Kala Cotton is a purely rain-fed, short–staple, carbon neutral crop, resilient to both diseases and pests. It can endure the harshest of land and weather conditions. In this article, Bhavya Tyagi presents Kala Cotton’s historical significance in the Indian textile industry.
Cotton or Gossypium, has been grown in India for a millennium. Over its turbulent history, India has lent her land to grow all four varieties of cotton – the Old World cottons – G. herbaceum and G. arboreum, also known as desi or indigenous cotton – and the New World cottons – G. barbadense and G. hirsutum, commonly referred to as the American cotton.
The desi landraces of cotton grew in abundance in the subcontinent. A quick glance at history reveals that cotton samples closely related to G. Arboreum, which was the dominant strain of desi (or ‘old world’) cotton,were found at Mohenjo Daro sites dating back to 3250 and 2750 BCE (Jha, 2018). The short-staple fibres of this cultivar were used to produce beautiful fabrics, including the fine cotton muslins of the Coromandel coast, with a retinue of besotted fans who would poetically describe it as “woven air” or “flowing water”.
In an effort to subjugate the thriving Indian textile industry, the British Empire, who had set-up mechanical textile mills in Lancashire and Manchester, banned the export of finished textiles from the Indian market during its colonial rule. The British forced Indian farmers to abandon the cultivation of the indigenous cotton and instead, grow the cotton varieties discovered in the American colonies due to their machine-friendly long-staple fibres. This transformation had a profound impact on the deep interdependence amongst farmers, weavers, spinners, dyers, and tailors, resulting in obliteration of the homespun cotton industry in India. Though British-made muslin never came close to the traditional one, the indigenous variety had to be killed off for the British mills to spring alive.
The British did literally sow the seeds of the ruination of desi cotton industry. Yet, even when India gained independence in 1947, desi cotton varieties represented 97 per cent of cotton grown in the country. However, within 15-20 years of independence, the trajectory had completely inverted – about 96 per cent of the country’s cotton is now Monsanto’s transgenic Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton, a G. Hirsutum species, and less than 1 per cent is desi cotton (Iyengar 2021). The traditional techniques involved in producing desi cotton gradually went out of practice with the loss of its appeal, and indigenous weaving traditions in the region, that once intimately evolved along with the short-staple fibres, had fallen silent.
Kala Cotton: A Primer
Coming to the protagonist of this article, the Kala cotton – an old-world, G. herbaceum type seed. Native to India ‘s “wild west” – the Kutch (or Kachchh) region of Gujarat, Kala cotton is a purely rain-fed, short–staple (22-23 cm – about twice the length of the long edge of a credit card), carbon neutral crop, resilient to both diseases and pests, and can endure the harshest of land and weather conditions. The cotton seed is planted in August and by November, the pod is ready for harvesting. Locals call it Rammol (the divine crop) owing to a unique feature that makes it possible to grow this cultivar in less than 300 mm of rainfall, without any need for irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizers. In her reflective essay, Henrietta Adams, Founder and Director of Henri London, on one of her field visits to cotton farms in Kutch recalled a zero-waste agriculture farm that produced 10,000 tons of cotton with little rainfall and no irrigation – that was a Kala cotton farm. To put it in perspective, it takes about 2,700 litres of water, which is just enough for one person to drink for 900 days, to produce one cotton T-shirt with conventional cotton farming. Kala cotton farmers also utilize all parts of the plant efficiently for different purposes – leaves are used for livestock feed, cotton for yarn, and stems as fuel.
The inherent strength of Kala cotton is its boll which nests the lint and protects it from pests. The pod is later hand separated from the lint and the cotton is hand spun on an ambar charkha or a peti charkha. Recent initiatives, however, have helped mechanize this process for large-scale production while also conserving the traditional knowledge systems that accompany the production and weaving processes of Kala cotton. During the harvest of the boll, the plant material sticks to the fibre giving it a unique texture similar to that of Khadi. The fibre is naturally white in colour and its slight water repellent quality has a cooling effect on skin during hot summers.
Since the revival of the Kala cotton industry, slow-fashion and sustainable designers have eked out the richness of this fibre, combining it with other magnificent textile crafts of the region, such as batik, shibori, ajrakh, bhujodi, tangaliya, and redefining the textile to bring out a range of products like denims, dress materials, and sarees. It has enormous potential to become a viable alternative to conventional fabric and serve a niche domestic and international market.
