Time to regain the prestige of Bt Cotton
Dog does not eat dog goes a saying. And one newspaper, seldom, if ever attempts to damn another. But apparently The Hindu and The Times of India are at loggerheads, with The Hindu (10 May) disclosing that the two “are competitors in several regions of India”, with the former revealing that the latter has been playing with reportage on the alleged benefits drawn by farmers in Maharashtra through the use of Bt cotton. Three and a half years ago, at a time when the controversy over the use of genetically modified seeds was raging across India, The Times of India (31 October 2008) in a report, painted a heartening picture of the technology success in the villages of Bhambraja and Antargaon.
According to The Hindu, “so heartening was this account that nine months ago The Times of India (28 August 2011) ran “the same story… word for word”. The Hindu thereafter attempted to verify the TOI report and found, to its surprise, that there had been 14 suicides in Bhambraja nine between 2003 and 2009 and five more since then” and all of them after Bt came to be used. In its report on 31 October 2008 TOI had said: “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 of Bhambraja and Antargaon”. In March this year members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture had visited Bhambraja and were told by “agitated farmers” that in that village “lots of land is lying fallow and many have lost faith in farming” and “many more will leave because agriculture is dying”.
According to The Hindu “Bhambraja, touted as a model for Mahyco-Monsanto’s miracle Bt” was an obvious destination for the Parliamentary Committee to visit, only what they heard there had come to the Committee as a shock. According to Mahyco-Monsanto, some journalists (obviously including one from TOI) had been invited to visit the areas. The company’s spokesman is quoted as saying: “The 2008 coverage was a result of the media visit and was based on the editorial discretion of the journalists involved. We only arranged transport to-and-from the fields. The 2011 report was an unedited reprint of the 2008 coverage as a marketing feature”. Comments P Sainath in his half-page long article: “The 2008 ‘full-page news report appeared in the Nagpur edition. The 2011 ‘marketing feature’ appeared in multiple editions, but not in Nagpur, where it would surely have caused astonishment. So, the same full-page appeared twice in three years, the first time as news, the second time as an advertisement. The first time done by the staff reporter and photographer of newspaper. The second time exhumed by the advertising department. The first time as a story trip arranged by Mahyco-Monsanto. The second time as an advertisement. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce….Some of the glowing photographs accompanying the TOI coverage of the Bt miracle were not taken in Bhambraja or Antargaon, villagers are quoted as saying…”
At this point it is necessary and important to quote Sainath again. As he put it, “The Maharashtra government tried hard to divert the Members of Parliament away from the ‘model village’ of Bhambraja (and Maregaon) to places where the government felt in control….Encouraged by the MPs’ visit, people in both places spoke their minds and hearts. Maharashtra’s record of over 50,000 farmers’ suicides between 1995 and 2010 is the worst in the country as the data of the National Crime Records Bureau show. And Vidarbha has long led the state in such deaths. Yet the farmers also spoke to vast, policy-linked issues driving agrarian distress here. None of the farmers reduced the issue of suicides or the crisis to being only the outcome of Bt cotton. But they punctured many myths about its miracles, costs and ‘savings’. Some of their comments came as news to the MPs. And not as paid news or a marketing feature either”. Before writing this piece, The Hindu approached The Times of India. The latter’s editorial spokesman is reported as saying: “The reports (of 2008) were written very honestly and in good faith” and were the outcome “of a field visit organised by Monsanto for journalists from Nagpur” and, as “is the practice on such paid trips, the report mentioned” that it was arranged by the concerned company. The spokesman also added that “the reporters were not paid for the reports that appeared in Nagpur”.
The spokesman of Monsanto is reported as saying: “It is incorrect to refer to their news report as paid news, as this was editorial coverage based on the visit and interaction with farmers”. This columnist has no comments to make; only an effort has been made to summarise as accurately as possible what has been reported by The Hindu (10 May). All that one can is that some vital issues are involved here and the reader is free to come to his own conclusions. Should a reporter ever accept an invitation from a company (any company) to visit a site of the company’s choice to do a story? Shouldn’t he go to the same site on his own and at some other time to make his inquiries? Was it wise on the part of The Times of India to let a report it had published be used to support a company’s (in this instance Monsanto’s) stand? In an advertisement? And a full-page advertisement at that? Wouldn’t that be cause for suspicion? In recent months there has been so much talk about paid news that increasingly the objectivity of the media is coming under suspicion. In this particular case it may be a matter of two newspapers being at odds with each other, one jumping at the throat of another. Even if it weren’t so, the issue raised should be a cause for concern for all media and something to meditate upon. If the media itself has lost its savour as the Bible put it in another context, wherewith shall it be savoured? Is money evertything? And in this case shouldn’t the rest of the media make an attempt to check out the usefulness of Bt Cotton independently to regain its prestige?