Decoding BCCL I: The Times, the Jains, and BCCL

Allegations leveled by Palagummi Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu newspaper that its competing daily, the Times of India, published an article at the behest of Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech without disclosing this fact to its readers and subsequently gained financially from its publication, have been endorsed by a committee of Parliamentarians in a recently-published report. Whereas the report, prepared by a panel of MPs belonging to different political parties, does not mention the ToI by name but merely describes it as a “national daily”, the inferences are all too apparent.

The 37th report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture tabled in both houses of Parliament on 9 August 2012 runs into 506 pages, including scientific and technical studies, and international conventions and protocols that have been annexed. Among the 50 individuals and representatives of various organizations and government ministries who deposed before the committee, the last-named is P. Sainath.

In his introduction to the report, Committee Chairman Basudeb Acharia says the panel of MPs sought to take into account the “serious differences of opinion among various stakeholders and controversies surrounding the cultivation of transgenic crops”.

Here is a verbatim account of what the report stated on pages 346, 347 and 348:

“While interacting with the villagers, the committee got first hand information about the plight of the farmers of Maregaon. The farmers very candidly blamed the policies of the government which they felt was responsible for their plight. In particular, their ire was targeted towards Bt cotton. The committee (members) were informed that with the inception of Bt cotton, input costs had gone high resulting in farmers falling into the debt trap. Further, the falling price of cotton in the international market resulted in farmers not getting remunerative price for their produce. They also stated that in the absence of a buffer zone, those wanting to cultivate non-Bt cotton were not able to do so. Bt cotton was pushing the farmers into the vicious cycle of debt and being unable to repay the debt due to decreasing earning farmers were under severe stress and developing a feeling of loss of their self-respect which was ultimately pushing them to commit suicide. ..

“The committee (members) also interacted with a couple of widows who in the aftermath of their husband’s suicide were hard pressed to make both … ends meet. The villagers implored upon the committee to voice their request to the concerned central authorities to ban farming of Bt cotton in the country. They also voiced their unhappiness with the relief offered to them via the Prime Minister’s Relief Package especially in terms of milch animals. They were given exotic breeds like Jersey and Holstein who were unable to adjust to the local environmental conditions and as a result died. They wanted indigenous breeds instead.

“During the course of their interaction, farmers from the village of Bhambraja requested the committee (members) to visit their village as well. The committee acceded to their request and visited Bhambraja village in Yavatmal district on 2 March 2012. This village has witnessed 14 cases of suicide by farmers post Bt cotton, i.e. from 2002. They also rubbished the claims of their village being a model village for Bt cotton as reported on 28 August, 2011 in the edition of a national daily under the caption ‘Reaping Gold through BT Cotton’ and other articles.”

At a time when the debate on the desirability or otherwise of the use of Bt cotton in India had intensified, on 31 October 2008, the Nagpur edition of the ToI published an article that painted a rather glowing picture of Bt cotton growing farmers in two villages in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district in the state’s economically backward Vidharba region. The ToI article had the following to state about the residents of these two villages, Bhambraja and Antargaon: “There are no suicides here and people are prospering on agriculture. The switchover from the conventional cotton to Bollgard or Bt cotton here has led to a social and economic transformation in the villages in the past three-four years.”

Almost three years later, on 28 August 2011, this report was reprinted in various editions of the ToI (not in its Nagpur edition) as part of a full-page paid advertisement. This unusual practice did not go unnoticed. Writing for The Hoot on 6 September 2011, Manu Moudgil looked at what may have motivated MMB to get the story republished as an advertisement almost three years after the initial story was printed. Moudgil’s article entitled ‘Got a plant, will republish for a fee’ argued that in 2008, when the story was first published as a news report, as well as in 2011 when it appeared as a ‘Consumer Connect Initiative’, MMB had been on the receiving end of severe criticism. In 2008, the allegation was that the prices of Bt cotton seeds were too high and that consecutive failure of Bt cotton crops were contributing to farmers committing suicide while in 2011, its was being alleged that the company was involved in “anti farmer” and “monopolistic” practices.

