Lost the compass


Prime VIP
Just posting a cut-paste from one excrept. It is good.

Lost The Compass?
Rural India is a giant canvas that is begging the media to do a portrait, many portraits. But it has failed - resoundingly.
70,000 Indian millionaires...and growing Page 1 headline, The Times of India, June 11, 2005
"The bottom 400 million is a disappointment and a social responsibility, and while it harbours value (maybe not a fortune), it is a difficult market to tap." Economic Times, March 26, 2005
A lot of reporting on rural India nowadays simply views people there as buyers. Real or potential. How many cellphones are selling. How many cars. Stories of great yields from miracle seeds. (Never mind that states have begun to ban some of those seeds as the underside of the miracle pops up.) Never mind, too, that nutritional data across the country shows dismal trends.
So the 'bottom 400 million' are not to be viewed as people. (As a separate nation, they'd be the third biggest in the world.) Just as 'a difficult market to tap'. And hence, 'a disappointment'. Shame on you guys down there in the bottom 400 million. That's enough distress and despair. Time to pull up your socks and be better buyers. (And whaddya mean, what socks?) What are the malls for, anyway?
Their own disappointments matter little. The average family is absorbing 100 kg of foodgrain less than what it did in 1991. That should have been a matter of urgent concern anywhere in the world. It hardly draws comment in the media here.
For hundreds of millions of poor, the brave new world of the '90s meant globalisation of prices, Indianisation of incomes. As we moved to boost our welfare state for the wealthy, India turned its back on the poor. Investment in agriculture collapsed, and with it, countless human lives. In the cities, banks offered loans with which you could buy a Mercedes Benz at the lowest interest rates. At the same time, rural credit was wound down. Rural indebtedness soared.
Thousands of farmers took their own lives. As many as 3,000 of them in a single district of Andhra Pradesh. Work vanished in the countryside. Distress migrations from the villages-to just about anywhere-rose in tens of millions. Foodgrain available per Indian fell almost every year in the 'reforms' period. And by 2002-03, it was less than it had been at the time of the great Bengal famine.
Even as the world hailed our Tiger Economy, the country slipped to rank 127 (from 124) in the United Nations Human Development Index of 2003. This means it was better to be a poor person in Botswana-or even the occupied territories of Palestine-than in India. In the last decade, the Supreme Court pulled up state governments over rising hunger deaths.
But it wasn't just the state that turned away from the poor. Much of the media led the charge in the other direction, celebrating the new order. Through this crisis, it would be hard to find major papers creating new beats to deal with the situation. No full-time reporters to cover agrarian distress. Not even to look at rural poverty as a whole. Very few to track the suicides and migrations. Or the soaring input costs and crashing output prices driving the farmer to despair. Or the hunger of the landless poor.
Now, to appreciate the enormity of this, look at the other end of the spectrum.
Take the 2005 Lakme India Fashion Week. It reflects well the world the media inhabits. Journalists outnumbered buyers three to one. Unlike the bottom 400 million, the tiny number of buyers is not a disappointment. What's more, buyers at the show were dependent on designers for their passes. The media were not. Their place was assured. What would the LIFW and the media do without each other?
Right now, if all the agricultural labour unions in the country held a press conference in Delhi, they would be lucky if half-a-dozen journalists turn up If they marched in lakhs down the streets of the capital, they might make a photograph and two columns. Never mind that this class is the most vulnerable section of the Indian poor. Or that they-meaning tens of millions of human beings-are at the receiving end of a man-made crisis. It does not make news. Not much.
The LIFW-2004 edition produced, in one count, some 4,00,000 words in print. Over 1,000 minutes in television coverage. Some 800 hours of TV and video footage were shot. And close to 10,000 rolls of film exposed.
Consider that this was the main media event in a country where less than 0.2 per cent of people sport designer clothes. Where per capita consumption of textiles in 2002, at 19 metres, was way below the world average. And this show, too, drew more journalists than buyers.
Or look at the 2004 Diwali special issue of our largest English weekly. It proudly proclaimed an 'India Deluxe'. The cover story was pleased with our progress. In present-day India, it noted, 1,00,000 families earn Rs 50 lakh to a crore each year. There would be 53,000 families earning over a crore by March 2005. And there were 20,000 already at that level.
India has over 180 million households. And the high-income ones add up to a fraction of that total. Indeed, the India Today story does admit that just about one per cent of the population can be called 'seriously rich and affluent'. (As against the frivolously wealthy?)
Consider that this is how it is after last year's polls. It's as if the elections of May 2004 never happened. As if they held no message or warning at all. India Shining might have been rejected by the voters. The media still give it a two-thirds majority.
A two-day dip in the Sensex after the election results were out was covered with far greater passion and intensity than the polls themselves. With much larger headlines, in any case.
