People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
January 29, 2006
MAHATMA Gandhi finally made a comeback to the front page of a newspaper on October 2 last year. Some achievement in a city where three of four dailies I looked at did not give him a mention on that page. Nor did they give their readers a glimpse of the rally of nearly one lakh farmers that came to Mumbai’s Azad maidan, choosing Gandhi’s birth anniversary as their day of protest against the miserable state of agriculture.
Just three days earlier, most of the papers gave little or no coherent coverage to a nationwide strike involving 40 million workers. Two of them carried just a picture of the airport gate on the front page. The rest covered it as if it were an airlines strike. One reported it entirely as the latest example of Left villainy.
Against these odds, Gandhi still made it to the front page. Only, he appeared there on a T-shirt worn by Angelina Jolie. A Hollywood actress had saved the Mahatma from eclipse.
December saw the media move from Gandhiana to health. Well, Amitabh Bachchan’s health, anyway. The star’s illness saw more than 20 media personnel stationed day and night outside the Lilavati Hospital in Mumbai. Seldom have the media covered health more intensively. And certainly no intestine in history got the play that Bachchan’s did. Newspapers carried awful morphed graphics of an Amitabh whose intestine readers could see. The channels did their bit, too. My favourite was a channel that had the anchor and an expert discussing the tragedy with a huge picture of a large intestine in the background. Someone called in to point out that the problem was the Big B’s small intestine. The offending organ on the chart then vanished, though not the attention.
Sure, the disconnect between mass media and mass reality gets quite funny now and then. It is also frightening and appalling. It’s almost as if the 2004 elections just never happened. Prior to that, sections of the media could at least plead ignorance of what was going on in the countryside. Now, even that fig leaf gets blown away. The disconnect is at many levels a constructed one. A thought-out strategy aimed at building a private reality for the audiences the media must deliver to advertisers and sponsors.
PEOPLE AS CONSUMERS
Most reporting on rural India now simply views people there as buyers. Real or potential. How many cell phones 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 show dismal trends.
There is the occasional recognition of things not being quite how they should be. Take this line from The Economic Times of March 27, 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."
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.’
Their own disappointments matter little. The average family is absorbing 100 kg. of foodgrain less than 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.
Hunger has re-surfaced on so massive a scale that even the extremely conservative estimates of the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations are frightening. The FAO says that 22 countries succeeded in "turning the tide against hunger" during the period we term as that of the "reforms." But in 17 others, including India, "the trend shifted in the opposite direction." Our nation was the worst performer on this front. The number of hungry fell in Ethiopia. It grew in India by 19 million.
For hundreds of millions of the 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. We are in the midst of the worst agrarian crisis since the eve of the green revolution. But you would hardly suspect that if the big media were your source of information.
In the cities this past decade, 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. The Big Media, to the extent they ran rural reports at all, carried "success stories." The rural market was "booming." Everything was getting "connected" and coming "online." Success stories in the field of credit were hard to come by. So the "miracle" of micro-credit at the level of self-help groups (SHGs) was played up as a substitute for the collapse of institutional credit. For one thing, the average SHG loan in, say Andhra Pradesh, will not buy you a third of an acre of land. It might not even meet your crop input costs on a single acre for a season.
What’s more, the total number of rural branches of banks fell dramatically in the reforms years. Not only in percentage terms but also in absolute numbers. In 1991, rural branches accounted for close to 60 per cent of all bank branches. By 2003 that had fallen to under 50 per cent. In numerical terms, there were over 3,000 less than there had been at the start of the ‘reforms.’
As banks withdrew from operations important to farmers, moneylenders got more entrenched. Official data suggests the number of rural households in debt nearly doubled between 1991-92 and 2003-03. Andhra is the worst in the whole country with 82 per cent of its farm households in debt.
Thousands of farmers took their own lives across the country. As many as three thousand of them in Anantapur, a single district of Andhra Pradesh. Across India, work vanished in the countryside. Distress migrations from the villages—to just about anywhere—rose in tens of millions. Hunger grew further as the growth rate of food production fell. Foodgrain available per Indian fell almost every year in the ‘reforms’ period. From 510 grams a day in 1991 to 436 gms in 2003, a huge drop.
