On August 28, 2011, the Times of India attempted to present “ old wine in a new bottle” in its own style. A full page story “Reaping gold through Bt Cotton” appeared in its Sunday edition just when the media was busy celebrating end of Anna Hazare‘s fast.
A group of labourers carrying baskets of cotton balls on their heads looked out of the page while the bottom half splashed success stories of two villages in Maharashtra where the villagers had apparently hit gold mine. With anecdotes of three families, the story looked strikingly in-depth.
However, the real information was concealed at the top and bottom right of the page in fine print. The write up was re-print of a story from the Times of India, Nagpur edition, October 31, 2008 and it was being published under the TOI’s “Consumer Connect Initiative”, a benevolent nomenclature given to paid news.
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 when TOI, Nagpur edition, published the original story, 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 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. Why only these two villages out of 1,845 were chosen is quite clear - apparently they represented a small island in the sea of discontent because around 2008 the Bt Cotton crop had been failing over consecutive seasons despite promises that the hybrid will fetch handsome returns.
By the reporter’s own admission majority of the farmers interviewed owned land anywhere between 10 and 40 acres and none of them was ever a marginal farmer. This means the farmers to be showcased to the visiting media had been carefully chosen from a higher income group.
Also, the information that no suicide occurred in these two villages is factually wrong. Ganesh Mate of Bhambraja village committed suicide in August 2004 due to rising farm debt. This was week after his neighbour, also a farmer, ended his life. Their widows claimed it was because of debt burden and long spells of drought that they had to take the ultimate step .
On March 23, 2008, 37-year-old Manohar Mahadev Raut of Antargaon village committed suicide by jumping into a well. He owned six acres and had borrowed money from private banks and moneylenders.
So news reports related to at least three suicides by farmers in these villages is available on the Internet. Needless to say there must be more such cases which either went unreported or are not available online.
Later in the story, the “positive” experience of these two villages is portrayed as a scenario in the whole district. Raj Ketkar, deputy managing director, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB), is quoted as saying, “In Yavatmal district, the ability of farmers to purchase on cash instead of credit; increased ability to invest back in agriculture in implements like drip irrigation, tubewells, and in life insurance policies for their family speaks for the success of Bt.”
The news reports appearing in The Economic Times and news feeds of UNI and PTI were also fraught with misrepresentations. The UNI story’s headline claimed “Bt cotton brings change in suicide belt of Vidarbha” while PTI had a headline: ”Bt cotton gives a new lease of life to Vidarbha farmers”.
The news story by The Economic Times (published on November 2, 2008) out rightly rejected the concept of farmer suicides: “Mention farmer suicides to any Yavatmal villager and he laughs. "Woh sab hamare yahan nahin hota. Our sarpanch won't let it happen. We hear people in some villages have committed suicide over family disputes and alcoholism. But politicians think it is because of bad loans. Good for us,'' chuckles Gangadhar Maske at Antargaon.”
According to official estimates, Yavatmal district registered 1,708 farmer suicides between 2001 and 2009. Of them, 1,173 farmers took the extreme step owing to the debt liabilities while 83 farmers committed suicide due to crop failure.
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