The same full page appeared twice in three years, the first time as news, the second time as an advertisement
“Not a single person from the two villages has committed suicide.”
Three and a half years ago, at a time when the controversy over the use of genetically modified seeds was raging across India, a newspaper story painted a heartening picture of the technology's success. “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 the past three-four years.” (Times of India, October 31, 2008).
So heartening was this account that nine months ago, the same story was run again in the same newspaper, word for word. (Times of India, August 28, 2011). Never mind that the villagers themselves had a different story to tell.
“There have been 14 suicides in our village,” a crowd of agitated farmers in Bhambraja told shocked members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture in March this year. “Most of them after Bt came here.” The Hinduwas able to verify nine that had occurred between 2003 and 2009. Activist groups count five more since then. All after 2002, the year the TOI story says farmers here switched to Bt. Prospering on agriculture? The villagers told the visibly shaken MPs: “Sir, lots of land is lying fallow. Many have lost faith in farming.” Some have shifted to soybean where “at least the losses are less.”
Over a hundred people, including landed farmers, have migrated from this ‘model farming village' showcasing Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech's Bt Cotton. “Many more will leave because agriculture is dying,” Suresh Ramdas Bhondre had predicted during our first visit to Bhambraja last September.
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, 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.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture appeared unimpressed by the ad barrage, which also seemed timed for the committee's deliberations on allowing genetically modified food crops. Disturbed by reports of mounting farm suicides and acute distress in Vidarbha, committee members, who belong to different parties, decided to visit the region.
Bhambraja, touted as a model for Mahyco-Monsanto's miracle Bt, was an obvious destination for the committee headed by veteran parliamentarian Basudeb Acharia. Another was Maregaon-Soneburdi. But the MPs struck no gold in either village. Only distress arising from the miracle's collapse and a raft of other, government failures.
The issues (and the claims made by the TOI in its stories) have come alive yet again with the debate sparked off by the completion of 10 years of Bt cotton in India in 2012. The “Reaping Gold through Bt Cotton” that appeared on August 28 last year, presented itself as “A consumer connect initiative.” In other words, a paid-for advertisement. The bylines, however, were those of professional reporters and photographers of the Times of India. More oddly, the story-turned-ad had already appeared, word-for-word, in the Times of India, Nagpur on October 31, 2008. The repetition was noticed and ridiculed by critics. The August 28, 2011 version itself acknowledged this unedited ‘reprint' lightly. What appeared in 2008, though, was not marked as an advertisement. What both versions do acknowledge is: “The trip to Yavatmal was arranged by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech.”
The company refers to the 2008 feature as “a full-page news report” filed by the TOI. “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,” a Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India spokesperson told The Hindu last week. “The 2011 report was an unedited reprint of the 2008 coverage as a marketing feature.” The 2008 “full-page news report” appeared in the Nagpur edition. The 2011 “marketing feature” appeared in multiple editions (which you can click to online under ‘special reports') 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 a 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 arranged by Mahyco-Monsanto. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
The company spokesperson claimed high standards of transparency in that “…we insisted that the publication add the source and dateline as follows: ‘This is a reprint of a story from the Times of India, Nagpur edition, October 31, 2008.' But the spokesperson's e-mail reply to The Hindu's questions is silent on the timing of the advertisements. “In 2011, we conducted a communications initiative for a limited duration aimed at raising awareness on the role of cotton seeds and plant biotechnologies in agriculture.” Though The Hindu raised the query, there is no mention of why the ads were run during the Parliament session when the BRAI Bill was to have come up, but didn't.
But there's more. Some of the glowing photographs accompanying the TOI coverage of the Bt miracle were not taken in Bhambraja or Antargaon, villagers allege. “This picture is not from Bhambraja, though the people in it are” says farmer Babanrao Gawande from that village.
The Times of India story had a champion educated farmer in Nandu Raut who is also an LIC agent. His earnings shot up with the Bt miracle. “I made about Rs.2 lakhs the previous year,” Nandu Raut told me last September. “About Rs.1.6 lakh came from the LIC policies I sold.” In short, he earned from selling LIC policies four times what he earned from farming. He has seven and a half acres and a four-member family.
But the TOI story has him earning “Rs.20,000 more per acre (emphasis added) due to savings in pesticide.” Since he grew cotton on four acres, that was a “saving” of Rs. 80,000 “on pesticide.” Quite a feat. As many in Bhambraja say angrily: “Show us one farmer here earning Rs.20,000 per acre at all, let alone that much more per acre.” A data sheet from a village-wide survey signed by Mr. Raut (in The Hindu's possession) also tells a very different story on his earnings.
