Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Rot that’s destroying India’s TV news came from newspapers

 Broken News




On September 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Patrika Gate in Jaipur built by the Patrika group of newspapers.  He said that the world was now listening to India with more attention. 


On that same day, the world was listening to India, by way of reports in the international media, including this report in Washington Post,  which noted that India had beaten Brazil in the number of Covid-19 positive cases. Only the United States remains ahead of India.


One would have expected the Indian media that Modi exhorted ought to have a "global reputation", would have front-paged this fact.  Yet although there was a mention in the print, it was mostly on inside pages if at all.


If you survey the front pages of most newspapers, you find that the pandemic has slipped off the radar of the media. This, at a time, when Dr V. K. Paul of the Niti Aayog has stated, "Our Covid-19 numbers are rising -- we haven't stablised yet. The pandemic is still on... a large population is still vulnerable."


Apart from absolute numbers, which must be viewed against the size of our population, what is worrying is the rate of the spread.  It is far higher than that of any other country.  In India, it took five months for Covid-19 positive cases to grow from 0 to 10 lakhs; 21 days to increase from 10-20 lakhs; 16 days to grow from 20-30 lakhs and only 13 days to exceed 40 lakhs. On any measure, this is a story that ought to have remained a prominent part of news.


What is also significant is that the growth is now seen not in the big metros but in the smaller towns. While big cities have reasonable health infrastructure, it is meagre in smaller towns.  One can well imagine the havoc the pandemic must be causing there. Yet, our metro-centered media is simply not reaching out to report.  Why has it taken its eye off the ball?


The consequences of pushing the pandemic story to the back are many.  For one, we do not fully know how people in these smaller towns are coping with the spread of the virus. Who will record their stories?


Second, the absence of a constant focus on the pandemic allows the authorities to pretend that things are under control when they are not.  In the early months of the pandemic, the media did stories that illustrated the shortcomings in the health care infrastructure.  This helped put pressure on governments and municipal authorities to invest in additional infrastructure such as isolation centres.  Despite this, reports about people not reaching medical centres in time appear from time to time suggesting that the last line connectivity, such as having adequate ambulances, is still a problem even in bigger cities. 


The questions about the death rate, whether the data is truly reflective of the reality, and also about the increase in testing still remain.  The Ken, which does in-depth stories on issues, carried this useful piece on testing, basically pointing out that the majority of tests being carried out are the antigen tests that really do not capture the extent of the spread of the infection.


And finally, by reducing the focus on the pandemic, the media has possibly contributed to the sense of complacency in the public. We are already witnessing this in cities like Mumbai where with the gradual opening up, many people believe that the crisis is now behind us. Overcrowding in markets and people walking around without masks are now every day occurrences. All those messages about prevention being the only real cure in the absence of a vaccine, and that physical distancing and face covering were essential appear to have been forgotten.


Apart from the pandemic, we now have the facts on the economy.  With GDP shrinking and growing unemployment -- a loss of 21 million salaried jobs according to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) -- this is another big story waiting to be investigated and reported.  Yet where are these stories?  The New York Times sent a reporter to Surat and gave graphic details of what happens to people when the GDP shrinks.


None of this appears to have any relevance for the majority of TV news channels. They continue to focus obsessively on just one story, that of the death of Sushant Singh Rajput in June and the subsequent investigations around it. 


The way his former girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty has been hounded is now legend.  Here the Indian media has certainly built a "global reputation"; I doubt if there is any other media in a democratic country that can match this performance.


While people can choose not to watch television news, or at least the channels that are doing this kind of coverage, the impact of this trend in TV news has wider repercussions.  It is also the culmination of a process that began with print several decades back but has now found its true home in TV news.


And it is this process, of tabloidisation, of converting news into a commodity, of making media houses profit centres with no other concern than the bottom line, that is worrying.


Mainstream media is today interested primarily in catering to its "market"; the idea that it is the fourth estate, that it is there to speak truth to power has receded into some distant past.  Not all have succumbed to this entirely; as always there are honorable exceptions.  But the most popular channels, or the most read newspapers by and large defer to profit over relevant content.


The trend began in the 1990s, led by Times of India but swiftly followed by several others. Apart from calling the newspaper a "brand", a term that was necessarily foreign to many old-school journalists who still worked there, over time what counted as "news" was judged by its marketability.


Not just that, but sections were created that would enhance the sale of the newspaper. These had paid content about celebrities but displayed in a way that readers presumed they were being reported, as was other news.  Separate companies were set up to deal with these sections. 


Once you erase the line between journalism, and paid content, there is only one way you can go, and that is down. Or rather up, if you are interested in profits. 


As I see it, what began then is now manifesting in the crazy chase for ratings at any cost by television channels, started once again by a channel that belongs to the same group as Times of India, but which has now become the template for success imitated by all and finessed by the daily performances on Republic TV.


In fact, this recent editorial in Times of India is truly disingenuous in that it deplores "hysteric TV anchors" when the channel belonging to this group pioneered hysterical anchoring.


