How Manchester of south India was lost over the past decade

Despite Coimbatore receiving heavy rain over the past three years, the water-dependent cotton crop cultivation in the district has reached a 10-year low. Agriculture department data shows cotton is being raised in 339 hectares in 2020, which is 40% less acreage than a decade ago. Farmers say the reasons for the crop losing favour is availability of shorter duration, less demanding options like vegetables and millets, water shortage in the cotton belt and lack of affordable labour for cotton picking.

“I usually grow cotton in 3.5 acres of land. But this year I cultivated tapioca and small onions instead because of labour shortage in my area. During pickings, some ask for ₹600 per day. Comparatively, small onions can be harvested in 70 days and tapioca is drought resistant so less risky,” says K C Gopal, of Konarpalayam. He made ₹60,000 this year, compared to ₹50,000 last year with cotton.

Cotton cultivation which began falling in the early 1990s due to droughts and water shortage is yet to recover. In 2010, cotton was cultivated across 877 hectares and it has steadily been eased out of the farmer’s crop menu since. The crop is cultivated in pockets in the district at Madukkarai, Annur, Kinathukidavu and Pollachi. However, Madukkarai which had around 20 acres of cotton in its block, this year declared that no one was raising the crop. “Coimbatore’s urban areas receive good rainfall, but the cotton farming belts like Madukkarai and Annur had deficit rainfall this year. The southwest monsoon, which is when cotton is sowed by farmers, set in late causing a water shortage,” says Murugan, Annur agriculture officer. High cost of cultivation is another deterrent. Though the price is good at ₹6,300 per quintal of cotton, farmers say the expenses are too much. “Finding affordable labour for cotton pickings is a challenge as massive industrialisation has given workers other job opportunities,” says Mani Chinnaswamy, a third generation cotton farmer from Pollachi.

Cotton and textile experts say cotton seems to be dying a slow death over the past 30 years in the region. Coordinator of the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), A H Prakash says in the 1980s cotton was cultivated across 1.2 lakh hectares in the district. “Coimbatore would contribute more than 40% of the cotton produced in TN, but it has now dwindled to hardly 8%,” says an officer in Indian Cotton Federation. “It was the availability of long staple cotton that brought textile mills to the district and gave it the name Manchester of South India,” says secretary general of South India Mills Association, K Selvaraju. The arrival of BT cotton in 2002 created an increase, but made them prone to pests and diseases leading to farmers losing money, says scientist Asha Rani of SIMA’s cotton development and research association.

At present Coimbatore at the rate of 3.5 bales per hectare, produces hardly 1,500 bales a year. In the rest of Tamil Nadu, cotton production is expected to increase from 2.5 lakh to 5.5 lakh bales a year. “The increase is expected due to good rainfall, the Centre declaring a minimum support price and farmers deciding not to store their kappas in fear of another lockdown,” says Selvaraju. Cotton mills now buy mostly from Gujarat, Karnataka and Telangana, where long staple cotton with 28mm to 30mm counts are easily available and acreage under cultivation is increasing with state support. As a way forward, institutes such as TNAU, CICR are coming up with long staple cotton, with good fibre quality that can be harvested at one go with a machine. However, farmers are yet to adopt the new varieties.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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