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The cotton chronicles of India

Cautious optimism towards step-wise implementation of sustainable agricultural system in combination with modern technologies is the way ahead for 2047 to achieve the goal of Viksit Bharat. — Dr. R. Krishna Chaitanya


Origins of cotton

The glorious history of Indian cotton and its fabrics is dated back to pre-Indus civilization times. The genesis of cotton cultivation and trade is from the Indian sub-continent. The scientific analysis of an 8000-year old copper bead from Mehrgarh i.e. present day Balochistan, discovered several threads of cotton attached to it. Similar fragments of cotton textiles excavated from the Mohenjo-daro and Mediterranean regions establish the functionality of cotton trade since 5000 years. A plant dye was extracted from the cotton found in Indus valley indicates that the people of this region also possessed the knowledge of cotton dyeing. 

The past glory of Indian cotton  

Vedic period literature consists of terminologies associated with cotton and it’s weaving process. In Rigveda, weaver was termed as vasovaya. The male and female weavers were mentioned as vaya and vayitri respectively (Rigveda, 10.26.6; 2.3.6.). The process of cotton weaving was used metaphorically (Mandala10, Hymn 130).

यो यज्ञो विश्वतस्तन्तुभिस्तत एकशतं देवकर्मेभिरायतः। 
इमे वयन्ति पितरो य आययुः पर वयाप वयेत्यासते तते।।

Panini in Astadhyayi, referred to cotton as tula; loom as tantra; place where the weaver ply the loom as avaya; and the shuttle as pravani. The quality of the cloth depended on the tantu (thread) spun. Kautilya’s Arthashastra discussed cotton as a source of king’s revenue. As per the texts, threads (sutras), coats (varma) and cloth (vastras) were manufactured by skilled artisans and yarn spinning was regulated by the superintendent of yarns (sutradhyaksa). Amarkosha, a thesaurus written during the Gupta period, has words connected with cotton cloth (karpasam, phalam), thread (tantu, sutram), weaving of cloth (vani, vyuti) and the tools for weaving (vema, vamadanda).

Indian textiles were traded for Roman gold during the Roman period. Roman historian, Pliny (79-23 CE) estimated the value of Indian cotton imports to Rome to be a million sesterces (equal to 15 million Indian rupees during that time) every year. Satavahanas traded cotton textiles produced from the Deccan region across the Indian Ocean to Egypt. Zhou Qufei, a Chinese government official referred to cotton textile export in large volumes from the port of Masulipatnam (now Machilipatnam) during the regime of Vengi, the 12th century king of Chola dynasty. References of thriving textile industry during 15th century Vijayanagara empire were mentioned in temple inscriptions, literary works, and Portuguese and Persian travelogues. Tome Pires, a 16th century Portugese traveler, described the ships from Gujarat and the Coromandel coast which carried clothes of thirty different varieties to Malaccan region. 

The Indian cotton varieties were exported mainly from four regions: Indus plains including Punjab and Sind, Coromandel Coast, Gujarat and the west coast, and Bengal. References to chippa saree, printed calicoes, bandhani, kalamkari, forms of embroidery - kashida and chikin are available in various texts and travelogues. Cotton muslin from the erstwhile Bengal made via an elaborate 16-step process with rare variety cotton grown along the banks of Meghna River was considered to be a prized possession. India was globally famed for skills in weaving, embroidery, printing, painting and dyeing of its textiles. The varieties of dyeing ingredients of high quality were used. Indian dyers used lime, lemon peel and juice, pomegranate, myrobalan, milk, flour, alum, ochre, antimony, copper, iron vitriol, indigo, saffron, sandal, safflower, etc. 

Indian cotton from riches to rags 

The fall of Mughal empire eventually allowed European merchants to gain control over Indian regions. Indian cotton textiles were quite popular in Britain and imported from India by the East India Company. Between 1681 and 1685, the Dutch East India Company imported 7 tonnes of gold and 240 tonnes of silver for textile trade predominantly cotton and silk. The popularity of Indian cotton in the European markets met with local trader resistance. As a result, the European government brought in several acts, known as calico acts, between 1700 -1740, to ban or levy heavy duty on Indian cotton imports. At the same time, the hand-made cotton textile system prevalent in India was severely affected by the European industrialization. Textiles were being machine-made in Britain. Further, import duties on British mill manufactured cloth into India were removed. Consequently, millions of Indian textile workers and women spinners lost their occupation and jobs. Many switched to grow cotton to survive. India, the age-old producer of the finest cotton in the world was reduced to supplier of raw cotton to the English textile mills in less than half-century time.

The American civil war curbed the cotton supplies to Britain (1861-65) leading to a cotton famine. Due to this, Indian raw cotton that accounted for 31% of British cotton imports in 1861 increased to 90% in 1862. This further resulted in decline of the Indian textile industry. When America ceased to be a supplier of cotton, the East India Company set to ‘improve’ the Indian cotton. The newly introduced American cotton produced a longer staple more suited to the rigors of machine processing. American cotton planters were hired for India to train farmers to grow the cotton. In a span of 40 years, import of British cotton goods rose from £1,100,000 in 1813 to £ 6,300,000 in 1856. The Indian patriotic leaders like Bipin Chandra Pal, Dadabhai Naoroji, Tilak and Ranade observed that the weakening of the Indian textile industry and subsequently the Indian economy was not due to internal poverty but a systematic drain of wealth by the British and started resistance against the colonial rule. The movement gained momentum with Gandhiji’s idea of swaraj in 1915. He introduced the Khadi movement and motivated the people towards hand spun and handwoven cotton fabric. Consequently, the mills in Manchester were forced to close which lead to a turning point in the Indian independence movement. Excerpt from the book as quoted by M.K. Gandhi-

“It is a shame that we who grow more cotton than we need should have to send it abroad for being turned into cloth for us. It is equally a shame for us that we who have in our villages unlimited unused labour, and can easily supply ourselves with village instruments of manufacture, should send our cotton to the mills of our cities for it to be manufactured into cloth for our use. We know the history of the shame. But we have not yet discovered the sure way to deal with the double shame beyond a patriotic appeal to the public.”