When journalism becomes entertainment and performance, you have truly entered a dystopian world.


Perhaps print media, and digital, can still bring back some sanity.  But with shrinking revenues, and the lead given by TV news, it is possible that news sense will be decided by the noise on the channels and not the reality on the ground.


Is there a way out?


I believe there is. Often the search for an alternative is felt more strongly when you reach an extreme, as the media surely has today. After the Emergency of 1975-77 for instance, the media was compelled to appreciate what freedom of the press really meant. The decade after that was probably one of the best so far as the Indian media is concerned in the quality of reporting and the range of reporting.  It was, of course, before the age of 24/7 private news channels.


This is an issue that should elicit much greater discussion not just amongst journalists, those that still believe that the media has a role to play as the fourth estate in a democracy, but also readers and viewers who look to the media not for entertainment, but for credible news and information.






Monday, September 14, 2020

Making sure that consent is informed

My column in Mathrubhumi, published on September 13



Every day we wake up and hope that there will be some end in sight to this global pandemic that has killed thousands in India and around the world in a few months, and infected many more.  But that hope lies shattered as we continue to hear about more infections, and more deaths.  Even in states, and regions within states, where there was some success in dealing with the pandemic, Covid-19 has reappeared.


On top this, we have the recent news that the Phase 3 trials for one of the most promising vaccine candidates, the one being developed by AstraZeneca, has been put on hold temporarily.  Although politicians who want the vaccine to be delivered quickly, so that they can claim credit for it, are disappointed, people should in fact be glad that the problem has been detected. And trust that science will fix it.  As the Chief Scientist of the World Health Organisation, Soumya Swaminathan has said, "I think this is good. Perhaps a wake-up call or lesson for everyone to recognise that there are ups and down in research, and that we have to be prepared for those."


Coincidentally, the participant in the trial who developed adverse symptoms is a woman. This reminded me of the importance of "informed consent" before anyone participates in these trials.


The Covid-19 vaccine trials are high profile.  The whole world is watching, and waiting.  Here no one can afford to take shortcuts.


Unfortunately, this is not true of other such drug trials that have been conducted in the past.  And especially when it comes to the issue of "informed consent". 


There are examples that come to mind from not so long ago when women took part in clinical trials for vaccines without really knowing what this was all about.

For example, in 2009, a clinical trial to test the efficacy of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine on young girls was conducted in Khammam district, Andhra Pradesh.


This vaccine held out the promise of preventing cervical cancer, something that afflicts and kills millions of women worldwide. So it was an important health intervention and its success would help women everywhere.


The problem was the choice of girls on whom this trial was conducted.  They were tribal girls, living in hostels away from their families. Neither they, nor their parents, understood what the trial was about. Yet, 14,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 were given three doses of the vaccine.


Things began to go wrong when four of the girls developed health problems after being given the vaccine and died.  It was not clear whether their death could be linked directly to the vaccine.  But what was clear was that these girls were not in the best of health and that they did not understand the possible complications of being injected with a live virus. The literature about the vaccine was in English, which neither they, nor their parents could read. In fact, even the health providers administering the vaccine could not read English.


Finally, due to the intervention of a women's group, the trials were suspended.  But they brought home forcefully the importance of respecting individuals, regardless of their social or economic status, if you put them through a human trial for a new vaccine.  One hopes that the fight to stop this trial is a lesson learned and that such a thing will not be repeated.


What we need to take home from such incidents is that the disempowered, including poor women and girls, often become the easiest choice for experimentation because they do not have the ability to object.

Feasting and hunger

 My column in Mathrubhumi, published on August 30



The season for feasting and festivities is upon us.  But this year, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it will be subdued.  This provides us with an opportunity to think about those who are literally going hungry every night because of the pandemic.


In some ways, there is nothing new in this. There are millions of poor people in India who can barely afford one decent meal. But recent studies are painting an alarming picture of the extent to which hunger is spreading since the pandemic, and how women and children in particular are being affected.


According to a recent report by Oxfam, an estimated 100 million people in India are facing what it calls "food distress".  In other words, these millions are literally without anything to eat. The situation is especially acute for women, and women-headed households.


These statistics are particularly distressing because since 2012, India had begun to make some progress in dealing with malnutrition, especially amongst children, and hunger.  Many programmes were launched and at least in the better-administered states, the results were visible amongst children and women.


The largest number of malnourished children in the world live in India and on the Global Hunger Index 2019, India's rank was 102 out of 117 countries. This is truly shameful, given how often our leaders keep talking about making this country into a global economic giant.  But in truth, while some Indians are being recognised around the world for the riches they have accumulated, millions of Indians, especially the most vulnerable, continue to remain hungry.


Apart from children, this hunger crisis has also hit women in ways that we need to recognise.


Recent data released by the government reveals that women's share in MNREGA by way of total number of person-days has declined. It is currently at an eight year low.  Women constitute 49 per cent of MNREGA workers.  Yet today, they are getting less work, and therefore earning less than they used to just four years ago.  These figures are an average for India.  In a state like Kerala, for instance, women's share is 91 per cent, the highest in the country.


