Kavita Bahl: ‘Cotton for My Shroud’ – a story of farmer suicides in Vidarbha

By Bhavani Prakash

The film ‘Cotton for My Shroud,’ a heart-rending story about cotton farmers of Vidarbha in Maharashtra (western state of India) is directed by Kavita Bahl and Nandan Saxena. The national award winning movie, made by Top Quark Films throws light on how cotton farming with Bt (Genetically modified) cotton has led to a spate of farmer suicides in recent times.  

Kavita Bahl


Kavita Bahl, co-director of the documentary, quit her thriving career of 7 years as a journalist at Indian Express to delve into the reasons behind the suicide of nearly 300,000  farmers over the last 16  years.  She felt there was greater need to provide Vidharba farmers a medium to share their angst, emotions and helplessness.  In her interview with Bhavani Prakash of Eco WALK the Talk (EWTT), Kavita shares the journey, challenges and emotional turmoil she underwent to bring out the movie straight from a despaired Vidharba Farmer’s heart.



EWTT: What prompted you to leave your career to become filmmakers?

KAVITA BAHL: We took to journalism for we wanted to work for the voice-less, face-less people who exist on the margins and get nothing more than lip-service from those who rule this nation. We started as journalists. I worked for ‘The Indian Express’ for seven years, while Nandan worked for television in what we used to call ‘our previous lives’. In 1996, we quit news and current affairs programming to focus on real issues.

Now, we work in the genres of documentary and poetry films. Our work spans the domains of ecology, livelihoods, development and human rights.

In 2006, the cotton farmers’ suicides shook us very badly. We could not sit and watch the drama unfold from our armchair vantage point. We decided to explore the reasons that had driven the farmers to the wall.

EWTT: The movie captures the poignant situation in Vidarbha – where farmers are forced to commit suicide to escape debt.What do you think is the awareness level nationwide about this issue?

KAVITA BAHL: The disturbing fact that 2,90,470 farmers have committed suicide in last 16  years (1995-2011), is not ‘news’ enough for the media. Unfortuntely, farmer suicides have been reduced to just another set of statistics. Not enough is either being reported or written about the agrarian crisis in the Indian media. The urban and rural divide runs deep here. Our films often evoke surprise from urban audiences who were hitherto unaware of the extent of crisis in the lives of the farmers in their country. If India lives in its villages, then the plight of the villages should not be brushed under the carpet by the media and the ruling classes.

EWTT:  Why do you think GM cotton has spread so rapidly in Vidarbha? Is there a danger of GM crops taking over agriculture in India? What needs to be done to prevent this from happening?

KAVITA BAHL:  In India, the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, Bt cotton is grown commercially. In last 10 years, the area under Bt cotton has touched almost 90% of the total area under cotton cultivation in India.

The sector is dominated by small and marginal farmers who are totally dependent on the government machinery for advice and seeds. And, in a scenario where all the local seed companies have been bought over by business corporations like Monsanto, traditional seeds have been edged out of the market and out of the reach of the farmers.

Farmers have always relied on their traditional knowledge and wisdom. Given a choice they would prefer to continue with traditional seeds which are hardy, can grow easily and are pest-resistent. Unlike the modern farming which is expensive and chemical intensive, this farming is inexpensive and farmer-friendly. In any case, when it has been proved that Bt seed does not increase the yield manifold as is touted by the luring advertisements, why would the farmer want to fall into the death trap of Bt?

While the pro-GM corporate lobby is strong, the anti-GM lobby in India is proving to be stronger. The people of India through various forums have indicated their resistance to GM crops and the government has been forced to put a moratorium on the GM brinjal or eggplant. However, people have to be vigilant and prevent any back-door entry by the pro-GM lobby as happened in the case of Bt cotton.

While the ongoing corporatisation and monopolisation of seed threatens seed sovereignty, it also poses a threat to  the bio-diversity rich countries like India.

The following video gives quick trailer of the movie.

Here is a synopsis of  ”Cotton For My Shroud” 

Since 1995, a quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide – the largest wave of recorded suicides in human history. Most of them were cotton farmers from Vidarbha in Maharashtra.Once known for its fine cotton, Vidarbha is now called the ‘graveyard of farmers’.‘Cotton for my shroud’ tries to understand from a grass-roots perspective what is driving the cotton farmers to despair – is it a crisis of farm credit or are they victims of faulty paradigms of development?  The escalating cost of inputs like seed, fertiliser and pesticide has made farming unsustainable. In the summer, the lack of resources or institutional credit for sowing the fields drives poor farmers to end their lives. In the winter, the depressed rates of cotton become the proverbial last straw.While the state and the media label these deaths as suicide, the cotton fields of Vidarbha remain a mute witness to genocide.The film documents the diabolical designs of American multinationals like Monsanto to control our seed supply. A nation that does not have food security, cannot claim to be independent. And the ruling elite are again complicit in this second colonisation of India.The film was shot over two visits to the hinterlands of Vidarbha. Narrated in the first person, it gives us a window into the drama and despair that forms the warp and weft of life at Vidarbha.

