In some areas, plots of black cotton soils interspersed with red laterite, resembling a giant red-and-black patchwork quilt, are only just ready for sowing. The rains, coming at least 10 days ahead of schedule, have caught some Karnataka farmers unprepared and have not been harnessed for the first days of sowing.

But the inability to catch the early monsoon in their fields has not deterred the feeling of satisfaction prevalent in the cotton-growing regions of Karnataka. Good rains in the previous season (2005) had their cotton, both Bt and non-Bt, doing well even in rain-fed smallholder farmlands.

At Ukkunda village in Ranebennur taluk in the traditionally male-bastioned cotton-belt Haveri district, a group of twenty-odd cotton farmers, faces crusted with the vicissitudes of working their lands, assembled at the local Basaveshwara temple to give their views on Bt cotton. Well aware of the controversies surrounding it, 37-year-old B G Belekere and 48-year-old V S Patil, both 'Bt farmers' for the last three seasons have managed 10-12 quintals (1 quintal= 100 kgs) per acre where previously local hybrids such as DCH 32 gave them 5-6 quintals per acre.

The duo bought Mahyco's seeds (MECH 184 and MECH 162) at Rs.1650 per 450 gm-packet in 2005, and at Rs. 1400 for 2006, (as against Rs. 300 per 450 gms for DCH 32). Bt cotton fetched them approximately Rs. 1600-1800 per quintal as against the average sale price of Rs. 4000 per quintal of non-Bt. The non-Bt variety is long-stapled, commanding good demand and price in the market, compared to the Bt varieties, which are short-stapled. The long-stapled variety is said to be tougher and weaves better.

"But we still save about Rs. 1500 per quintal because our pesticides costs have come down to about Rs. 2000-3000 per acre. Previously we needed Rs. 5000-6000 for pesticide sprays," says Belekere. Farmers were selling to state procurers through the Agriculture Produce Marketing Centres (APMCs). The rates are uniform, and commensurate with market interest in long-stapled varieties.

Responding to the preference for long-stapled varieties, the Bt companies brought out their own equivalents of long-stapled ones in 2005 in small numbers, and greater in 2006.

Mahyco, for instance, has MECH 6918 long-stapled which now fetches the same rate as the non-Bt long-stapled varieties.

 •  Understanding the Bt cotton maze
 •  Forced privatisation of cotton

Conversations with the whole group revealed that no farmer looks at cotton yields as 'Bt or non Bt', but instead identifies varieties according to staple-size. Thus long-stapled Bt MECH 6918 gives good money too. In 2005, large-holder farmer Eashappa Desai at Asundi village in Ranebennur got 34 quintals of MECH 6918 cotton from 1.25 acres of his 40-acre holding. Obviously feted by his seed company Mahyco, his mother proudly displays the trophy Mahyco presented him. Last year Desai was the sole Bt-grower in his village; this year farmers converted 200 acres to Bt cotton.

Elsewhere, at Baramasagara taluk of Chitradurga district, farmers echo similar views. In a traditional cotton-growing belt that had turned to maize in the last decade due to pest problems in cotton, farmers have restarted with Bt cotton in their fields, mainly sowing the 'Srinidhi' variety from Rasi Seeds. Yields and prices are lower here than Ranebennur, which farmers in Byalahala village, 25 km from Chitradurga, attribute to less fertile soils. But here too the debate on the lower selling price of Bt cotton is cut short by the anticipation of good prices from a long-stapled Bt variety introduced this year.

Desai believes the good prices in Karnataka for cotton in 2005 was due to the failure of cotton, including that of Bt, in the neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu and Maharashtra. When queried why Bt cotton failed in these neighbouring states, farmer Belekere in Ukkunda village thought for a bit and then answered quietly, "They were small farmers." He feels that Bt cotton does well with larger farmers who have more resources and more lands for other crops.

Trial and error games

Indeed, Belekere's astute observation is a telling comment on the trial-and-error methods of Bt cotton being played out in the fields and lives of poor farmers across India. With Bt varieties being heavily dependent on intensive use of water, smallholder farmers using their lands for growing Bt, spurious or authentic, have no alternative recourse if their crops fail, as has happened in AP. Whereas earlier 'mixed' Bt seeds (Bt seeds mixed with regular, non-Bt hybrids) gave good bollworm-resistant results in Gujarat, agriculturalists point out that the mixing up of Bt and non-Bt or other forms of spurious seeds produce poor yields, as Vidarbha's farmers have found (Maharashtra).

According to a January 2006 report of a group of NGOs called the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC), corporate agencies selling Bt seeds have either been unable to communicate to poor farmers the risk of experimentation or of buying seed from unauthorised sources, or in some cases have deliberately aided the spread selling at lower costs than authorised varieties in order to promote their brand. A Ranebennur-based farmer told me (name withheld on request) that companies in Haveri knew about illegal seeds being sold by 'agents' during trials and did nothing about them.

All agencies blame the government for poor regulation in the entire matter, but the secrecy that cottonseed agencies surround themselves with has itself contributed greatly to the lack of information in the open for farmers to understand.

"All other seed companies, such as tomato or sunflower, use contract farmers on open fields for all to see. But not cotton. They will lease the lands from the farmers and do their own growing in secret", says Y B Bendre, who has been running Asundi Agri Services at Ranebennur for over 30 years.

"They gave me seeds (Mahyco trials) three years ago without telling me they were Bt," says Belekere.

This year, after seeing the disastrous consequences of spurious seeds, farmers are now savvy about buying only from authorised sources.

Public sector seed support thinning down

The steadily increasing acceptance of Bt cotton by farmers is marked by yet another disturbing trend of losing interest in local indigenous seeds, cotton or otherwise. 83-year-old Chandappa at Byalahala in Chitradurga says the yields are less if they make their own seeds, so they prefer buying. Desai, the large farmer at Ranebennur is also not worried. "We will go to the government agricultural department for different seeds."

But the rate of 'corporatisation' in the seed sector in rural India is so rapid that it is doubtful whether the agricultural department will be able to stock indigenous seeds for farmers in future years. The government rate for DCH 32 has already risen from Rs. 300 to Rs.800 – 1000 per 450 gms from 2006. "There is no production of these seeds," says Mahyco seed distributor P T Sirigere.

The agricultural extension officer is a disappearing species too, in the fields. Not one farmer, of the 45-odd I spoke with said the agricultural extension officer came to visit. "If we go report that our crops have failed, then they turn up to see what has happened," said Belekere in Ranebennur.

With the government apparently abdicating responsibility, happy to pass on its work to private corporates, farmers have no help in crop-planning, resulting in farmers turning en masse to crops with a promise of money-returns, Bt cotton in this case and producing a glut.

Crunching poverty, failing soils due to chemical over-usage and poor returns has now produced India's new 'farmer mentality' of wanting immediate high yields and damning the consequences.

"I can't worry about tomorrow," says V S Patil of Ukkunda village. "Who knows, there might be a tsunami before that. This is our fate."

But today, and for now, Karnataka's Bt cotton farmers are happy. Though the big increase in Bt cotton areas in 2006 could well lower the prices subsequently, they are enjoying this moment.