This decline in women's share in work is partly explained by the return of male migrant workers to their villages.  With no other work available, many of them have enrolled in MNREGA. As a result, women would have been displaced.


But the consequences of this are far greater than just the wages that these women have lost.  When a woman works, and can bring in income to her family, she enjoys better status.  She is recognised as contributing to the welfare of the family, although sadly, the unpaid work that all women do to take care of members of their families is never counted. 


When she loses even these small amounts that she is able to earn, she becomes far more vulnerable, especially if she lives in an abusive relationship.  Apart from being trapped by tradition, that expects women to suffer and accept anything that comes their way in the marital home, including violence, she is unable to assert her rights as she has lost any semblance of economic independence.


When women lose paid work, there is also a direct impact on children.  Countless studies have established that women in paid work use their income to feed their families, especially their children.  In fact, women neglect their own health and nutrition in the belief that the children, and their husbands, must be looked after first.


The country today faces its most serious health challenge with the Covid-19 pandemic. But apart from health, we must not forget the long-term consequences of this crisis that include pushing millions more into poverty. 






Tuesday, September 08, 2020

How Big Media invisibilises the sufferings of India’s poor and marginalised

Broken News

Published in on August 27, 2020



Suddenly, beginning this week, there was so much excitement over politics that one could almost forget that India had crossed the 3 million mark in Covid-19 infections.


The Congress Party, dismissed by many as moribund, appeared to have stirred itself when 23 of its senior leaders suggested a serious re-think about its functioning. Mainstream political parties in Jammu and Kashmir, whose leaders have been detained and some like the former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti remain so, were able to get around severe restrictions and issue the first political statement on their state since it was locked down and splintered on August 5, 2019.


And, of course, in the midst of this, we were also treated to visuals of the prime minister feeding peacocks after his morning exercise routine. Evidently the turmoil and troubles facing ordinary people in this country do not penetrate the salubrious surroundings within which the man who leads this country resides.


But all this political and persona-building activity aside, the news cycle was barely dented by the ugly reality of India that pushed through every now and then with a story here, or a news item there.


As someone who has been a part of the media for five decades, and looks at mainstream media critically, I am always interested in the stories that are told only in passing, or not reported at all. I believe this is what illustrates best the preoccupations and compulsions that drive mainstream media and those who fund it and not just the news that dominates. 


On the night of August 7, a Boeing 737 operated by Air India Express crash-landed at Kozhikode airport in Kerala, killing 18 people including the pilot and co-pilot.  This was big news and dominated the news cycle for days.  Follow up stories on the survivors, on how local people helped, on theories about why it crashed, about the pilot, Deepak Sathe who had previously been with the Indian Air Force and other stories appeared in most newspapers.  This was to be expected.


On the previous night, August 6, over 250 km south of Kozhikode, in the verdant hills around Munnar in Kerala, a huge landslide occurred.  It buried a settlement of tea garden workers. Munnar is known for its tea estates that earn millions of rupees in profits from domestic and international sales.


The disaster occurred on a night of heavy rain over Pettimuddi, where workers, employed by the Kannan Deven Hill Plantation lived.


Eighteen people died in the Kozhikode crash.  Over 70 people were buried in the Pettimudi landslide.  The media told us stories and the names of the 18 who died in the air crash.  But it took many days before we even knew who were these men, women and children who lost their lives in Pettimudi.


While Kozhikode airport was accessible by virtue of its location, Pettimudi even in the best of times was remote. According to some reports, the nearest BSNL optical fibre link, providing Internet access, ends 30 km from the site of the disaster.  Although recently some mobile towers were erected to provide connectivity to the workers who lived there, most of the time there was no electricity and therefore no network.


None of this is surprising.  Yet what is heart-wrenching is that the dead in Pettimudi remained faceless and nameless for days.


The stories emerged much later, on a couple of digital news platforms like this story in HuffPost India, and this in the Lede. They inform us that these plantation workers are landless Dalits from one district in Tamil Nadu and that the conditions in which they lived had remained unchanged for decades. Till today, more than 16,000 plantation workers in Kerala live in rows of single rooms called "layam". Anyone who has visited such plantations, not just in Kerala but also across India, would tell you about the huge disparity in the living conditions of the workers and the managers.  The British ran these estates during colonial times.  Today, 73 years later, it is as if nothing has changed.


I give this as one example of how the reality of death, and life, in India is increasingly being tilted by media coverage to obscure one reality while giving precedence to another. What better illustration than the ongoing obsession in the media, and the shockingly misogynistic coverage of the death of an actor, Sushant Singh Rajput. The Pettimuddi disaster reminds us yet again that poor people in India are dying unnoticed, and sometimes even uncounted, while the gaze of "the nation" and its media rests elsewhere.


