"Bumper crop? Where are you living?" Mohan Maratrao Patil wants to know. "My family has 45 acres here in Yavatmal - and all we've managed is 80 quintals of cotton so far. At best, we'll get another 80. We've lost lakhs of rupees." That his lands are irrigated has not helped. "Find me the farmer who has had that great harvest." Mr. Patil, a Bt cotton grower in Vanjiri, scoffs at the notion of a bumper crop.

The idea was aired by the Government of Maharashtra itself. The State's Minister of Marketing, Harshvardhan Patil, told the press more than once that he expected a huge rise in cotton production this year. Some reports had him predict a `bumper crop' of 350 lakh quintals. Others had him peg it at a more modest 300 quintals. Either way, this would mean a huge increase of 30-40 per cent over the official estimate for last year.

On the ground, in any of the six `crisis' districts of Vidarbha, this `bumper crop' is hard to spot. Farmers report huge losses. Official reports tend to confirm their claims. "The State would be lucky to see a yield of 160 lakh quintals this year," says Vijay Jawandia in Wardha. A leading farm activist of this region, Mr. Jawandia believes "the only purpose this kind of bumper crop propaganda serves is to depress already low prices."

"It's the oldest story," says Mr. Patil. "When the crop is in the farmers' hands, all sorts of things are said and done to depress the price. Once it is with the traders, you will see the price improve." The implications are grave for most of the region's 1.7 million farm families. Close to half a million of them - more than two million people - have been recorded by a government survey as facing "maximum distress."

The Minister appears to have based his claim on the estimates of the Cotton Advisory Committee. That body felt Maharashtra would see a yield of 70 lakh bales this year. (That is about 350 lakh quintals.). The Agriculture Department may not contest that claim in public. But top officials say the yield won't exceed 40 lakh bales (200 lakh quintals). The gap between the two claims is a massive 150 lakh quintals. Which, Mr. Jawandia points out, "could be the final production figure in toto."

Also, as a senior official in Amravati told The Hindu : "Almost 3.5 lakh hectares were severely hit by floods and excessive rainfall in this division. Both cotton and soybean have been hurt." There were other problems, too. "Everybody was down with chikungunya," say farmers across the region. "It was very tough to get labour when we needed them most." With some farmers having switched to soybean this season, it gets even harder to see where the `bumper crop' can come from.

"One aim, of course, is to depress prices," says Kishore Tiwari of the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS). "You will find mill owners associations and the like always predicting a bumper crop. They do not have the machinery or means to make such estimates, but they will. It pushes the price down. Yet, this bumper crop campaign has another purpose. It aims to boost the image of Bt cotton, which has fared badly. The idea is to say, even on less acreage, there's much more yield - thanks to Bt."

Many share his mistrust. This is one State where the Government has gone out of its way to promote Bt cotton. Even though some top officers have expressed grave doubts over this path. This is not new. Last year, the State's Agriculture Commissioner gave the Government of India a report that said "no significant differences were observed" between Bt and non-Bt varieties of cotton. Except, of course in terms of the price of Bt cotton seed - which the report found was not "a justifiable cost." Some basic myths were undermined. "On an average 3 to 5 sprayings were given to both Bt and non-Bt. The attack of sucking pest was reported on both." It also said its field officers found Bt cotton's performance "not satisfactory." And that in some cases, "non-Bt varieties yield better than Bt varieties." Despite this, Ministers, MLAs, and film stars were roped in to promote Bt cotton.

This year, the latest overview of the "Farmers' suicides in Maharashtra" from the office of the Divisional Commissioner, Amravati, begins more tactfully. It says results from Bt cotton "have been mixed." It then goes on to spill the beans. "In rain-fed conditions, Bt cotton has not paid good returns." Which implies a disaster, since nearly 97 per cent of cotton grown in the State is unirrigated. "Though the use of Bt cotton in Maharashtra is increasing," says the overview, "the yields have been unstable. When farmers invest heavily in purchasing seeds and other inputs, the net return has often been negative."

Mr. Patil and his neighbour agree. "What do I do?" asks Laxmibai Bodewar. "First, we've taken a blow, getting much less than our 35 acres should have given us. Now we are unable to sell what we have. The price has collapsed. And there is no procurement." She talks to us sitting on a giant bed of cotton. Part of the 100 quintals she's stuck with at home. Ms. Bodewar, too, is a Bt cotton grower.

For a State sitting on a `bumper crop,' the action has been slow. Never mind a yield of 350 lakh quintals of cotton. Official procurement has not even touched one lakh quintals as yet. "The delay is deliberate," says Mr. Tiwari of the VJAS. "This is forcing farmers to sell what little they have to private traders. To deflect criticism, they will step up procurement just before the start of the Assembly session on December 4. By that time, many will have sold in distress. Then they will say - farmers are getting a much better price on the open market. So let us wind this up altogether. That is the game."