Kala Cotton: A Better, Sustainable Cotton
It is important to question an important aspect of life that is often ignored – the ecological cost of our clothes. In 2021 Leaders’ Summit on Climate, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi highlighted that a lifestyle change, rooted in our sustainable traditional practices, is necessary to fight and win this battle against climate change. From seed to cloth, Kala cotton promises a sustainable value chain that fulfils this vision of living in total harmony with the ecological environment.
Kala cotton is one of the most water efficient cotton varieties in the world. Unlike the new-world cotton, it is far less reliant on irrigation, can grow in arid regions, and is purely a rain-fed crop. On the contrary, around 1,400 litres of irrigated water is required to cultivate 1kg of Bt cotton – a genetically modified, pest-resistant cotton plant – which accounts for majority of cotton grown in India today. Additionally, it is also a carbon-neutral crop. According to Khamiri, an NGO working towards preservation and propagation of Kala cotton, conventionally irrigated cotton in Gujarat generates 0.63% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, whereas Kala cotton in Kutch generates only about 0.11% of GHG emissions.
Moreover, sustainability is not just about investing in a process that is conscious of the environment, but it is also bearing in mind the local communities who form an important pillar in our collective efforts for a sustainable and healthier planet. Non-food-grade pesticides, used in conventional cotton farming, have been linked to DNA damage, hair loss, nausea, and chronic endocrine disorders. Aside from men who spray, women and children who are involved in picking the cotton are also exposed to the harmful effects of pesticides. This fatal problem is conveniently solved by Kala cotton that does not require any pesticides or fertilizers as it is highly resilient to pests, making it an organic cotton produce by default.
Having no need for systems used in large scale industrialized cotton farming, it saves water and energy, contributes meagrely to greenhouse gas emission, protects soil health, makes the fabric safe for use by all, and accords itself the title of the most energy-efficient and carbon neutral fibre.
Kala Cotton: Current Outlook and Potential
India is one of the largest producers of cotton in the world accounting for about 24 per cent of the world’s total cotton production. However, according to the Cotton Corporation of India, the yield per kgs hectare, which is presently at 469 kgs/ha, is still lower than the world average yield of about 808 kgs/ha. There are a number of factors, ranging from an overabundance of seed choices to lack of ecological understandings, that have contributed to the low yield – but that is a subject for another study.
Provisional estimates as per the meeting of committee on COCPCii suggested that India imported INR 3482.72 crores and exported INR 17753.83 crores worth of cotton in the year 2020-21. Add to it the tons of water exported, albeit intrinsically, in the form of cotton.
Figure 1 below shows major cotton producing regions – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab, Telangana, Haryana, and Andhra Pradesh – in the country. Figure 2 charts out the average precipitation level in 2016 and 2017 against normal precipitation levels for the Kharif crop (May-Oct) for these regions.
As can be observed from Figure 2, there are gross uncertainties in the level of precipitation across the cotton producing regions in the country that compels cotton farmers to adopt unsustainable methods of farming involving excessive irrigation, and use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers. Even though Bt cotton provides protection against one type of pest – the bollworms, it leaves the plant open to attack from other pests. Moreover, there is a high chance of target insect pests developing resistance against Bt toxins (Siddiqui et al. 2019). This leads to intensification of pesticide use further contaminating air, soil, water, non-target vegetation and non-target organisms. In India, 54 per cent of pesticide use is just in cultivation of hybrid cotton (Gaurav et al. 2018). The impending collapse of groundwater levels for irrigated cotton, the constant decline in soil health, and excessive use of pesticides has dramatically increased pressure on cotton production in India. While the area under Bt cotton has increased, the cotton yield has remained stagnant or inconsistent (see Figure 3).
Researchers from the Central Institute of Cotton Research have concluded that the spread of more than 1,000 cultivars of cotton hybrids has resulted in the stagnation and uncertainty of cotton yield after the initial explosion of production in the first five years. The Bt cotton hybrids, unlike Kala Cotton, are not suitable for rain-fed cotton lands. A study by Gutierrez et al. (2015) published in the Environmental Sciences Europe linked farmer suicides to Bt cotton for the reason that greater investments in Bt cotton varieties – due to high priced seeds, fertilizers, insecticides, ecological disruption and crop loss – increase the risk of bankruptcy amongst marginal landholders who are forced to buy credit. In only the last decade, more than 40,000 farmers have committed suicide. The rate is highest in the ‘cotton belt’ – more than 90 per cent farmers who died by suicide in 2005 cotton season in Andhra Pradesh and Vidharbha region had planted Bt Cotton (Thomas & De Tavernier, 2017).