In fact on August 15, when the prime minister declared from the Red Fort that within 1000 days, all villages in the country would be connected by fibre optic cable, this heart-breaking story appeared in Indian Express.  It is a report from the village in Chhattisgarh from which 12-year-old Jamlo Madkami had gone to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh to work on a farm growing chillies.  After the lockdown, and after waiting one month for wages that were never paid, she walked back a distance of 100 km with other women from the village only to die on the way from dehydration and malnutrition.


Her village has no electricity, no school and is 45 km from the nearest hospital. Once in every two months a mini truck negotiates the dirt road to bring items for sale like soap.  Under these circumstances, what meaning does a promise of Internet connectivity have for Jamlo's family or the survivors of the Pettimuddi landslide?


The other important story that ought to have been the subject of much more discussion is the ruling of the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court. It is relevant not just for the fact that it shows how the executive misuses laws for political purposes, but also how media in India plays a role in this.


In its judgment on August 21, in response to an appeal by 35 members of the Tablighi Jamaat, including 29 foreigners, who had been charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Epidemic Diseases Act, the Foreigners Act and the Disaster Management Act, the court minced no words about the role the media had played in the "big propaganda" against this sect.


It’s a sobering judgment that ought to result in some introspection by mainstream media.  Yet predictably, although the judgment was reported in the print media and on digital news portals, there was little by way of comment or analysis of this important ruling. 


At a time when the media has played more than just a passive role in fuelling Islamophobia in this country, the manner in which the entire episode of the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi in March and the subsequent charge that its members were responsible for the spread of Covid-19, remains an ugly reminder of the depths to which our media has fallen.


While some of the "propaganda", as the court terms it, was willfully promoted by pliant media houses, even those that consider themselves somewhat independent fell into the trap of furthering the narrative.  This happened by way of some of the graphics used, as well as the constant juxtaposing of the increase in Covid-19 cases and the travels of members of the Tablighi Jamaat.


The price for this was paid by lakhs of ordinary Muslims, men and women who were just going about living their lives under difficult circumstances but became targets of hate yet again. Who can forget the videos of Muslim vendors being chased away from middle class colonies for no other reason than their religious identity, not to speak of the lynchings that continue to occur with frightening frequency?


The judgment ought to be required reading for future journalists, for it illustrates how laws are twisted to meet political agendas, and then how the media furthers these agendas.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

So many Kamalas

Column for Mathrubhumi


(Translated in Malayalam)



Many Indians celebrated the nomination of Kamala Harris as the vice-presidential candidate for the Democratic Party for the November presidential election in the US. They did so because her mother was an Indian from Chennai, who went to the US for higher studies, stayed on, and married a Jamaican academic.  Kamala is the older of her two daughters.


But for every Kamala who makes it, either here or in America, there are literally millions of potential Kamalas whose dreams never come true. Not because they lack the intelligence, but because they were never given the opportunity. It was denied to them not because they, or their parents did something wrong, but because they were born into poverty, and remained there.  And a key component that could have helped them rise above poverty, a good education, was out of their reach.


The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed many more poor children behind in their desire to get an education as I mentioned in my last column. And often for no other reason than not having a gadget that will allow them to continue to learn.


You don't have to travel to a remote area of India to see this great "unlearning" taking place.  Take Mumbai, the richest city in India. Millions come to the city looking for work. They find it, even though they struggle to find a decent place to live. But by being in this large metropolis, they have a chance to provide their children with an education they might not have received in the villages from where they originally migrated to Mumbai.


The backbone of education for poor children are the schools run by the municipal corporation. They have many deficiencies, but they guarantee a minimum level of education to these poor children.


Today, because of the pandemic, all these schools are closed.  Children who go to expensive private schools continue with their classes online. For the children who go to municipal schools, there is simply no option but to sit out the entire term.


An organisation called Pratham, which has worked for years in the area of education, recently conducted a survey for the municipal corporation to assess how many children were affected.  Out of 2,46,626 children studying in municipal schools, 81,603 could not access online classes. This is a huge number for a city like Mumbai, virtually one out of every three.


Amongst these, 52 per cent were children of migrant workers who had left the city with their families because they had no work. It is unlikely that these children will be able to pursue education in their villages. The survey also revealed that 76 per cent of students did not access to smartphones.


Even in Dharavi, a place that is recognised worldwide and is often the focus of media attention, 60 per cent of the students at one school that was surveyed had no smart phones.  The common refrain of parents was that when they had no money for food, how could they afford a smart phone.


Fortunately, the municipal corporation has decided to set up learning centres so that these students can attend physical classes. But this might already be too little, too late.


For me, personally, Dharavi has a special resonance. One of the things that struck me in 1999, when I was researching for my book "Rediscovering Dharavi", was the large number of schools in what is called Asia's largest slum. There were Tamil, Marathi, Urdu, Hindi and English medium schools.  Every family I interviewed, whatever their religion or caste, was determined to get their children educated. They saw this as the only way forward. 


I wonder today how many potential Kamalas have lost their chance to move ahead in their lives.


