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Bt Cotton In Punjab: Lesson
In Effective PR Exercise

By JatinderPreet

01 April, 2005

The story of official approval to hybrid varieties of transgenic Bt cotton using Monsanto's Bt cotton technology is a lesson in effective Public Relations exercise. The sleek PR machinery of the U.S. chemical giant Monsanto aided by spineless and misinformed media and the state collusion assured India officially joined the GM community on March 26, 2002, when it was first given the green signal for the commercial cultivation of genetically engineered crops.

However, it was a small victory for the company with a massive belly. Only 6 states had approval for the commercial release of Bt Cotton. The ‘lucrative’ states of Punjab and Haryana along with Rajasthan were yet to be conquered. Thus began a media blitzkrieg.

While the farmers were committing suicide all along the cotton belt what caught the headlines far more was write ups inspired by Monsanto's PR machine. The stories of Bt failure were generally glossed over with far less exceptions.

The apparent technical nature of the debate and general indifference coupled with falling standards of media integrity made it easier for the company to slip in its claims that were yet to be proved right.

The propaganda exercise did not only simply stop at influencing media persons and bureaucrats. The lobbying even reached the highest court of the country.

On January 6, 1999 environmental activist Vandana Shiva went to Supreme Court challenging the "illegality" of the field trials authorized by the Department of Biotechnology. But the next year in July when the SC was still seized of the matter, Maharashtra Hybrid Company (Mahyco), in which Monsanto had a stake, was allowed to conduct large-scale field trials including seed production at 40 sites in six states. The permission was granted based on the "totally confidential" data from the small trials that allowed regulators to infer that Bt Cotton was "safe. On January 5, 2001 a 10-member delegation comprising U.S. judges and scientists met Supreme Court Chief Justice A.S. Anand to educate him -- and other members of the judiciary – on the advantages of biotechnology. That much was on record. But that showed the cheek of the Bt lobby which did not leave any stone unturned in its campaign.

Stories started appearing in media about the Bt cotton ever since Monsanto appeared on the scene with Bt. But the overdrive began when the determined and surefooted groups and individuals began questioning the company’s claims.

Monsanto-India's PR person Ranjana Smetacek was all over the state without setting foot here. A story appeared in Times of India with a Ludhiana dateline. Resembling a company handout, it quoted Ms Smetacek extensively to drive home the presumed Bt advantage. It’s another matter that nobody in Ludhiana’s media community, including two correspondents of TOI (the story was without byline) had any clue who she was. It’s a mystery how only the TOI’s Ludhiana correspondents got to talk to her. A similar story was published in The Tribune on February 11 this year. It claimed without citing the source of information that “in India the area under Bollgard (Bt) cotton increased by estimated 400 per cent to reach 500,000 hectares in 2004” to drive home the point that “the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan were still awaiting approval”. The rest of the story listed why Bt should be allowed. It did not need any expert to tell that. Monsanto India Ltd. and Ranjana Smetacek sufficed.

Bathinda was the favourite hunting ground for the PR people of Monsanto. Most of the media people stationed there complied with unthinkingly reproducing in their papers what was supplied to them.

A story appeared in The Indian Express from Bathinda on November 8, 2001, that begin with “There is a variety of cotton that can fight off bollworm, has no apparent side-effects and has cleared trials. It goes by the name of Bt Cotton, and the Government doesn't want it.”

‘Punjab cries for Bt Cotton’, K.S. Chawla had declared as early as November 17, 2003 in The Tribune. “Bt cotton is not being released in the Punjab circle, comprising Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, while the cotton growers of these states are hankering after it”, it claimed.

On November 21 last year K.S. Chawla again wrote, “Punjab Agricultural University scientists have sought early official release of Bt cotton varieties.” The story that followed quoted only Dr G.S. Chahal, Additional Director Research, Punjab Agricultural University, known for his vociferous support for Bt.

In a story published on May 15, 2003, K.S. Chawla quoted the vice chancellor of PAU as cautioning cotton growers in Punjab against “propaganda of unscrupulous seed traders who may sell spurious seed under the name of Bt. Cotton”.

On August 12, 2003 he returned to quote Dr Chahal “regarding the possibilities of the adverse effects of cotton cultivation due to what he called “delayed recommendation of Bt cotton in Punjab.”

April 23, 2003, Chawla had already announced “the tested varieties would be released for general cultivation in Punjab from next year”.

The list goes on.

(Jatinder Preet is a freelance journalist working with an organisation Media Artists with Punjab as its area of operation and Editor of Punjab Panorama, a journal brought out by Media Artists

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