The Times of India front page recalled 9/11 as its chosen analogy for the May 17 slide of the Sensex. It splashed the figure 2,340,000,000,000 across the front page just under the masthead. A strap shrieked that 2.34 lakh crore of 'investor wealth' had been 'wiped out'. The loss of this paper wealth was declared in eight-column headlines as Ground Zero. The report's graphic mimicked the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. An image of the Stock Exchange building in Dalal Street exploding in flames. And yes, with the Left supporting the new government, the villains were clear. The hijacked aircraft ploughing into the Stock Exchange building had the Communist hammer and sickle on its tail. The villains were easy to locate since the Left had said it would back a Congress-led government.
Within two days, the Sensex showed what The Times now called 'instant recovery'. Paper wealth was back. Fact: an estimated 1.15 per cent of Indian households invest in stocks. On the other side of the fence are 65 per cent of households who do not have even a bank account, let alone investments. (In rural India, that is 70 per cent, according to an analysis of the Census of India household survey.) And where tens of millions of farmers live and die in debt.
The death by suicide in 2004 of a bright and talented model, Nafisa Joseph, got more coverage on television in an evening than the suicide deaths of thousands of farmers had in some years. Nafisa was an aspiring actress, a young life snuffed out in its prime. Surely a very sad event. It first came in as breaking news. It spilt over into numerous sectors of TV programming bar the sports news. It was in the news at prime time. It was there on the celebrity and party shows. Then it returned in the business bulletins for its possible impact on the fashion industry and the stress levels in that sector.
(L)Varsha: w/o Maruthi Rasses, Yavatmal vilage (R) Rukumabai: w/o Digambar Agashe, Malwagad village
Her death was a tragedy. But no less a tragedy were the thousands of farmers' suicides. Those are still to get anything approaching the coverage and enquiry they deserve.
Throughout its history, journalism has attained greatness or notoriety depending on how relevant it made itself to the great processes of its time. That was true of Thomas Paine and the American Revolution. True of John Reed and his Ten Days that Shook the World. And as true of Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar or a Tilak.
If we were to look back at Indian journalism of the last 15 years-how relevant would it be? There were huge technological advances. Major gains in reach and technique. But how did the media connect with, say, the giant processes gripping the Indian countryside? Did it achieve greatness? Even goodness? Perhaps its mediocrity was too pronounced for it to gain even notoriety. (Though a few did manage that.)
So what are the great processes of our time? There are several. Let's look at just six that are surely worthy of urgent media attention.
One, the rapid rise of inequality in our society. Inequality, not IT or software, has been the fastest growing Indian sector this past decade. It has increased at a pace not seen since the time of the colonial raj. And how has journalism dealt with this issue?
The '90s marked the coming of 'theme weddings' in a big way. In these, the wedding is held in a specially constructed replica of some great monument or event. These have ranged from the Sistine Chapel (set up for a Calcutta wedding) to forts and palaces and such. Delhi's unique contribution was a replica of the Kargil conflict. Huge, snowy white tents with dead plastic soldiers, too. Doubtless to remind the young couple of the solemnity of the occasion.
Some of these weddings can cost crores of rupees. They've spawned an allied, wholly new segment of the fashion industry. Of course, all these efforts were put in the shade by the wedding of Laxmi Mittal's daughter. No replica of the Versailles palace would do. It had to be the real thing. And for US $60 million or more, it was. You can see the local variants in any major Indian city today. By and large, the media have celebrated rather than questioned the growth of inequality.
Compare these weddings with what is going on in the countryside. In Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, and Wayanad, Kerala, for instance, weddings have fallen sharply. No one has the money. A few of the suicides occurred when the farmer found he could not afford his daughter's marriage. Sometimes, the girl also took her own life, blaming herself for her father's death.
Another massive process crying for attention is the ongoing agrarian crisis. The crisis of farmers is not just one of agriculture. It touches every sphere of our lives. The suicides of thousands of farmers are a symptom, not the disease. They are the result, not the cause, of a much wider and deeper rural distress. Indeed, the Manmohan Singh government did, to some extent, recognise this. One of its early actions was to set up the National Farmers Commission under Dr M.S. Swaminathan to study the problem. The very first meeting of that commission-poorly covered by the national media-was stunning.
People from sharply differing, even antagonistic perspectives, were present. When you put bankers and farmers in the same room today, you're organising a riot. And there was quite a bit of fire. There were farmers, labour unions, bank bosses, insurance officers, government officials, scientists and journalists. Yet, across this spectrum, there was unanimity on two things. One, the Indian countryside was seeing its worst crisis in decades. Two, this was policy-driven. Sure, they blamed each other for it. And differed on which policies were at fault and which ones were needed. But on this they agreed: there was a terrible crisis and it was policy-driven.
