Filmed entirely in India and self-funded by husband and wife team, Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl Cotton for my shroud lays out the stark reality of life for cotton farmers in India. From 1997 to 2010 (according to official statistics) over 200,000 Indian farmers committed suicide. In the decade from 1991 to 2001 over eight million farmers quit farming. As the voice over comments ‘Every summer, the farmer sows hope...every winter he harvests loss...sometimes death’.
But behind the figures are real people, with real lives and families. Cotton for my shroud takes us into the heart of village India where we meet farmers, their families, politicians and police who are involved in these life and death struggles to survive.
|A farmer's body at the morgue
The film starts with a TV ad: ‘Plant Bt and your son will get employment/you can build a house/marry your daughter/pay off the medical expenses of your aging father.’
An attractive promise which carries a lot of weight in rural communities. How could it not be true? It’s on TV and carries all the implied authority of ‘modern’, the corporate promise of a better life, not just for the farmer, but for the entire family.
How easy is it for people who have lived a traditional life, with little or no access to the internet, and who live in a rigidly feudal and hierarchical society, to contemplate that what they are seeing is a glossy lie?
‘Last year Bt let us down badly’ says a grieving widow, whose husband killed himself. ‘For two years it did not grow’.
An activist comments, ‘The introduction of hybrid [Bt] seeds has trapped farmers. Initially they advertised aggressively: plant this seed, plant that seed. They trapped us. Even if we try to break free we do not know the way out. The fertility of our land has reduced. Pest infestation has increased. The farmers are unable to find a way out.’
Activist Vandana Shiva contextualises the issue. “Every government extension agency is selling the seeds of Monsanto - non renewable, unreliable, untrusted seeds’.
We see bullock carts laden with raw cotton as Shiva continues, ‘India lost its freedom to Britain for two hundred years. Now we face another kind of slavery. Anyone who controls the seed and agro chemical industry controls our agriculture.’
A key issue brought out in the film is the high input costs which farmers are faced with with Bt cotton and the low selling cost. Traditional cotton seeds were around Rs 30/kg. Initially the Bt seeds were Rs 200/kg. Now they are around Rs 5000/kg... and it takes 1 kg of seeds to sow an acre of land. Fertiliser used to cost Rs 30 per sack. Now it’s Rs 200. Pesticides used to be Rs 30/litre. Now the average cost is Rs 15,000 per litre.
The input cost for the farmer has increased around five hundred fold, while the output on parched and degraded land.
While companies claim that Bt seeds will yield 25 quintals of cotton per acre, the reality for farmers is an average yield of one quintal per acre. Faced with a debt of Rs 60,000, and produce which will fetch, at best Rs 30,000, it is hardly surprising that some farmers are so overwhelmed by their situation that they kill themselves.
|The cotton market where wholesalers buy
Two other factors came into play :an overnight rush into cash crops, to the exclusion of food crops, and the total disappearance of any kind of non-agricultural occupation like traditional weaving, carpentry, blacksmiths.
A politician observes, ‘Farmers do not have a strong lobby. Big industrial houses and MNCs have a strong lobby, and a strong influence on the policies.’
Vandana Shiva explains, ‘Globalisation transformed agriculture into a huge market for the global seed industry, which happens also to be the global agri-chemical industry....They realised how important control over seed is because it’s the first link in the food chain. You control seed and you control agriculture. They started to buy up small local seed companies, so today five giant seed companies control the seed supply to the world’.
Monsanto controls 95% of all GM seeds sold in the world.
A bureaucrat comments, ‘There is a nexus between MNCs, our bureaucracy and our political setup.’ The unfortunate cotton farmers are caught in this web of globalisation, vested interests, relentless lies and ruthless profiteering, paying with their misery and lives to fill the coffers of wealthy bureaucrats, wealthy MNC workers and the global fashion industry.
This film is a searing indictment of greed. Passionate, well researched and simply told, we are given a rare access into the lives of those whose voices are rarely heard...Indian cotton farmers and their families. And this process is not just about what’s happening in India, with cotton. It’s a global phenomenon.
|Farming villagers protest in solidarity
Filmmaker Kavita Bahl explains how the film came about.
Why did you make this film?
The answer involves our ethics and philosophy about life. Both Nandan Saxena (my husband and co filmmaker) and myself subscribe to the Cree saying:
“Only when the last tree has died and the last river
been poisoned and the last fish been caught
will we realize that we cannot eat money”.
|Nandan Saxena getting the shot
In India, a country where farmers, the life-nourishers, are giving up on life...what can be worse? We asked ourselves- what are we waiting for? For the Cree saying to come true...we hope not!
We are both children of teachers. Perhaps, this genetic code helps us survive in a very materialistic world.
How have audiences reacted to the film?
People, especially in countries other than India, have queries related to the choice and right of the farmer over his/her crop, etc. They need to understand the relationship between the land and the farmer in India; the farmer's total dependence on the State for what to grow and how to grow; the hand-in-glove relation of the Indian Government and the multinationals. Earlier this year, our audience at London (Cotton for my shroud was the Headline Film at the Investigative Film Week) was shocked after watching the film and discussed the issues with us at length.
Why did you decide to self-fund the film?
Self-funding was not a choice- it was a path. Seeking funds for such films is a Herculean task in this country. There are hardly any funds for the documentary and thousands vie for the small tid-bits of the same pie. We just decided to go ahead on our own and Cotton for my shroud was the result. All our savings have gone into making this film. It has hurt our bank balance but not our spirit.
You mention that there is a demand for the French, Spanish and local language versions. Can you say more about this?
Making the film in English is essential but not enough. It helps it travel and reach a wider audiences in cities- both in India and abroad. The film addresses not only policy-makers but also farming communities in India, since it is about their seed freedom. Many do not understand English, so we need local language versions.
French and Spanish versions are required to screen it in nations which are either pro/against genetic modification. This Indian story is relevant to all countries which have farming communities, governments and multinational corporations. Our films are often used as learning and advocacy tools by NGOs and various organisations working towards policy matters.The language versions are required to take the film to the grassroots.
A team is required to see that the films are made professionally and within the given time frame. Besides the professional charges to be paid to the translator and voice-artist, each language version film has to be re-edited.
Congratulations to all involved in this project. Is there likely to be a follow-up?
Follow-up shall definitely be done. Hopefully, we shall have some funds in place for it. People who appreciate Cotton for my shroud should ideally help the farming communities by bringing out their voice through the film. Amen.
copyright all images Nandan Saxena