The Union agriculture ministry, on becoming aware of the illegal sales of unapproved Bt cotton seeds, has directed state governments to strictly enforce the provisions of Seeds Control Order, 1983 to deal with the situation. The illegal sale of unapproved Bt cotton has spread to Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan where sowing of cotton in the current season has begun. The MS Swaminathan panel on application of biotechnology in agriculture in its report has also noted "highlighted by mushrooming of illegal varieties of Bt cotton seeds in Gujarat, which is reported to have spread to Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab as well."

It is not yet clear what the sources of the unapproved Bt cotton seeds are. There are reports about the sale of unapproved Bt cotton seeds allegedly produced by Nav Bharat Seeds. Some farmers also suspect the leakage of Bt cotton seeds of Mahyco-Monsanto which was developed for cultivation in north India, and was rejected last year as it was found susceptible to the dangerous leaf curl virus. However, sources in Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Company and in the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry said "such reports are baseless."

"Agriculture department officials turn a Nelson's eye to this unscrupulous sale and in most cases they are hand in glove with the fly-by-night operators."
No Bt cotton seeds has yet been approved for commercial cultivation in north India, including Punjab. The leaders of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) said that this craze of Bt cotton among farmers in north India is due to the hype generated by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Company that its cultivation reduces bollworm attack by 58 per cent, increases yield by 24 per cent and results in a net profit of Rs 7,276 per acre.

BKU leader Jagmohan told FE, "influenced by the large scale publicity about the success of Bt cotton, the farmers are not even hesitant to pay Rs 400 to Rs 500 for a purported pack of 400 gm of Bt cotton seeds. They hardly get what they are paying for as most of the packing is done in the neighbouring Haryana with some unspecified varieties of seeds. The demand for illegal Bt cotton seeds has also spread to Rajasthan." He further said "in some cases, sowing of cotton with such varieties costs the growers Rs 2000 an acre, but the agriculture department officials turned a Nelson eye to this unscrupulous sale and in most cases they are hand in glove with the fly-by-night operators."

The Union government in letters to the state governments has requested "to ensure that dealers should claim on the label for quality of seeds with regard to the presence and absence of Bt gene in cotton to be sold in the market under section 13 (1) (a) and (c) of the Seeds Control Order, 1983. To verify the presence of Bt gene in cotton, the Government of India notified the laboratory of Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) at Nagpur as the central seed testing laboratory. The Government of India is also providing funds to train the officials who are working in the laboratory so as to test for the presence of Bt gene in cotton."

The monitoring committee of the Union environment ministry has recommended: "for verification of Bt cotton seed production, the company should inform the agriculture department of the concerned state regarding the location, area and estimated quantity of seed production. The quantity of seed produced should be further verified at the processing plant by the Seed Inspector."

The committee further said that the company should provide details of all its seed dealers and advance notices of delivery to the agriculture departments of the concerned state. Out of the total distribution, 0.1 per cent should be checked on random sample basis.

For evaluating the performance of Bt cotton, the committee suggested monitoring of 10 per cent of the total Bt cotton fields on a random sample basis as per guidelines developed by CICR. The period of field assessment in each state should be decided taking into consideration the varying agro-climatic conditions and also be classified into irrigated, unirrigated and drought prone areas. Bt cotton fields should be monitored three times - during flowering stage, square formation stage and at the time first plucking. Details of pest incidence, number of sprays of pesticides till 50 per cent of boll bursting stage, yield, agronomic practices should also be assessed.