In its coverage of Ayodhya bhoomi pujan, the Indian media hit a new level of sycophancy

Broken News


Has some of India's mainstream media, especially electronic media, sunk so deep into the swamp of sycophancy that it will never be able to pull itself out?


August 5, 2020 may well be remembered for many reasons not just for the bhoomi pujan for the Ram temple in Ayodhya by the elected head of a "secular" state, but also for the most vivid exhibition of hero worship with not even a hint of balance or independence by much of the country's mainstream media. As always, there were exceptions but their numbers diminish by the day.


Newslaundry has already commented on the breathless and over-the-top coverage given to the event in Ayodhya on August 5.


Print media, by virtue of its very format, tends to be a little more restrained, particularly the English language newspapers.  But read the newspapers in the Indian languages, especially in Hindi, and the story is very different. They are uniformly a sea of saffron on August 6, the day after the laying of the foundation stone by Modi. The favourite image is of the prime minister, dressed in a gold silk kurta and saffron lungi prostrating himself before the idol.


IJR (Indian Journalism Review), an often caustic and insightful blog by senior journalist Krishna Prasad, has compiled the front pages of several Indian language papers that illustrate this. The temple is not the story, it is the man dedicating the temple who is. And that is clearly how it was meant to be.


The question we have to ask is how, we in the Indian media, reached this point? How much does it have to do with the way politics has played out since 2014 and how much with our willing surrender to the agendas set by the ruling party at the Centre?


One could argue that the media has no option but to report on an event such as the foundation ceremony in Ayodhya because the prime minister was central to it. But it was not an official event. And it represented a troubled and violent history.  Should none of that have found a mention in the headline, something that most people read and remember?


For instance, The Telegraph, which often has arresting front-page headlines and graphics did not disappoint this time with this headline:


"The book that begins with We, the people, is




Raja and rishi are no longer separate in the Republic."


Others ranged from "Modi lays first brick for Ram Rajya" in Deccan Chronicle to "PM fulfills national aspiration" in Hitvada. The Times of India mentioned Modi equating the mandir campaign with the freedom movement and the Indian Express simply stated, "Modi marks the mandir".


Compare this to "Modi initiates temple at mosque site" in Financial Times or "Modi sets Hindu temple in stone at razed mosque site" in The Times, London. Several other international publications included mention of the mosque, referring to the Babri Masjid that was demolished by Hindutva foot soldiers on December 6, 1992.  By doing so, these headlines place the context of the event right at the top, rather than as an afterthought.


And that context, as well as this headline in The Washington Post,"In Modi's quest to transform India, a Hindu temple rises" is the real story of August 5. To be fair, in the reporting in several newspapers the history relating to the demolition of the Babri Masjid was included. But in these days of shrinking attention spans, it is the headline and the photographs that make an impression and not necessarily the text beneath.


The editorials, which signify the stand taken by different periodicals on this kind of event, are read even less.  But they are important nonetheless as they reflect some of the thinking during these times.  Historians in the future would read them to grasp how far the Indian media supported uncritically not just the construction of the temple on the ruins of the mosque but the heightened importance given to the process with the prime minister who represents all the people of India, not just the Hindu majority, choosing to lay its foundation stone.


Modi compared the movement to build the temple with the freedom movement. He spoke about a "new India" and spoke of freedom from "1200 years of slavery". Some questions were asked about this, but precious few. The iconography of an incumbent prime minister comparing a divisive and violent movement that led to it culmination on August 5 with the freedom movement is what will be remembered.


What is the shape of this new India that the prime minister promised? One of the most prescient articles on this appeared in Indian Express a day before the bhoomi pujan. Suhas Palshikar, the well-known political scientist analysed what he saw as the beginning of a new republic with the laying of the foundation stone in Ayodhya. 


He outlined the five pillars that will hold up this new republic. These are,

 according to Palshikar, transforming India into "a repository of repression"; the deligitimisation of "ideas of dissent and critique"; the "willingness of the judiciary to look the other way"; "the politics of avoidance displayed by most political parties"; and the foundation of this new republic "on a militant culture of majoritarianism".


How does all this apply to the media? What role has it played, and continues to play to build this "new India" of Modi's dreams or the new republic that Palshikar predicts?


A decade back, or even six years ago before 2014 and the ascendance of Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, would the media have been so pliant and unquestioning? Wouldn't more people have voiced their concern about this event being elevated to one of "national" significance despite its obvious sectarian nature? Would we not have reminded readers about the events of 1992 even as they observed the celebrations around this temple? Instead, as Mihir Sharma points out in this article in Bloomberg, "Now, Hindu nationalism’s capture of the soul of India is so complete that television anchors broke into devotional song and newspaper front pages looked more like religious calendars than broadsheets."


Does this mean that August 5 marks game, set and match to the victory of Hindu nationalism in all spheres, including the media?


It need not and it should not. The cornerstone of not falling into the trap of reinforcing this majoritarian narrative that assaults us each day, especially by way of the electronic media, is for the sections of the media that still hold that an independent media is essential to a democracy to inject the necessary context and scepticism into the manner in which events like the Ayodhya spectacle are reported. The editorial decision is reflected in the headline, the choice of photographs and the amount of space given to the event as well as the tone of the reporting and not just the editorial comment.