Cotton hybrids and the pest menace-post independence

The cotton processing machinery needed uniform raw material supply in large. The nature of farm practices transitioned from sustainable family based agriculture to intensive commercial farming. Surti Local, Broach Desi, Western local, Wagad local, Kampta local, Jarilla, Jayadhar, Digvijay,  Hyderabad gaorani etc. were some of the local varieties grown which totally vanished from the fields. The era of high-yielding cotton hybrids began from 1970. The release of world’s first intraspecific cotton hybrid “H4” was from Cotton Research Station, Surat. Two years after the release of H4, the world’s first interspecific hybrid was released under the name “Varalaxmi” at Bangalore. These hybrid varieties needed irrigation, which increased humidity. Humidity attracted pests. Cotton pests including, pink bollworm, whitefly, spotted bollworm, cotton bollworm etc. infested the cotton fields. To curb the menace, pesticides and insecticides were sprayed in the fields indiscriminately. Consequently, pest resistance and ecological issues emerged as a major concern. 

Bt cotton technology- the perils associated with it

Soil-dwelling bacteria known as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) naturally produces a toxin that is fatal to certain insect species. The toxin produced by Bt is genetically engineered into cotton germplasm such that the Bt cotton plants could express the toxin. The toxin is lethal to several insect pests. To tackle the pest menace, Bt technology was introduced in the year 2002. Today, almost 95% of the cotton plantation in India is the transgenic (Bt) American cotton. After over 20 years of its inception into the Indian agricultural set-up, questions pertaining to Bt technology in cotton with respect to its sustainability and efficacy remain. Currently, among the 29 Bt cotton growing countries, the only documented case of practical resistance to Bt dual toxin (Bollgard-II) is reported in the cotton pest, Pectinophora gossypiella from India which is a matter of serious concern. In the year 2002, single toxin expressing Bt cotton (Bollgard-I) was commercially introduced in India. Within 8 years of commercial introduction of Bollgard-I, the private firm, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) officially confirmed pink bollworm resistance. Non-compliance to refuge strategy, i.e. plantation of atleast 10% of non-Bt cotton plants in proximity to Bt cotton was attributed as primary reason for generation of the field resistance. Meanwhile, to enhance the efficacy of the Bt cotton against the bollworms, a combination of two toxins with commercial name, Bollgard-II, was launched in the year 2006. Subsequently, pink bollworm resistance to Bollgard-II cotton was confirmed in the central, southern & northern cotton growing zones. Ineffective implementation of various policies, practices and methods at the field level also lead to emergence of the pest resistance in cotton fields. India is the only nation that cultivates Bt cotton as hybrids. Genetically, this is a favorable scenario for resistance development. Replacement of short- to medium-duration Bt varieties with long-duration Bt-hybrid varieties, usage of large number of hydrids with varying flowering and fruiting periods, early sowing and late harvesting practices facilitated pest multiplication with overlapping generations and accelerated resistance development. Pink bollworm or any other insect will eventually evolve resistance against transgenic crop if the technology is not combined with integrated pest management practices such as monitoring with light & pheromone traps, use of biopesticides, biological control methods using wasps etc., crop diversification, animal grazing of harvested fields, destruction of stubbles and stalks, gin waste, winter irrigation and post-harvest deep ploughing.

The success of Bt cotton in India is often exaggerated, based on a selective and optimistic analysis of the available evidence and downplaying of the negative results. Policy analysts and politicians draw general conclusions from the insufficient evidence to create a misleading impression that Bt cotton is a value addition in terms of sustainable & productive agricultural livelihood. Bt is not an intrinsically yield-enhancing technology but a pest control technology. Yield advantage of Bt cotton can be expected only in seasons where bollworm pest pressure is high. In other pest-free seasons, Bt farmers have to bear the additional costs of transgenic seeds but gain no particular yield advantage over non-Bt farmers. Bt cotton produced a significant yield advantage and farm productivity under irrigated conditions. However, most of the cotton in India is grown in rainfed conditions, and only one-third is grown under irrigation. A connection between the economic factors associated with Bt cultivation and farmer suicide was earlier established by few studies. 

Way ahead for 2047

While the global average of cotton yield is greater than 800 kg/hectare, India as on 2022, produced near about to 500 kg/hectare only. Bt technology is not a viable solution in small farmer set-up which comprises almost 70%. High-density, short-season, non-hybrid, non-genetically modified, irrigated and rainfed cottons could be a viable alternative for Indian conditions. Wherever Bt technology is feasible, 15-20% refuge strategy combined with integrated pest management (IPM) strategies has to be implemented. Advanced soil testing laboratories need to be set up for testing soil health. IoT & space satellite technologies can augment pest surveillance, predict weather patterns and analyse the impact of climate change which aids in precision agriculture. National-level multidisciplinary agri-task forces can be constituted comprising of expertise in plant breeding, genetics, ecology, entomology, geology, soil science, economics, meteorologists & engineering to monitor the existing technologies as well as recommending the future technologies in 15 agro-climatic zones of India. Cautious optimism towards step-wise implementation of sustainable agricultural system in combination with modern technologies is the way ahead for 2047 to achieve the goal of Viksit Bharat.


The Author is Associate Professor, School of Life Sciences, Central University of Karnataka

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