The terrible steno – 04-05-2008
Two things have died in the media-outrage and compassion
By P. Sainath*
We are in the middle of the greatest agrarian crisis seen in this country since the Green Revolution. Millions have left their villages for other villages, towns and cities in search of jobs which are not there. Eighty lakh people quit farming between 1991 and 2001.
Did the Indian media do this story? Here are the basic assertions I make in connection with the media and the agrarian crisis.
One, the fundamental feature of the media of our times is the growing disconnect between the mass media and the mass reality. Two, there is a structural shutout of the poor in the media. Three, there is a corporate hijack of media agendas. Four, of the so-called four estates of democracy, media is the most exclusive and the most elitist.
The moral universe of the media has shifted. Two things have died-outrage and compassion. You have a lot of drawing-room outrage, but not over issues that moved earlier generations of journalists. The structural shutout of the poor is evident in the way beats are organised in newspapers. You have fashion, design and glamour correspondents. In a country with the largest number of rural poor, you do not have one full-time correspondent on the beat of rural or urban poverty.
In a country whose unemployment is simply stunning, the labour correspondent is extinct. 2006 was the worst year of farmer suicides. How many national media journalists were covering the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha? There were six. But there were 512 journalists covering the Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai.
What were the girls displaying at the Fashion Week? Cotton garments. One hour’s flight away from Mumbai, the men and women who grew that cotton were committing suicide at the rate of six a day. Wasn’t that a story? There is journalism and there is stenography; 80 per cent of journalism you are reading or viewing today is stenography. Everyone knows there is a crisis of
credit. Thanks to the loan waiver. How many of your newspapers or channels have told you that the guys who are claiming that they have expanded credit have closed down 4,750 bank branches in the last 15 years?
The Census and the National Sample Survey narrow down migration to mean people leaving the villages for the city. Since 1990s, migrations are more complex. There is rural-to-rural, rural-to-metro migration, rural-to-semi-urban, urban-to-urban and finally urban-to-rural migration.
Yes, urban-to-rural migration is there because wages have collapsed in the countryside and small businesses are moving there to utilise cheap labour.
In Gondia, Maharashtra, every morning hundreds of urban women journey into rural Vidarbha for work. There is the economic survey put by the finance minister in Parliament every Budget session. What has stopped the media from picking up the story it tells you? Per capita availability of foodgrain has fallen from 510gm a day in 1991 to 422gm in 2005-a fall of 88gm for one billion people for 365 days a year! That means your average family is consuming 100kg less of foodgrain than it consumed a decade ago. Where is your outrage?
You have a price rise. There is a differential impact of this on different classes of society. But look at some of the stories that are coming-that in a middle class family, the son cannot take cricket coaching because of the price rise! Where we should have told stories, we sold products. Where we needed scepticism, we exercised sycophancy. Where we needed journalism at its best, we produced stenography at its worst. We continued to cordon the elite and turn our backs on millions experiencing despair. We turned the great principle of journalism upside down which was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
*The article is an abridged version of the Rajendra Mathur Memorial Lecture-2008 on Media and the Agrarian Crisis, organised by the Editors Guild of India. *