A full-page advertorial published by Business Standard on July 29 has sparked controversy. Green activists, academics and civil society members have condemned the advertorial, sponsored by Crop Care Federation of India (CCFI)—an association of agrochemical industries—for “malicious and scurrilous personal attacks against a range of individuals.”

“The advertorial is an unethical, dishonest and misleading attack by the pesticide industry body that maligns a wide range of individuals and institutions – all chosen for their common ‘crime’ of having worked to study and educate society and policy makers about the harmful effects of pesticides,” reads the letter coordinated by Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) and signed by over 160 individuals. The letter was sent on July 3 to TN Ninan, Chairperson, Shailesh Dobhal, Editorial Lead and Shyamal Majumdar, Editor of Business Standard.

CCFI’s advertorial made allegations against a range of environment activists and researchers, individually, and in certain instances collectively, accusing them of receiving foreign funding, running disinformation campaigns, publishing “false and fabricated studies” in Indian and foreign journals, articulating “scary stories and negative narratives” about Indian agriculture, and working with the underlying objective of influencing policies to “suit the interests of their donors abroad”.

The advertorial, titled “Beware of Foreign-Funded Environmental NGOs. They are paid to malign Indian agriculture”, named many social activists and sustainability advocates including Kavitha Kurungati, Founder-Convenor of ASHA, Sunita Narain of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and Umendra Dutt of Kheti Virasat Mission. It also named scientists and researchers from reputed institutions such as IIT Kanpur, National Institute of Nutrition, Public Health Foundation and various universities.

“Business Standard cannot escape responsibility and culpability for this libelous and irresponsible attack, which went to the extent of publishing unauthorized pictures of two persons, both women, while maligning their integrity,” reads the letter to the paper.

Kavitha Kurungati, who has worked extensively on sustainable livelihoods and farmers’ rights, told The Citizen that the central government’s proposed ban on 27 pesticides has been making the agrochemical industry anxious.

“Clearly, the pesticides industry is very worried about rising public consciousness and shifting public policies that lay increasing emphasis on non-chemical agro-ecological farming. Their markets are under threat. The impending ban on many pesticides along with possible stricter regulation of pesticides in the form of Pesticides Management Bill 2020 has them thoroughly worried,” she said.

“In their defence, they are now coming out with scurrilous attacks, but this is obviously a foolish and unacceptable tactic,” Kurungati added.

The day after the advertorial was carried, Business Standard published a “Correction”, stating that it regretted the publication of the allegations and dissociated itself from them. In an email exchange between Kurungati and the editor of the paper, she wrote that while the move was appreciated, a brief front page correction was “inadequate”.

The letter by activists and civil society members too stated that the “small paragraph” was an “insufficient response”, alleging that it seemed to be a “pre-planned strategy”. “It is very clear that its publication does not meet your newspaper’s code of conduct nor the code or standards of ASCI or PCI, regarding content, and completely negates the high ethical code that the newspaper likes to take credit for,” wrote the signatories.

In an extensive rebuttal published on her blog, Kurungati asked Business Standard to publish a front page statement admitting the advertorial went against the paper’s Code of Conduct, return the revenue earned “for setting a high bar of media ethics” and give equal space for counter-views.

Kurungati confirmed to The Citizen that she is still exploring legal options against the CCFI. “BS [Business Standard] has communicated to me that it has withdrawn the advertorial from its internet edition and has written to some concerned citizen that they are not going to take any money for the advertorial already published in print.”

“However, they are not offering us the same space as what CCFI already received to influence so many readers, that too free of cost now!!” she said, adding that Business Standard had offered her a 350-word length space for her rebuttal. Kurungati’s response was published on August 5 by the paper.

“I also hope that they reach out to other maligned individuals pro-actively and offer them space too,” she told The Citizen.

Signatories to the June 3 letter demanded that Business Standard print the rebuttal by people named and maligned in the advertorial, “giving equal space and prominence”. They also asked the paper to make public its policy on advertorial content, contribute the revenue received from the advertorial toward public good such as pesticide-free farming and ensure that the website has “Retracted with Apology” boldly printed on the original advertorial with links to the rebuttals.

Highlighting some of the allegations made by CCFI, the letter stated, “The advertorial contains several false statements such as claiming half-truths about Indonesia’s pesticide ban, and the cancer incidence in Punjab being one of the lowest in India.”

It further added that the advertorial claiming all critical studies on pesticides are driven by foreign donors is “preposterous” and “shows the level of intolerance from the pesticide industry to accept critical scientific studies.”

“CCFI is implying that there is a huge conspiracy cutting across social activists and scientists at the best academic institutions to malign pesticides – whereas the simple fact is that India and the entire world have become highly concerned about toxins in our environment, food and water systems. Even the Prime Minister of India has spoken on Independence Day about Mother Earth being poisoned by pesticides,” wrote the signatories.

Kurungati, in her rebuttal, stated that the federation’s advertorial was “full of lies and falsehoods”. She clarified that ASHA was not an NGO and, rather than being foreign-funded, it does not take up such work but collects money through the process of crowd-funding from Indians only when needed.

In further response to the insinuations regarding foreign-funding, she wrote that such funding seems to be considered “sinister” only in the context of NGOs, “and not when foreign markets are built for revenues of corporations or when political parties receive such funding or when even governments receive bilateral and multilateral funding or when an economy itself is built by inviting FDI and FII.”

Kurungati further emphasised that the pesticides industry was one of the first beneficiaries of foreign funding when the Green Revolution was ushered into India, and that the industry has a larger foreign market than a domestic one.

“This red herring around ‘foreign funding’ therefore is irrational to say the least and foreign funding being a measure of patriotism and nationalism is highly questionable,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, the signatories to the letter expressed their support for the activists and academics named in the advertorial, while reiterating that environmental activists are primarily concerned about “the health of Indian consumers, agricultural workers and farmers who are vulnerable to pesticide toxicity, and about the long-term productivity and sustainability of Indian farms.”