EWTT: What were the reactions and responses from the villages you shot in and researched through?

KAVITA BAHL: It would have been impossible to tell their story truthfully, without the access the farmers of Vidarbha gave us. Almost all the people we met had similar experiences with the Bt honeytrap.

They felt betrayed by the government extension agencies that are supposed to guide the farmers, they feel violated by the multinational corporations that are poisoning their land with chemicals and genetically modified cotton seeds that do not live up to the promises and tall claims made by Monsanto. They have lost respect for the Fourth Estate for they feel that most of the media has been bought over by powerful politicians and multinationals.

There is a general feeling of despair and hopelessness in the villages. Most agricultural households find it difficult to sustain themselves, with the rising input costs and depressed rates of whatever they produce. The children of farmers do not want to take to farming in this scenario.

Thanks to the support extended by Vidarbha Jan-andolan Samiti, an NGO actively involved in advocacy on farmers’ issues, we could reach many villages and understand the finer nuances of this rapidly unfolding tragedy.

EWTT: How long did the film take to make?

KAVITA BAHL: It has taken us almost five-and-a-half years to complete this film.We started filming in June 2006. The second trip to Vidarbha was in November and December. We did some additional filming in 2007. Then came the speed-breaker.  We came back from Vidarbha quite depressed at the state of affairs. For months, we had nightmares. The wails of the widows and children echoed in our ears still. It was difficult to shake it off and get on with the edit. (“After all, its just another project”, our friends would exhort.)

We sat on the footage for two years. But it was difficult to bury the ghosts and sweep the film under the carpet, as if nothing had ever goaded us to visit Vidarbha. We were not comfortable with canning the film. We owed a lot to the people who had opened their hearts and hearths to two outsiders, in their moment of grief. We could not betray their trust. We started editing the film. As we previewed and digitised the footage, we re-lived the horror that had unfolded before our eyes in 2006.

We finished the edit in 2011. The first public screening was at Cinemax Versova during the Mumbai Film Festival (October 15, 2011). In October 2011, the film won the Gold for best script at the IDPA Awards. This year, it has been awarded the Rajat Kamal (Silver Lotus) for Best Investigative Film at the 59th National Film Award

EWTT: What can the public do to support your movie, and to support farmers of Vidarbha?

KAVITA BAHL: We believe that a post film crowd-funding is also possible. The film is self-funded by the film-makers. If people think that it is a sincere effort towards highlighting the mounting crisis in the lives of cotton farmers, they can contribute by purchasing the DVD copies of the film. These contributions shall go towards making language versions of the film. However, their responsibility does not end here. They should also screen the film and raise awareness about this issue.

We have been screening the film in film festivals, academic institutions, public forums. We invited the members of the Parliament to a special screening at the Constitution Club earlier this year. Various colleges in Delhi University have invited us to screen the film and talk to the students.

Those who are interested in doing so can write to us here.

We believe that ultimately the solution lies with the people and not the government alone. In the spirit of true democracy, the citizens’ voice should be heard and acted upon. The constitution of India puts “We the People…” firmly in the driver’s seat.

We hope that one day – the voice of our farmers shall also be heard in the corridors of power. We hope that the media, activists and people of India stand in solidarity with the farmers and together we put an end to the blood-bath initiated by the policies of the Green Revolution. We hope that Monsanto will be asked to pack its bag and leave India. We hope to escape the scourge of Bt and Genetically-modified crops. We hope that that India will retain its seed freedom and independence.

EWTT: What are you planning to do next?

KAVITA BAHL: We are trying to raise contributions for making the Marathi and Hindi versions of the film to take it to the villages where we filmed in 2006. There is demand for Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Punjabi, Odiya, French & Spanish versions as well.

About the interviewer:

Bhavani Prakash is the Founder of Eco WALK the Talk .com.  She is a sustainability speaker, trainer and writer can be contacted at bhavani[at]ecowalkthetalk.com. Follow Eco WALK the Talk on Facebook, TwitterLinked IN and YouTube


Further links you may be interested in:

EWTT:   Nero’s Guests and Farmer Suicides in India

EWTTDr Vandana Shiva: Traditional Knowledge, Biodiversity andSustainable Development

EWTT:  India’s GM Bill: Anti-people, Anti-nature

EWTT: Go GM Free in Australia




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Posted by on Sep 14 2012. Filed under Activism, Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Agriculture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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