In conclusion, I should also point out that August 5 was also one year since the clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir with the reading down of Article 370.  People there, including the media, have struggled to keep their heads above water, cut-off as they are without internet and with so many in jail. A year later, it is shameful that the court and the government are still debating whether 4G internet connectivity should be restored. This deserved more than just a mention on August 5. Yet once again, barring the usual exceptions, mainstream media did what was expected of it by erasing from our consciousness the continuing sorrow and suffering of the people in that region.







Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Girls and the 'digital divide'

Column in Mathrubhumi

(Translated in Malayalam)


In an earlier column, I described a family that lives on the pavement near my house in Mumbai.  The young girl, who became a mother at the age of 16, has a phone and is constantly watching something on it, or speaking to someone.  But it is unlikely that she is accessing any form of learning through that phone.  She is amongst millions of girls in India who have barely stepped into a school.


One of the long-term impact of this pandemic, for which there appears to be no end in sight, will be on literacy, particularly that of girls.


In recent years, there have been many centrally-sponsored programmes focussing on educating girls.  States like Kerala or Himachal Pradesh have invested generously in literacy programmes leading to positive results.


Yet, unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic is going to be a serious setback to all these efforts.


The sad reality is that despite investment and targetted programmes, millions of girls never enter a classroom.  Studies have shown that 30 per cent of girls from poor households have never attended school.


Although at the primary level, school enrolment has steadily increased, and on paper at least it is over 90 per cent, any disruption, such as the pandemic, can result in dropouts.  For poor families, the midday meal scheme was a very big attraction.  But now, with the closure of schools, midday meals have stopped thereby further diminishing chances of girls learning anything.


According to some recent studies, an estimated 20 per cent of girls will not be back in school as and when the lockdown lifts. The reasons for this could be many but mostly because families are impoverished, and also displaced from the places where they lived and worked, and where their children could go to a school.


Now that the national lockdown has been extended until August 31, and schools are not going to open until later, there is another factor that will impact girls, especially those from deprived backgrounds.


The "digital divide", where a large population cannot access the Internet or benefit from the spread of connectivity through mobiles, is also a gender divide.  Children all over India are expected to continue learning through online classes. But for that you need access.  And many poor families do not have smart phones or access to Internet.


Recognising this, some states have made special efforts to reach the children of the underprivileged by sending out teachers with smartphones or internet-ready devices, which can be used to teach groups of children.  But such a policy is not being followed uniformly across India.


As a result, girls will be the first to suffer as given the gender divide, families will make an effort to ensure that boys access online classes and will not necessarily make the same effort for girls.  A study in the last two years of children in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana found that 80 per cent of the girls surveyed had never accessed the Internet and 62 per cent had never used a computer.


If that is the reality even in two southern states, one can just imagine the situation in the northern states that are behind in most social development indicators. So the longer the pandemic continues, and with it the closure of schools, the larger will be the number of girls in India who will be missing out on education.


In the long-term, female literacy, and the education of girls is central to bringing about a real change in our society.  We cannot even speak of equality between men and women if one out of every two girls between the ages of 5 and 9 is illiterate in India today.



Dear ‘national’ media, stories on Assam floods must go beyond the ‘mighty Brahmaputra’ or the rhino


Broken News

It was the one-horned rhino that finally woke us up to the devastation caused by floods in Assam.


What began in early June finally reached "national" status, in that the so-called "national" media woke up to it, when the Kaziranga National Park was submerged almost entirely and the couple of thousand one-horned rhino housed there had to scramble to find higher ground. Some of them did not make it. Over 100 wild animals, including at least nine rhinos have died so far.


Many humans have also died. More than a hundred. The floods have affected an estimated 56 lakh people across 21 districts. Their homes have been submerged or washed away and thousands have had to seek refuge in relief camps.  Cropland, covering an estimated 128,000 hectares, has been destroyed. By all measures, this is a catastrophe on an enormous scale, worthy of attention.


Why then does it take weeks before the Indian media turns its gaze towards it? While it is true that floods are an annual occurrence in Assam and Bihar, is that enough reason to pay so little attention to the human and ecological tragedy unfolding? After all, almost every year, parts of Mumbai go under water during the monsoon. This year, so did parts of New Delhi.  But they made it to the national news.


The unjustifiable neglect of reporting on the Assam floods illustrates the continuing debate over what constitutes "national" news.  The Assamese have held a long and festering grievance against successive central governments and what they call "mainland" media for ignoring their plight during the flood season. The floods are also inextricably entwined with the politics of the region.


Just by virtue of the scale of the current disaster, which is a combination of natural and ecological factors as well as developmental interventions over decades, the flooding in Assam is a big story. And the people who face the fury of the "mighty" Brahmaputra, an adjective automatically used to describe the river, deserve as much attention as the one-horned rhino.  Yet, almost like clockwork, every year when the rhino faces imminent danger of drowning, the stories begin appearing in the national, and even international media.  In Britain, the royals were putting out anxious statements about the plight of the animal.


