By Zubair Ahmed
BBC News, Vidarbha
Growing cotton is no longer a profitable option
At the crack of dawn, Prakash Powar's family in Kulzari village in Maharashtra's cotton-growing Vidarbha region is up and about.
Powar, 26, works as a farm labourer and is getting ready to leave for his day's work. Others are preparing to take the cattle to the field.
Until recently, the Powars - like all others in their neighbourhood - were cotton farmers.
But things have changed now, the family no longer grows cotton.
Powar's father committed suicide last year due to mounting debts and Prakash Powar decided to become a farm labourer.
The tiny Kulzari village of 500 people predominantly grows cotton, and the farmers here, as all across Vidarbha, are caught in a cycle of debt and there have been several suicides.
In Vidarbha, on average, three debt-trapped farmers commit suicide every day. And cotton has now been dubbed "the killer crop".
In protest, a few months ago the entire village decided to stop growing cotton and switch to alternative cash crops, such as lentils.
Prakash Powar was part of the collective decision-making process.
"The entire village sat together. There were influential people as well. We all decided that cotton will not be grown in the village, because we don't get the right price for it," he says.
Raju Rathode is a farmer who, like others, is in debt and thinking of abandoning cotton.
"In a month's time, some more villages are going to have a meeting in which they'll debate the idea of growing alternative crops," he tells me.
Kulzari's decision may sound like a desperate attempt to draw the authorities' attention to their plight rather than a well-considered plan of switching to more profitable crops.
Prakash Powar no longer grows cotton
But the villagers insist their decision is final.
Says Rathode: "We will grow maze, soya beans and lentils, enough to feed ourselves, not to sell. We'll work in other people's fields as labourers or work in cities to earn some cash."
The idea is catching on.
Dr RL Pitale, a former member of the National Commission on Farmers, says he is visited by cotton-growers who seem determined to switch to alternative crops.
"They want to produce enough to just feed their bellies and for other expenses they say they want to work in cities as rickshaw pullers or daily wage workers."
From farmers who owned plots of land to farm labourers who work on other people's land - that's the plight of many in this village.
A relatively rich farmer, Suresh Bulenwar, in a neighbouring village explains how growing cotton has become a loss-making activity which is fuelling suicides.
"It costs 10,000 to 12,000 rupees ($238 to $285) to grow cotton in one acre of land. But the yield fetches only 7,000 to 8,000 rupees ($166 to $190)," he says.
Vidarbha's farmers are struggling to make a living
"The farmer borrows money from money lenders after defaulting on his bank repayment and then commits suicide when he is unable to pay back the money lender."
Dr Pitale refers to a recent report which says the input costs of seeds, pesticides and fertilisers have risen by 50%.
"This has led to the agricultural production costs going higher and incomes going down."
Kishor Tiwari, who has been campaigning for the farmers' rights for many years, believes their rising personal expenses too are to blame for their plight.
"The reach of television means the farmer watches the urban lifestyle. He wants a TV, a motorcycle, a fridge and the urban lifestyle. His income doesn't permit it. So, he borrows, but is unable to pay it back."
He says "the government and policy makers need to look into this aspect as well.
It seems the government is listening, but only partially.
Sreekar Pradesi is among Yavatmal's leading district administrators.
"To solve the farmers' problems, we are trying to reduce their input costs. We are inviting schools and women's groups to participate in water conservation efforts so that the farmers can grow at least one more crop during the season," he says.
Experts say growing two crops a year will help raise the farmer's income level.
But for that to happen, the government first needs to convince farmers, such as Prakash Powar, not to give up cotton cultivation.