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Seeds of discontent
An award-winning investigative film, 'Cotton From My Shroud', has re-ignited the debate around farmers' suicides and Bt cotton.
In 2006 when farmer suicides were at their worst, a filmmaker couple arrived in Nagpur to enquire about the deaths. Their questions were answered with uncanny silence. A corrupt bureaucracy and powerful multinational seed corporations made Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl's a tough journey. But they fought through it and produced the investigative film, Cotton For My Shroud.
The film eventually released, and has refuelled the debate on the state of farmers in Vidarbha, Maharashtra. The film has been shortlisted to be screened at the Investigative Film Week in London this month. It also bagged the best investigative film award at the 59th national film awards.
"There were times when four to five suicides happened in a day. We are not exaggerating;it was the time when one farmer would commit suicide every 35 minutes in Vidarbha. Kavita and I wanted to get to the core of the issue. We knew that this was not just another project. With this in mind, we reached Nagpur and met activists from the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti who were meticulously keeping a record of every suicide, " says Saxena.
But, as they moved from ferreting out data about the region to meeting farmers in person, they were struck by the reality. The film too has several funeral sequences which lay bare the pitiable state of farmers in the region. Their struggle to fight debt and losses in cotton crop and failure to break the cycle has resulted in most suicides. Parts of the film also question the government's fancy PR campaign that celebrated the success of Bt cotton in India. A majority of the farmers featured in the film are Bt cotton farmers but continue to struggle with debt and poverty.
"It's a two-way problem in Vidarbha, the input costs have sky rocketed and farmers have lost control over the traditional seed. With government extension agencies pushing for cash crops, they have stopped cultivating other food crops too. To add to their woes, Bt cotton is extremely water intensive and is absolutely unsuitable for a dry, non-irrigated area like Vidarbha. The result is debt. Farmers are trapped, " says Saxena.
These changes have pushed the farmer to the edge. "There is no other seed available in Vidarbha. All the local varieties of seeds have been bought over by seed companies. Farmers are paying huge amounts of money for the same seed that was affordable earlier, " adds Kavita.
The company agents at the cotton auction market in Yavatmal district tried to scare away the filmmakers. "When we were filming the auctioning, they tried to scare us. The police and a local politician at Yavatmal did their best to stop us from going to the funeral of a farmer who had died due to police firing in Mendoli. But we were very determined about completing the film, " says Nandan.
After the completion of the shooting, the couple came back to Delhi. But, for a very long time couldn't edit the film. "It was very disturbing. We had a lot of footage and every time we would sit to edit, their stories would start haunting us. We remembered their funerals, farmers who were on the brink of committing suicide, their families and children, " says Kavita. Villagers thought that the couple had been bribed by seed corporations and had decided against releasing the film.
"After over a year, we came to terms with the depression. We owed the film to the farmers we had met in Vidarbha. So we started editing the movie. When the movie was sent to Vidarbha, people told us that the company representatives were extremely annoyed and were ready to retaliate. But they couldn't do anything, because the film doesn't lie. These are real stories of Bt farmers from the region, " asserts Nandan.
Not much has changed in Vidarbha since 2006. Saxena and Bahl fear that the 'small farmer' will soon disappear from rural India. "We have made life too difficult for them. The government deliberately ignores the issue because they want small farmers to disappear, just like they have disappeared from US, " says Saxena.
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