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Poll setback in Gujarat’s cotton belt worries Maharashtra BJP

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Maharashtra is worried about the electoral reversals the party suffered in rural Gujarat, especially the cotton-growing parts. Results of the Gujarat assembly elections announced on Monday showed the Congress made significant gains in the Saurashtra-Kutch region and north Gujarat where cotton and groundnut are the main cash crops.
In the belt that accounts for 54 assembly constituencies, the BJP won only 23 seats, 12 fewer than in 2012, while the Congress took 30 seats, 14 more than in 2012. And across the state, the BJP won only 55 of the 127 rural and semi-urban seats as against 68 by the Congress.
Kishore Tiwari, chairman of the Maharashtra government-appointed Vasantrao Naik Shetkari Swawalambi Mission—a task force formed to solve Vidarbha’s agrarian crisis— and Vidarbha-based farm activist, said the Maharashtra government should learn from the setback in rural Gujarat.
“The results in cotton-growing parts of Gujarat should be a matter of concern for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP-led government in Maharashtra. Apart from the low remunerative price for cotton and the severe spell of pink bollworm attack on the crop that has caused damages worth Rs10,000 crore to cotton growers in Maharashtra, the government also needs to think about providing timely access to institutional credit, high cost of production, and bureaucratic bottlenecks that cause delays between the programmes and their delivery before the BJP suffers a similar political setback here as well,” Tiwari told Mint.
A BJP minister in Maharashtra, who campaigned for the party in rural Gujarat including parts of Saurashtra-Kutch region, said the Congress had gained despite the BJP government in Gujarat announcing in October a bonus of Rs500 per quintal for cotton over and above the minimum support price (MSP) of Rs4,020 per quintal for the small staple variety, Rs4,270 for the medium staple, and Rs4,320 for the long staple.
“The scale of distress was apparently bigger and more serious than we imagined. What is worrying is that the cotton growers in Maharashtra are facing exactly the same problems as their counterparts in Gujarat—a low remunerative price and a widespread attack of pink bollworm on Bt cotton. The bonus of Rs500 does not seem to have helped much in Gujarat and that means the distress level among cotton growers in Maharashtra, who have not been given such bonus, could be higher,” said the minister requesting anonymity.
Gujarat is India’s top cotton producing state, accounting for nearly 25% of the national yield. According to the estimates of the cotton industry and the state government, the state is likely to produce 50.50 million quintals of cotton in the 2017 kharif season. Cotton is grown over 2.7 million hectares in Gujarat. Though Maharashtra has larger acreage under cotton—normally 3.8 million hectares but 4.2 million hectares this year—it has lower productivity and was estimated to produce nearly 40 million quintals at the start of this kharif season.
But activists and even agriculture ministry officials in Maharashtra now say the pink bollworm attack has damaged nearly 40% of the estimated crop. “The damage in some parts like Vidarbha is more than 50% but it averages out to around 40% across all cotton growing parts of the state,” said a senior agriculture ministry official.
The regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada account for nearly 65% of Maharashtra’s total cotton yield. Parts of North Maharashtra and Khandesh also grow cotton. Of the state’s 13.6 million farmers, nearly 4.5 million grow cotton, as per the state’s agriculture census.
For the BJP, the cotton growing regions are also politically significant—some 65 of its total 122 members of the legislative assembly have been elected from Vidarbha, Marathwada, North Maharashtra and Khandesh. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis himself is from Vidarbha and so is senior BJP leader and Union minister of transport and shipping Nitin Gadkari.
Farm activists and politicians claimed that cotton crop grown over nearly 1.3 million hectares has been damaged by the attack of the pink bollworm because the Genetically Modified (GM) variety of Bollgard II has lost much of its resistance to pest attacks. In Yavatmal district alone, where cotton is cultivated over 4.5 lakh hectares —the largest area under cotton cultivation in India —bollworm attack has damaged between 50-80% of the crop, according to Tiwari.
Dhananjay Munde, Nationalist Congress Party leader and leader of the opposition in the Maharashtra legislative council, has demanded compensation of Rs25,000 per acre for cotton growers hit by pink bollworm infestation. The opposition has already mounted an intense attack on the BJP-led government during the ongoing winter session in the ongoing assembly over this issue.
The BJP minister quoted above said cotton growers in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana too were complaining of pink bollworm attacks. “Farmers in Gujarat have spoken through their vote against us. We need to take some corrective measures in Maharashtra now,” said the minister.