed, these are decimated leaving the whitefly to flourish.
Why did the pesticides fail? There are various theories doing the rounds among agitated farmers. The most popular one, which the government seems to be backing, is that spurious pesticides were sold by dealers. Testing of some samples has indeed shown this. This has led to the arrests of conniving officials and makers of spurious chemicals.
But others point out that spurious samples make up not more than 15% of the total pesticides sold. Punjab consumes an estimated Rs 800-900 crore worth of pesticides per year, of which about Rs 150 crore worth are used on cotton alone.
“It is possible that whitefly has developed resistance to the commonly used pesticides,” says Uday B Philar, who heads a Pune-based biofertiliser company, Sequoia Biosciences. Philar spent over three decades in the pesticide industry before deciding to set out on his own, formulating non-chemical, eco-friendly products.
Philar also points out that farmers have not been taught how to properly spray crops. They spray the upper layers of standing crops assuming that the pesticide will seep down. But this does not happen.
“Whitefly lays eggs in the middle section of the plant, on the underside of leaves. Top sprays often miss the eggs and nymphs in middle layers,” he said.
There are fears that whitefly will now start attacking other common crops in the region such as chillies or vegetables. With pesticides running out of steam and pests developing resistance, alternatives would have to be quickly found.