As mentioned earlier, the carbon footprint of cotton is extraordinarily high in India. According to Water Footprint Network, producing 1 kg of cotton in India consumes 22,500 litres of water. The global average for water footprint, on the other hand, is 10,000 litres. This premium is largely due to inefficient water use and high rates of water pollution as a result of excessive use of chemical pesticides. Further, the operation of electric pumps has placed no limits on the volume of groundwater extracted at little or no cost. This has created a pattern of unsustainable water use posing serious challenges to the environment.
With approximately half of the world population facing acute water shortage by 2025, the production of sustainable Kala cotton has massive potential to create change. By producing and sourcing sustainable Kala cotton, we can dramatically reduce some of the negative environmental impacts of the cotton and textiles sector and create positive benefits for millions of farmers and local communities. In doing so, we will move closer to the goal of achieving several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
A seed is more than just the promise of a plant. Long after losing ground to the transgenic variety, the old world cotton is regaining its lost stature. Several initiatives by independent designers, brands and NGOs have taken up this mammoth task of enlivening the local economy around Kala cotton in the face of homogenization and environmental degradation and providing it a global platform.
In 1990s, around 2000 weavers in Kutch were making their livelihood by creating and selling Kala cotton fabrics and products but now, only 600-700 small-scale weavers, who face difficulties in integrating with the changing global market, are engaged in the art. More than 20 farmer families are members of a co-operative engaged in Kala cotton farming. I was told by a member of Khamir that the co-operative is eyeing for a Geographical Indication (GI) tag to get the much-needed support from the government. Despite recent initiatives, there is an urgent need to revamp the supply chain in order to insulate them from external market fluctuations. Khamir has been making exemplary efforts in reinvigorating the old craft value chain for the modern, global market that encourages sustainable cotton textile production, and the preservation of agricultural and artisan livelihoods in Kutch. “Khamir and Satvik have created a supply chain between the Kala Cotton farmers, ginners, spinners and weavers to convert the raw cotton into hand woven products. Kala cotton is also now being registered as a trademark”, says Khamir. The organisation is also involved in product development, quality control, organic certification, training and marketing of Kala cotton.
With the changing fashion landscape across the world, Kala cotton is also making its way back to design studios with brands, like Sui, Stitch by Stitch, Brown Living, opting for sustainable fabric to curate high-quality wardrobe staples. ConsciousCue is also working with brands that design end products using Kala Cotton and other forms of native cotton varieties in India that are grown in harmony with the nature. This is evident from the fact that the procurement price of Kala cotton almost doubled from INR 17,000/bale in 2021 to INR 38,000/bale in 2022. On my personal interactions with the farmers and organizations involved in Kala cotton farming, I could sense great optimism and hope for Kala cotton in the coming decade.
In many ways, India’s bio-cultural heritage, the Kala cotton, manifests in itself the very strengths and ideological appeal as do the iconic symbols of Khadi and charkha (a spinning wheel) – that were used as sartorial weapons to liberate India from the stranglehold of the colonial rule. The cost of ignoring the ‘desi’ cotton, however, has been high for India. It is time we avoided potential misadventures of hybrid Bt varieties and paid attention to our old-world cotton. In a market dominated by genetically modified (GM) cotton, it is only going to be an uphill struggle from here. The sheer absence of investment in research and development of regionally well-adapted cotton cultivars, and resources and necessary infrastructure needed to scale up this sustainable heritage fibre makes a case for a policy shift to redevelop our Kala cotton tradition.
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Siddiqui, H. A., Asif, M., Asad, S., Naqvi, R. Z., Ajaz, S., Umer, N., Anjum, N., Rauf, I., Sarwar, M., Arshad, M., Amin, I., Saeed, M., Mukhtar, Z., Bashir, A., & Mansoor, S. (2019). Development and evaluation of double gene transgenic cotton lines expressing Cry toxins for protection against chewing insect pests. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 11774. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-48188-z
Thomas, G., & De Tavernier, J. (2017). Farmer-suicide in India: debating the role of biotechnology. Life sciences, society and policy, 13(1), 8. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40504-017-0052-z
About the author:
Bhavya Tyagi is a researcher at the Strategic Investment Research Unit at Invest India, the National Investment Promotion and Facilitation Agency,