Wrote Moudgil, “Also, the news report says ‘The trip to Yavatmal was arranged by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech’, the company which has been selling Bt Cotton seeds to farmers since 2002. Around the same time in 2008…similar news reports appeared in the Economic Times and news feeds of UNI and PTI which indicates that the company had arranged the trip for a group of journalists to farms of Yavatmal district. The reason for such a PR (public relations) exercise seemed to be the flak it had been receiving from civil society groups in 2008 which blamed the high price of Bt cotton seeds and consecutive Bt crop failures for farmer suicides.

“So, why did the company get the extolling story republished after three years without any updates? Again, the trigger seems to be the bad press it has got recently. On August 9, the Association for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a conglomerate of several civil society groups including Greenpeace, launched a ‘Quit India’ campaign against Monsanto for its ‘anti-farmer and monopolistic policies’. Also, the National Biodiversity Authority recently found Mahyco Monsanto guilty of violating rules in procuring local brinjal varieties for development of Bt Brinjal.

“The fact that the original story was also fraught with errors is another important issue. The story has a blurb on the top saying: ‘Yavatmal district is known as the suicide capital of the state, but two villages -- Bhambraja and Antargaon -- are an aberration for the better. Not a single person from the two villages has committed suicide’. Yavatmal has 2,117 villages of which 1,845 are habited as per the information available on the website maintained by the district administration.”
Bhambraja now figures, as mentioned at the beginning of this story, in the Standing Committee’s report.

On 10 May 2012, Sainath repeated some of these facts in an Op-Ed article in The Hindu provocatively titled “Reaping gold with cotton, and newsprint”. The article quoted farmers of Bhambraja village telling members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture who visited them: “There have been 14 suicides in our village…Most of them after Bt (cotton) came here.”

Sainath wrote: “The 2008 full-page panegyric in the ToI on Monsanto’s Bt cotton rose from the dead soon after the government failed to introduce the Biotech Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill in Parliament in August 2011. The failure to table the Bill — crucial to the future profits of the agri-biotech industry — sparked frenzied lobbying to have it brought in soon. The full-page (advertisement), titled ‘Reaping Gold through Bt Cotton’ on August 28 was followed by a flurry of advertisements from Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (India) Ltd., in the ToI (and some other papers), starting the very next day. These appeared on August 29, 30, 31, September 1 and 3. The Bill finally wasn’t introduced either in the monsoon or winter session — though listed for business in both — with Parliament bogged down in other issues. Somebody did reap gold, though, with newsprint if not with Bt cotton.”

Responding to Sainath’s questions, an editorial spokesman for ToI claimed: “The reports (of 2008) were written very honestly and in good faith…”

He added that the reports were the outcome of “a field visit organised by Monsanto for journalists from Nagpur.” The spokesman held that “as is the practice on such paid trips, the report mentioned” that it was arranged by the concerned company. He said he was “clueless” as to how the same story appeared in the newspaper’s Mumbai edition nearly three years later as part of the “Consumer Connect Initiative” section, a euphemism for a sponsored advertising feature. On the article getting reprinted, the ToI spokesman claimed: “It must have been picked up by Response” -- referring to the newspaper’s advertising division. He also stated that he had no idea about the full page advertisement that appeared in August 2011 being “followed by several advertisements”.

The day the PSC report was tabled in Parliament, The Hindu reported that “the Maharashtra government has cancelled the licence of …(Mahyco) to sell 12 varieties of Bt cotton hybrids for allegedly giving false information to agriculture department officials on seed supply for this kharif season.” The company denied receiving “any official communication from the government pertaining to the matter of its licence to sell Bt. cotton seeds in the state”.

When contacted by The Hoot, Sainath stated in an emailed response: “Several members of the Parliament Standing Committee who came to Yavatmal district were people from rural or farming backgrounds -- and not about to be hoodwinked by anybody. They brushed aside attempts by the government of Maharashtra to divert them from visits to the villages that had been set up as models and miracles (for instance, in Times of India story-turned-ad). They spoke directly to the farmers in the two villages (including in the ‘miracle’ village of Bhambraja) and not via the media. They found what we had found when we did the May 10 report in The Hindu that shredded the claims of the story ‘Reaping Gold through Bt cotton’ which had appeared in the Times. Indeed, the villagers gathered in large numbers to tell them how dishonest the images being peddled of their situation were.”

Relevant links:

  1. Note that the first article on the subject that appeared in the Nagpur edition of the Times of India, dated 31 October 2008 is not available online.
  2. Research assistant: Purav Goswami
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