The meeting threw up some scary facts. The Andhra Pradesh Kisan Sabha brought up hard data on input and output prices in that state. It turned out that you could be a farmer owning eight acres of paddy in Warangal-and still be below the poverty line. This is because the earning per acre of paddy had slipped by Rs 600 to Rs 900 in 10 years. This has to do with a slew of policy measures inflicted on Indian agriculture in the '90s. The collapse of investment in agriculture, the chaos brought into rural credit, and many other policies. It is surely worth investigating. But it's hard to do that when you are celebrating those very measures as the arrival of the Golden Age.
Where is that debate in the media?
They have covered PM Manmohan Singh on the need for bank reforms. But have said almost nothing about the fact that rural branches of banks have declined every year since 1991. Between 1969 and 1990, the number of such branches more than trebled. Once the 'reforms' began, branches began to close. As Dr P.S.M. Rao points out, in 1990 there were nearly 35,000 branches in rural regions. That is, over 58 per cent of total branches. By 2003, rural branches were down. Both in absolute numbers and percentage. Now, they account for under half of the total branches. The more the banks wiggle out, the more moneylenders thrive.
So there's one link of the rural credit crisis staring us in the face. But we don't investigate it. Through the 'reform' years, the rich could get a loan at six per cent interest to buy a Mercedes Benz. A farmer paid more than twice, perhaps even thrice that rate if he wished to buy a tractor.
Growing hunger amongst the poorer sections is another great process. With well over 400 million hungry people, India alone has more undernourished human beings than all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. But this does not seem a matter of grave concern within the media.
Another alarming figure comes from the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. The FAO's State of Food Insecurity in the World report 2003 was happy to note that the number of those in chronic hunger fell by 80 million in 19 countries. Yet, it had risen by 19 million in India since 1996-97. Even though this number understates the reality, it's bad enough. Nineteen million is almost the population of the continent of Australia.
It also means that in this period, the number of hungry rose in India and fell in Ethiopia. Both ways, in millions. This face of India Shining finds passing mention in the odd edit. Close-up coverage? Investigation? You must be joking.
The last few years saw another new development. For the first time since Independence, the Supreme Court admonished at least six state governments for their failure to halt hunger deaths. The court even held the states' chief secretaries personally responsible for the deaths. Maybe not a great idea. But at least the court was taking seriously what the media fail to. A child dies of hunger every five seconds in the world. The largest numbers of such kids are Indians.
The next great process going poorly covered is the privatisation of basic services. Private hospitals and institutions have given a whole new meaning to the old adage: Health is Wealth. It puts billions of rupees in their pockets. All the while, the access of the poor to health is falling rapidly. Across most of the country, health has emerged as the second fastest growing component of rural family debt. We now have well-documented cases of farmers in Telangana and Vidarbha regions mortgaging their lands in order to pay hospital bills.
It has gotten so bad that 21 per cent of rural Indians no longer seek medical treatment for their ailments. That's up from 11 per cent a decade ago. Millions are unable to afford the most basic things. And this is made worse by the collapse of rural employment in the last decade-which still continues. In the late '90s, we chalked up our worst rate of growth in rural employment since we first began keeping data. All of 0.67 per cent. Way below the rate at which the workforce populace grew. Working less, for the poor, means eating less. Especially for women who eat last in the Indian household.
Our spending on health is abysmal, less than one per cent of GDP. India ranks 189 out of 192 countries in terms of how much the government spends on health as a share of total health spending. How many newspapers and magazines have full-time health correspondents? How many speak up for public investment in health?
And then there's the privatisation of basic resources. With water being the latest on the agenda. This is a country where almost every long-term crisis has been linked one way or the other to water. Take the Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Or the Kerala-Karnataka feud over the Kabini's waters. Or the Almatti dam quarrel that set Andhra Pradesh against Karnataka. Or the explosive Krishna waters issue that divides the regions of Andhra Pradesh. Even the Punjab problem of the 1980s had much to do with water disputes between Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana.
Privatising irrigation and drinking water invites such troubles on a scale we may never have seen. But quite a bit of the media have been supportive of the process. Without even the pretence of investigating it seriously. Meanwhile, Maharashtra has been rewarded with Rs 1,700 crore by the World Bank for doing its bidding. For steering water towards privatisation. Few editorials or in-depth stories. If ever there was a process demanding immediate attention it is this: the rapid move towards water as a commercial good, not as a natural human right.
Through the summer of 2005 when it was a raging 45-48 degree C in the Nagpur rural region, water 'theme parks' and 'snowdomes' functioned in that district. One of them, consuming millions of litres of water, is located in a village where people got water once in five or even ten days.
