Maharashtra's farm menace

This year’s repeat pink bollworm attack is adding to the distress of Maharashtra’s wary farmers

On August 10, when Sanjay Rathod walked to his lush cotton field in Lasina village, Maharashtra, he noticed some closed yellow flowers. Opening them, to his horror, he found, the tiny larvae of the pink bollworm. Accordingly, he sprayed an insecticide Larvin and some neem spray. They didn't have any effect. He is now terrified of a repeat of last year, when he lost half the cotton on his six acres of land to the pink bollworm menace.

Walking around his field, he obsessively checks each flower and finds a number of pests. "They are early this year," he says, downcast. He has installed pheromone traps and a light trap, in which he finds nothing.

The next day, the district agricultural officers paid a visit to his farm and found that the pest attack was not serious and below the economic threshold level (ETL). "It's a healthy field," proclaimed Pramod Yadgiriwar, associate director, research, zonal agricultural research station, Dr Punjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth, Akola. However, Rathod is not very convinced.

Over a week later, he found fewer pink bollworms but noticed sap-sucking pests and is now seeking advice from Yadgiriwar on how to deal with them. One of the issues with Bt cotton has been a resurgence of secondary pests, the mealybug among them.

Light traps and pheromone traps dot the cotton landscape in Yavatmal district in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. This is the epicentre of farmer suicides in the country and, in addition to the farm distress, since the last few years, farmers are being challenged by pests like the pink bollworm on cotton which is assuming menacing proportions. This year too, farmers have noticed an early onset of the pest.

The pink bollworm has not caused much trouble in India unlike the green or American bollworm. Bt cotton, a genetically modified pest-resistant variety, was launched to tackle the green bollworm in 2002. However, last year, the pink bollworm damage was widespread in Maharashtra and many farmers are still waiting for the government's compensation. This pest has added to the complex theatre of distress in Yavatmal.

Pesticide poisoning

Cotton has been grown in Yavatmal for over 100 years and the cotton acreage keeps fluctuating – nevertheless, it is the mainstay of the local economy. Since 2002, farmers largely adopted Bt cotton and, now, they also plant herbicide tolerant Bt cotton which is, as yet, illegal in the country. In 2017, the sudden increase in pests, mainly the pink bollworm, prompted intensive chemical spraying which resulted in 22 deaths in the Yavatmal district and over 60 in the state.

In the government hospital at Yavatmal, there were 507 admissions and 13 deaths, according to official figures. There were extensive crop losses due to the pink bollworm and, this year, the cotton area has reduced to between 3.6 mha and 3.8 mha compared to 4.2 mha in 2017-18 in Maharashtra, according to the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR).

The effects of spraying a dangerous mix of chemicals are already being felt and there have been 72 admissions in the Yavatmal government hospital till August 28, this year, with five new admissions on that day. There are 22 persons in the ward, with six critically ill and one on ventilation. So far, 50 have been discharged. The doctors said, the patients do not use safety kits and tend to use organophosphates and weed killers, which adversely impact their body.

Battling the pink bollworm

After last year's debacle, this year, the Punjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth, Akola, has set up a zone-wise monitoring committee for the pink bollworm in Vidarbha, said Yadgiriwar, who heads the committee for central Vidarbha. The committees have been active in all 11 districts of the region since July and will continue their work till February 2019. There were few instances of the pink bollworm crossing the economic threshold level (ETL). Only two villages in Pusad and Umerkhed talukas of Yavatmal had reported that and now, towards August end, the pest was under control in those places. Light traps have been advised for use for a few hours early morning and after dusk.

The danger with light traps, which are supposed to attract the small grey moths of Pectinophora gossypiella, whose larvae is the pink bollworm, is that they are left on all day and night. The traps attract all kinds of insects and moths, killing the beneficial ones too. CICR has advocated that light traps must be kept only next to gins, to attract moths and not on fields. However, this advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

Making of a monster

Studies by CICR in 2015 had already established that the pink bollworm had developed resistance to the pesticide Bollgard 2. Lack of alternatives to Bt cotton has caused further distress to farmers.

V N Waghmare, director (acting), CICR, said, since last year, the pink bollworm has developed resistance but this is not uniformly distributed. Extending the cotton crop beyond December or mid-January has also contributed to increasing the pest attack. The CICR is advocating spraying neem-based pesticides, avoiding chemicals in the beginning and spraying synthetic pyrethroids only after 120 days.

Waghmare said the pink bollworm is a minor pest usually occurring in October and it has a lifecycle of 30 to 35 days. Usually, it has one or two lifecycles – but, since the cotton lasts till April in most places, its lifecycle continues.

Uncontrolled spraying of synthetic pyrethroids made the American or green bollworm an "insecticide resistant

monster", described former CICR director K R Kranthi. Not having learnt any lessons, we seem to be headed in a similar direction for the pink bollworm – as the farmers continue to suffer.

(In arrangement with The views expressed in the article are those of

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