While the damage caused by the floods is extensive, since the 1980s, people in Assam have felt that the flooding has worsened. Apart from the nature of the river, and the terrain through which it flows, the disaster has been compounded by human interventions and policies, such as deforestation in the catchment areas. Furthermore, the river brings down an enormous load of silt that accumulates, thereby raising the height of the riverbed in some sections.  This is a direct consequence of the policy of building embankments to prevent flooding.  These structures restrict the river, but when the river is in spate, it breaks through the embankments, or flows over them. As a result, the force of the water is far stronger and causes much more damage.


According to the "Floods, flood plains and environmental myths" published by the Centre for Science and Environment in 1991, an expert committee set up after the 1986 Assam floods had recommended that no more embankments should be built. Yet the policy continues, with successive governments spending crores on building and strengthening embankments in the mistaken belief that this will alleviate flooding.


What is evident is that the story of floods is not just about what happens when the river floods, but also previous policies that have contributed to the damage caused by this annual event.  This context is often missing from most of the reporting on floods in general, and the floods in Assam in particular.


It is reported as an event, not the culmination of several processes.  As a result, we fail to understand why the extent of devastation appears to get worse every year.


There are exceptions as always.  Here has done a service by assembling a reading list of previous and current articles on the Assam floods that place them in a context. This article by Mitul Baruah is particularly useful in understanding why embankments have contributed to the problem, rather than being a solution. The other articles also look at another popular perception that dams control flooding when often they exacerbate it.


There's also a reason why the wildlife in Kaziranga is having such a tough time in recent years. That is because national highway 37 runs right through it.  Even when there are no floods, scores of animals are crushed under speeding vehicles when they cross over from one part of the sanctuary to the other.  The highway was built despite strong campaigns by environmentalists against it.  The current state government is now apparently planning to build a 36 km long flyover costing Rs 2625 crore so that there is a corridor beneath for the animals to cross.  Could there be a clearer illustration of environmentally blind developmental policy?


It is important for the media to bring out this background and context to what are seen as "natural" disasters so that people are informed about how myopic and short-sighted policies also play a part.


Equally important is the question of what constitutes "national" news. This is relevant at all times, but especially now.  People living in remote areas, or even not so remote, feel strongly about how the "nation" appears to be centered on the metropolitan cities, and the Hindi belt. Even news from the south takes time to register in the rest of the country.


Today, the Covid-19 pandemic is playing out locally, but is also national and international. Yet, it is evident that without the detailed reports from the ground, people would not be able to relate to media reports about the pandemic, as my last column had emphasised.


In the post-Covid media scenario, with decreasing revenue streams that have already led to retrenchments of journalists in all forms of media, this question could take on greater significance.


For some time now, television news has defined "national" by its ability, or inability, to get a camera crew to do a story.  Financial constraints have already replaced news bulletins with studio-based discussions.


Print, and digital news platforms, still manage to cover much more of the country.  But they will also face limits because of the economics of running media houses. As a result, they too might be compelled to limit the extent of reporting.


Meanwhile, local media outlets are also financially strapped and could face closure in the years ahead. One wonders how long a paper like Mylapore Times, featured in this interesting article in Newslaundry, or others like it in the rest of the country, will be able to keep their heads above water.


The trend of local papers downsizing or closing altogether has been visible in the US for some time.  Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post, writes about this and the decline of one such paper where she began her career. She argues that local reporting actually strengthens democracy. It also provides a source for credible news. In its absence, rumours flourish. 


And of course these days, with social media, the problem has grown exponentially.


Sullivan quotes a PEN America study of 2019 that has a resonance for us in India. “As local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness, and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are: less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.” 


In the current situation in India, when there is no end in sight to the pandemic, when economic hardships have already hit the most vulnerable and are staring the majority of citizens in the face, when the severe cracks in our health infrastructure have become evident, and when the bankrupt nature of our politics is on full display every day, democracy will be further weakened if sources of credible and reliable news disappear because there is no finance to back them.



Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Indian press is still to give us the full Covid story. It can't be sidetracked by political dramas now

Broken News (July 16, 2020)

For a fleeting moment this week, it appeared that things were back to normal. Politics dominated the front pages of newspapers, knocking off both Covid-19 and the conflict with China. The Ashok Gehlot-Sachin Pilot imbroglio in Rajasthan and the mystifying responses from the “high command” of the Congress became the main talking points. 

For journalists covering politics, this must have come as something of a relief after months when there was barely any political news of the kind all Indians love: intrigue, speculation, accusations, counter-accusations. 

But as, when and how this particular political natak resolves itself, there are many other stories waiting to be told, of equal if not greater importance.

Four months into the lockdown, editors and media houses are constantly challenged to find new angles to a crisis that appears to have no finishing date. Just when you think a city or a state has done well to handle the pandemic, new cases appear, as in Bengaluru for example. Even Kerala, a model state in every way, has seen a resurgence of cases.

