The dogs of India, of which there are many, don't howl like their American counterparts. Instead, their nighttime chorus begins with a sharply anguished aaar-aarp, followed by a deep-throated wail, almost a dirge, that woke me in the night and left me lying there, reflecting on this vast and teeming country.
We are in Sirsa, a farming town about 270 km, or six-hours' drive, north of Delhi, in the Punjab region that is literally India's breadbasket. Fields of wheat, guar, barley and mustard are intermixed with lush rice paddies, vegetables like okra, bittermelon, eggplant (which they call brinjal), peppers, potatoes and cauliflower, fruit orchards, the chick peas that provide protein for the many vegetarian diets.
Broad canals channel the region's many rivers, fed by Himalayan rainfall, into the fields, giving farmers the production boost of irrigation. In many other parts of India, the fields are rainfall dependent, which is always a risky venture, especially in this time of changing climate.
Sirsa is newly prosperous, its residents enriched in large part by the profits of Bt cotton, which rescued a cotton industry that had been so plagued by insect pests, especially bollworm, that an entire field could be destroyed overnight if farmers skipped even a day of spraying pesticides.
Though pesticide applications have been dramatically reduced, some farmers told us they are still paying off the pesticide bills they racked up in the pre-Bt era, a time when farmers were indeed committing suicide because they could not earn enough from their ravaged cotton crops to pay off loans they'd taken out to buy seeds, fertilizer and chemicals.
Pesticides are ubiquitous in Indian farming. Prior to coming to Sirsa, we spent time with farmers in Nadia, outside Kolkata, where they grow rice, vegetables and fruit in a landscape that looks a lot like Hawaii and sell it to wholesalers in bustling roadside markets.
Many of these farmers grow brinjal, a popular Indian vegetable that brings a high price — 20 rupees per kilogram — if it's perfect, and much less — 5 to 6 rupees per kilogram — if it's not.So they spray, to make sure their fields survive the devastation of the fruit borer, which sometimes damages 50 percent of the crop.
The farmers begin spraying when the crops are just one inch tall, and admitted that sometimes they spray right up until the day of harvest, even though at least a week should elapse between application and consumption. But they can't risk incurring damage that lowers their profit in that time.
They also spray to control weeks. This farmer is using paraquat as weed control, applying what in America is a restricted use pesticide, with no protective gear and bare feet.
The farmers told us of burning eyes, back pain and even scars from carrying the sprayer, itching skin, trips to the hospital. But given the intensity of the pests, they feel they have no choice, even though they do so many of the things that Westerners think they should: crop rotation, applying micronutrients to the soil, adding animal manure to supplement chemical fertilizer.
"I cannot see my crop die without giving spray,” one farmer told me.
They see Bt brinjal, which has been genetically engineered to resist the fruit borer, as offering them relief from the pest, reduced pesticide use, higher profits. Field trials are currently under way in neighboring Bangladesh, and they are eagerly awaiting the results and hoping that is approved for use in India.
"The farmer has heard the Bt brinjal will lessen the number of sprays," one grower told me. "We are ready to accept it."
Added another: “We're wondering when we the brinjal farmer can grow brinjal successfully with profit. We want the seed.”