This did not stop governments from exporting foodgrain while their own people went hungry. India exported 20 million tons of foodgrain during the years 2002 and 2003. By 2001, the export price of rice was the same as the Below Poverty Line price of that commodity. As Prof. Utsa Patnaik points out, these exports came "out of more and more empty stomachs. Foodgrain per person annually counted was, by 2002-03 at a level "last seen during 1937-41 under colonialism." It was even less in the pre-drought year of 2000-01 at 151 kg ("last seen during the years of the Second World War which included the years of the terrible Bengal famine.")
This did not stop the media from hailing India’s "burgeoning status as an exporter."
RURAL POVERTY IGNORED
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 one 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.
You’d think they learnt something from the verdict of the Indian people in the 2004 elections. Not really. The headline above an edit page piece in the Indian Express by it’s editor ran "India Shining, Really." India Shining might have been rejected by the voters. The media still give it a two-thirds majority.
Now look at the other end of the spectrum.
Even as the National Sample Survey figures on spending by farm households came out, so did the numbers on the country’s billionaires, alongside.
The NSS data show the average monthly per capita expenditure in farm households to be Rs. 503. This MPCE is across all farm households, from zamindars to those owning a third of an acre. It is not much above the rural poverty line of Rs. 425. Indeed, in at least four major states, the average for the whole state is below the poverty line. Also, in millions of households that MPCE is just Rs. 225.
What does this mean? It means a person in this household has to meet every single need from food and clothing and shelter to education, to health and transport — everything, on Rs. 8 (eight) a day. The data also show that between 70 to 80 per cent of that Rs. 8 is spent on food, clothing , fuel and footwear. So health, education, all else, must be worked out on about one and a half rupees a day. Incidentally, these households are spending twice the amount on health that they do on education. Make your own calculations on the rest!
Around the time this dismal data was emerging, the Business Standard (November 9, 2005) announced that the country now had 311 billionaires whose net worth was Rs. 3.64 trillion (that’s 12 zeroes). These numbers probably mark the greatest wealth gaps in our history as a nation. The media were enthralled by the latter figure. The former was barely reported.
Or take the Lakme India Fashion Week (LIFW). It reflects well the world the media inhabit. Each year, at this event, journalists have outnumbered fashion models and buyers put together. In the 2005 edition, journalists outnumbered buyers three to one. Of course, unlike the bottom 400 million, the tiny number of buyers is not a disappointment.
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.
Meanwhile the oligopolies that control the media are now into cross ownership. The same business group can own newspapers, radio stations, music shops and television channels working out of the same city. Which means an even further hardening of attitudes towards the poor and the deprived. When the government announced it would cut Rs. 4,500 crores from food subsidies for the poor, newspapers wrote editorials welcoming the cut. The DNA in Mumbai was first of the mark with a lead editorial proclaiming this a good first step.
Can things change? Yes, but abandon the idea that this will happen on the merit and initiative of individual journalists. It’s a fact that there have been outstanding efforts from young journalists that have kept the issues of rural distress alive in the press. Whether it is Narasaiah Reddy of Eenadu in Andhra Pradesh, or K.A. Shaji of the New Indian Express in Kerala. Whether a Jaideep Hardikar in Vidharbha or a Dayamani Barla in Jharkhand. Whether it is Bijaya Sahis, Jagadish Suna and Purushottam Thakur who have long kept the real problems of Kalahandi in the news.
Yet, if things are to change that will be an outcome of wider public action. As it happened in the 2004 polls. As it’s happening in the protests and agitations across the country. Tied to such action, what’s excellent in journalism gains more potency than ever. The efforts of the many fine journalists India has are vital to the reform of media attitudes, yes. But the problems of the media cannot be entirely resolved within the sector. That requires public action of a kind that would "make the deaf hear and the blind see."