Wheel of fortune

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Cotton has a long and tortuous history in India and its ramifications are extremely complex. The origin of the problems of today's cotton farmers was the attempt by the British to introduce long-staple American cotton, which did not suit Indian conditions. This was compounded after independence, when the establishment continued to push long staple.

When Gandhi picked the charkha as his symbol, he had, as usual got it right. Not only was it a symbol of self-reliance and resistance to imperialism, with its potential to fight the dominance of the Lancashire textile industry, and a means of providing decentralised employment, it was also appropriate technology. Since India grew short-staple cotton, which the charkha spun well, while the mills didn't, it would have been rational to use it, modify it and develop its potential. That would have solved a lot of problems. On the ground, it would have meant that farmers could have cultivated their crops cheaper because the native varieties needed less water and were more resistant to pests, meaning expensive pesticides would not have to be used. Moreover, farmers would not have to be dependent on the West for expensive seed technology gm and perhaps state-of-the art textile machinery to bring down costs (as China does) to be globally competitive.

But not all the problems that the Indian cotton farmers face are of the Indian establishment's making. An iniquitous system of global trade is a major contributor. The us and, to a lesser extent, the eu, gives huge subsidies to their cotton farmers giving them an unfair advantage in the global market. But here too India can be faulted.

Unlike China, India does not protect its farmers by erecting tariff barriers against cheap us cotton. The reason is that it has a conscious policy of protecting the interests of the powerful textile lobby, which wants to be price competitive globally without investing heavily in technology as China does, remaining the most competitive global player in the textiles and garments sector despite its high tariffs.

In today's world, the charkha or charkha -based technologies may not be the final solution to the problems faced by cotton farmers or the needs of the textile industry, but it is surely a powerful reminder that it may just be profitable for us to reinvent the wheel.