Unraveling the economic legacy of cotton, a precarious and water-hungry plant, is essential to understanding the how the cultural value of water has changed throughout India’s history. The water poverty that affects communities like those in Wardha “has little to do with socioeconomic development,” implying that economic prosperity is a greater determinant of water security than the natural water abundance (Shah and van Koppen 2006 3414). Rather than try to parse farming from water use, irrigation and water resource management are codependent sectors that must be discussed simultaneously.
India has been dyeing, spinning, and weaving cotton for over 3000 years and traded it since the 1600s (Logan 1958 472, Kew 2013). The Manchester Cotton Company and Government of India worked to dramatically increase cotton production in Maharashtra, establishing the prominent agricultural industry that between India and Britain (Logan 1958 474).
A transition from traditional methods of farming to large-scale monoculture marked the industrialization of Maharashtra’s agricultural economy (Dhangare 1992 1424). This commercial focus caused Maharashtra to become increasingly reliant on government subsidies that rewarded farmers to consume rather than conserve resources (Logan 1958 475). Commercial exports like sorghum, sugarcane, cotton, tur and oilseeds tend to have a higher water demand that requires irrigation, a service that can be especially costly and time-intensive for small farmers (Pant 1999 A-18).
Cotton and water were also critical to Mahatma Gandhi’s grassroots campaign for political independence in the early 20th century. He recognized how Britain used its global cotton economy as an oppressive economic tool to control India. Gandhi keenly understood the dynamics of rural life, and the self-production of cotton khadi cloth became his symbolic strategy to move India towards economic independence from Britain. Less known is that Gandhi also identified basic water sanitation as an “elementary need” and advocated for “education in the uses of water” for rural communities (Gandhi 1930 220). Small movements towards autonomy, from spinning cotton to water conservation, slowly eroded the power of Great Britain over India and its rural communities. The Gandhian movement is so essential to India’s fight for autonomy that a cotton-spinning wheel is the center of its national flag.
Gandhi is omnipresent in the murals, posters and statues that anchor village centers throughout Wardha. Communities inherited Gandhi’s principle of self-reliance and provide their own solutions when corrupt government agencies neglect water shortages. In instances where the state government failed to complete basic irrigation projects, especially along the Upper Wardha River, grassroots citizen coalitions constructed their own development projects to conserve water (Dhangare 1992 1421). In Wardha, some farmers have collaboratively built irrigation systems or established co-ops to sell their produce in nearby cities (Interview 19 February 2013). Gandhi’s legacy of unity and peace fills a void left by the state government’s broken promises, even as local politicians frequently use his words to promote their campaigns and programs amongst an attentive public.
The Kamalnayan Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation (KJBF) is rooted in Gandhian principles and uses them to advance its resource development programs. Jamnalal Bajaj, the founder of KJBF and the Bajaj Group, was so involved with the Indian independence movement that he was even adopted as Gandhi’s fifth son. He also provided Mahatma Gandhi the land to establish Sevagram ashram in Wardha, which continues to function as an active pilgrimage site for Indian citizens and foreign travelers alike. Quotes about social justice and self-reliance line the walls of Bapu Kuti, Gandhi’s residence, and every day ashram members spin cotton into thread on its porch. Sevagram is fenced by rows of lush wheat and cotton, a locus of national pride nestled amongst fields of contested and thirsty crops.
Cotton continues to be a symbol of national pride and a vital industry despite its social and environmental problems. In the 1960’s the Green Revolution sparked an international boom in agricultural production (Assadi 5). Indian farmers began to purchase genetically modified food crops like sugarcane, but in 2002 Monsanto also introduced modified Bt cotton with promises of enormous and profitable yields (Bhattacharaya 2012). This new strain of cotton required more water intake than traditional cotton varieties, which left unprepared farmers scrambling for water resources as their Bt cotton crops dried up. But farmers were unable to reintroduce traditional strains of cotton because Bt seeds were too deeply embedded in the soil and would compete with new seeds the following season, which rendered many fields barren (Interview 19 February 2012). Inherent flaws in the seed are not cause of Bt cotton’s failure, but rather that Monsanto neglected to properly educate farmers about input costs (Bhattacharaya 2012).
The complications of cotton exemplify how unchecked growth of the agricultural industry and water consumption has trapped farmers in water poverty. The market price for cotton has reduced significantly, so farmers like Vijay have begun to “shift to different crops that will give [a] higher profit like pomegranate and papaya” (Interview 21 February 2013). Transitioning to more sustainable food crops and livelihoods is greatly needed, but as one farmer mentioned during an interview, “changing crops is like changing religions” (PRA Interview 25 February 2013).