So, how do we report without getting trapped in a maze of numbers that in the end mean little to ordinary readers. For them, the enormity of this crisis lies in the loss of wages, in the inability to access healthcare in time, in the fear that pervades all aspects of life, in the impunity that the crisis has given those tasked with enforcing the rules such as the police, and in the desperation of not knowing what tomorrow will bring.

Often, it is the deep dive, the micro-level reporting that resonates with readers as it reflects their own dilemmas and crises. It reminds us of what this pandemic is doing to the lives of those who struggled to survive even at the best of times.

Here, one must commend the Indian Express for its decision to facilitate in-depth reporting from one district of Bihar, Bhagalpur, for a month. Its correspondent, Dipankar Ghose, has been filing stories that illustrate well the significance of this kind of on-the-ground reporting now, or at any time.

Ghose filed this story on July 6 from the Musahari tola of Badbilla village in Bhagalpur. The district has some of the worst social indicators, such as child stunting. The story from the Mahadalit section of the village, the most marginalised, spoke of the impact of the closure of schools and anganwadis on already malnourished children. The cooked mid-day meal was the only assured source of nutrition for these children. Now it had stopped. As a result, the children had no option but to join their families in begging and collecting waste.

The significance of the story is that it illustrates what is probably happening in scores of such villages across India. We read about schools and anganwadis being shut.  But the consequence is this, children who are forced to beg, or eat rice and salt with a spot of dal sometimes. The long-term consequences of this on children who are already chronically malnourished can well be imagined.

The Bihar government, surprisingly, noted the story and acted. Surprising because one would imagine that at a time when television dominates, a story in print, and that too in a paper that does not have the largest circulation, could be easily ignored by the authorities. More likely, the response was prompted by the fact that the state election is due later this year.

Whatever the reason, according to this story, on July 10 officials were sent to the village with dry rations for the children and a promise of an amount to be sent directly to the bank accounts of their parents. 

The story has clearly not ended here. Whether the grain provided – eight kg of rice for 80 days – will last that long when the whole family is hungry, and whether this will be a proper substitute for the cooked meals they had been receiving remains debatable. But when a story can prod the official machinery to act, it is reassuring for many journalists who sometimes feel they are shooting arrows into a void.

Another illustration of stories that make a mark is this one in Mid Day, a newspaper based in Mumbai that has done some excellent local reporting. It’s about a family that cremated a man they were given to believe was their father by a municipal hospital in Thane, only to find out three days later that their father was still alive and in ICU. The mix-up was brought to light by the family of the cremated man who were desperately looking for him in the hospital.

The follow-up to this heartbreaking story was an expose on the shockingly poor to non-existent record keeping by the hospital. In the end, the Thane Municipal Corporation had to crack down and sack four nurses and transfer the doctors who were in charge.

While this kind of micro-reporting is needed at all times, not only during times of crisis, there are also serious lacunae in the big picture of the pandemic that remain to be addressed. In fact, the Thane story gives us some inkling of this. If, at the hospital level, there is such a casual approach to keeping records, how can we know the real extent of the damage done by the pandemic?

Journalists who have focused on data have questioned the many discrepancies in the figures put out by various government agencies. In places like Mumbai, which has the highest incidence of Covid-19 of any city in India, the lack of accurate data is constantly highlighted by newspaper reports.

If there is such poor record keeping in hospitals as to result in the wrong body being handed over to a family, do we really have accurate data on Covid deaths? For that matter, what about those who do not make it to hospital and succumb to the virus? Do such deaths figure in the official data?

Furthermore, and this has been frequently pointed out, do we really know the true extent of the spread of the infection in the absence of wider testing? Despite the constant reiteration by people in authority that there is no "community transmission", do we really know who is affected most by the virus in terms of class, or location, for instance?

The latter, in particular, is important because the answer to that will reveal how our health systems work or do not work for certain sections. It will also establish more clearly the impact of poverty – more specifically, the poor quality of housing and sanitation – on the spread of the disease. We can guess that these are factors, but we do not have the data to back that conclusion yet in India.


In the United States, journalists from the New York Times sued the Centre for Disease Control for detailed data on coronavirus infection and mortality under the Freedom of Information Act. They got detailed data by county that factored in race and ethnicity. As a result, they were able to confirm what was until then just an impression. 

In an interactive article titled "The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus", they point out: "Black and Latino people have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus in a widespread manner that spans the country, throughout hundreds of counties in urban, suburban and rural areas, and across all age groups."


One of the reasons for this, the story points out, is poverty and overcrowding as well as lack of access to healthcare.

Given the imperfect nature of data available in India, it is unlikely that these kinds of classifications have been made. But if they were, even on a smaller scale in a city like Mumbai, for instance, we would probably see something of a pattern in both infection and mortality that links to urban poverty and the absence of basic services.

This is something the media needs to pursue because Covid-19 is exposing the fractures that already exist in our society.