The ridicule that Bhambraja and Maregaon farmers pour on the Bt ‘miracle' gains credence from the Union Agriculture Minister's figures. “Vidarbha produces about 1.2 quintals [cotton lint] per hectare on average,” Sharad Pawar told Parliament on December 19, 2011. That is a shockingly low figure. Twice that figure would still be low. The farmer sells his crop as raw cotton. One-hundred kg of raw cotton gives 35 kg of lint and 65 kg of cotton seed (of which up to two kg is lost in ginning). And Mr. Pawar's figure translates to just 3.5 quintals of raw cotton per hectare. Or merely 1.4 quintals per acre. Mr. Pawar also assumed farmers were getting a high price of Rs.4,200 per quintal. He conceded that this was close to “the cost of cultivation… and that is why I think such a serious situation is developing there.” If Mr. Pawar's figure was right, it means Nandu Raut's gross income could not have exceeded Rs.5,900 per acre. Deduct his input costs — of which 1.5 packets of seed alone accounts for around Rs.1,400 — and he's left with almost nothing. Yet, the TOI has him earning “Rs.20,000 more per acre.”
Asked if they stood by these extraordinary claims, the Mahyco-Monsanto spokesperson said, “We stand by the quotes of our MMB India colleague, as published in the news report.” Ironically, that single-paragraph quote, in the full-page-news story-turned-ad, makes no mention of the Rs.20,000-plus per acre earnings or any other figure. It merely speaks of Bt creating “increased income of cotton growers…” and of growth in Bt acreage. It does not mention per acre yields. And says nothing about zero suicides in the two villages. So the company carefully avoids direct endorsement of the TOI's claims, but uses them in a marketing feature where they are the main points.
The MMB spokesperson's position on these claims is that “the journalists spoke directly with farmers on their personal experiences during the visits, resulting in various news reports, including the farmer quotes.”
The born-again story-turned-ad also has Nandu Raut reaping yields of “about 20 quintals per acre with Bollgard II,” nearly 14 times the Agriculture Minister's average of 1.4 quintals per acre. Mr. Pawar felt that Vidarbha's rainfed irrigation led to low yields, as cotton needs “two to three waterings.” He was silent on why Maharashtra, ruled by an NCP-Congress alliance, promotes Bt Cotton in almost entirely rainfed regions. The Maharashtra State Seed Corporation (Mahabeej) distributes the very seeds the State's Agriculture Commissioner found to be unsuited for rainfed regions seven years ago. Going by the TOI, Nandu is rolling in cash. Going by the Minister, he barely stays afloat.
Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech's ad barrage the same week in 2011 drew other fire. Following a complaint, one of the ads (also appearing in another Delhi newspaper) claiming huge monetary benefits to Indian farmers landed before the Advertising Standards Council of India. ASCI “concluded that the claims made in the advertisement and cited in the complaint, were not substantiated.” The MMB spokesperson said the company “took cognizance of the points made by ASCI and revised the advertisement promptly…. ASCI has, on record, acknowledged MMB India's modification of the advertisement…”
We met Nandu again as the Standing Committee MPs left his village in March. “If you ask me today,” he said, “I would say don't use Bt here, in unirrigated places like this. Things are now bad.” He had not raised a word during the meeting with the MPs, saying he had arrived too late to do so.
“We have thrown away the moneylender. No one needs him anymore,” The Times of India news report-turned-ad quotes farmer Mangoo Chavan as saying. That's in Antargaon, the other village the newspaper found to be basking in Bt-induced prosperity. A study of the 365 farm households in Bhambraja and the nearly 150 in Antargaon by the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) shows otherwise. “Almost all farmers with bank accounts are in critical default and 60 per cent of farmers are also in debt to private moneylenders,” says VJAS chief Kishor Tiwari.
The Maharashtra government tried hard to divert the MPs away from the ‘model village' of Bhambraja (and Maregaon) to places where the government felt in control. However, Committee Chairperson Basudeb Acharia and his colleagues stood firm. Encouraged by the MPs visit, people in both places spoke their minds and hearts. Maharashtra's record of over 50,000 farm 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 of vast, policy-linked issues driving agrarian distress here.
None of the farmers reduced the issue of the 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.
(Disclosure: The Hindu and The Times of India are competitors in several regions of India.)
This article first appeared in The Hindu.