And of course, there was the assault on the livelihoods on the poor. The state following the worst policies in this regard was Andhra Pradesh. There, not just farmers, but also weavers and other groups, took their lives in despair. There were also hunger deaths as livelihoods vanished. Carpenters in Telangana died of starvation when farming collapsed. When not a single new plough was ordered, when not one new cart was made, when farmers did not recycle their tools-that smashed the carpenters. Remember this was the state the big media held up as the model. No chief minister ever got the press Chandrababu Naidu did.
A conscious drive to get people off agriculture was also a major feature of what happened in Andhra Pradesh. This, without a clue as to where to redeploy them. Countless thousands went broke and some even lost their lands as they sank in debt. Lakhs boarded buses or trains and left the state in search of work elsewhere. The number of daily buses from Mahbubnagar in Andhra Pradesh to Mumbai was one a week in 1993.It was forty-seven a week in 2003.
Wayanad was once one of the richest districts in Kerala. A huge foreign exchange earner for the state with its cash crop exports. Now, destroyed by our own policies and the new WTO world order. Coffee prices boom in London while coffee growers commit suicide in Kerala. Wayanad was once the only part of Kerala which had more migrants coming in than going out. Today, the reverse is true. There were six buses a day from Mananthavady in Wayanad to Kutta in Karnataka in 1995.Now, there are 24 daily, a 400 per cent increase. The Kerala State Road Transport Corporation is about the only profit-making body in the district.
And, of course, there was an intensification of forced displacement across the country. Adivasis fighting to save their lands from mining interests. People of the Taungiyas were victimised in and around the Rajaji National Park. And many more.
This was the deadly drama of the countryside. All in all, a giant canvas begging the media to do a portrait, many portraits. We failed that challenge-and resoundingly.
Why? Sure, there are the old faults of the media. Elitism, ignorance, paisa-pinching and the rest. And, of course, the central problem of ever-growing monopoly. The stifling of smaller voices. The death of dissent. Media as commerce and nothing but. And the growing frustration of the many journalists who really want to connect with their society but cannot. These remain crucial. Yet, there are new important barriers that render the media unable to get a handle on what's going on. Whether in rural India, or with the Indian poor as a whole.
For much of the media, the ideology of the new age is infallible. The celebration of the world of Market Fundamentalism is a given. James Galbraith Jr puts two of the tacitly held 'rules' coming out of this with gentle irony. All successes are due to globalisation. All failures are national. And-the global market is beyond reproach.
To these we can add a third. The words 'exploitation' and 'oppression' now barely exist in the media lexicon. Certainly not as causes for deprivation and poverty. Those are the outcome of 'bad governance'. And there's another axiom, the less government there is, the less the state does, the better. Any questioning of these commandments is heresy. Do it as a journalist and you're at once branded a 'jholawala' or 'poverty mafia.' On the other hand, spend day after day churning out corporate press releases as 'news' and you're a professional.
The media have lost their compass and, with it, their compassion. What Prof Prabhat Patnaik, one of our foremost economists, calls 'the moral universe' of the media has changed a lot for the worse. All their awesome technological advances cannot hide this. Indian journals of the freedom struggle had differing perspectives, angry debates. There was richness and variety. Today, you have McMedia. It tastes the same everywhere. Yet, there are so many talented young journalists, dying to do something better. That is a tribute to the great legacy of the freedom struggle and the media traditions it bequeathed upon us.
Youngsters are still drawn to the profession by idealism. There's a lot more money to be made elsewhere. Whether it is a Narasimha Reddy in Anantapur; or a Purushottam Thakur or a Bijaya Sahis or Jagadish Suna from the Kalahandi region; or a Dayamani Barla in Jharkhand; or a Jaideep Hardikar in Vidarbha; or a K.A.Shaji in Kerala, younger journalists have put their seniors to shame. Their energy and commitment, and that of many like them, is an inspiration. Journalists like these have worked against enormous odds and often in the face of active hostility, to tell the stories of the rural poor.
No less positive is that so many media audiences are so far ahead of the editors and owners. For a decade, we've seen the formula peddled that it was page 3 that sold The Times of India in Mumbai. It was monopoly, actually. There was little need to show any regard for the readers in a game too costly for most others to break into. The Times of India, Mumbai, in June 2005, is for now a transformed paper. Six city pages, the return of a books page, some very good stories (and even some
analysis) have made it so.
That two major newspapers have set up shop in Mumbai had a lot to do with the change. Now, you have to show the readers some respect. They might find out they had options. True, how the newcomers shape their content will also decide a lot of things. If they, too, buy into the old formula of The Times, we could be halfway back to where we were just a few months ago.
The problems of the media are not beyond solution. But they cannot be solved within the media. The larger public must and will play its role. It was the voters, not the editors and owners, who took on and slammed corrupt and debased governments in May 2004. The big media, in nearly every sense, found themselves on the wrong side of that great battle. The disconnect between mass media and mass reality stood exposed. The challenge now is to reconnect with the people. And rediscover the greater traditions of the Indian media.