Sunday, August 23, 2009

Manipur, once more

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 23, 2009


Manipuri women staging a protest in Delhi (photo: Sandeep Saxena, courtesy The Hindu)

While the rest of India celebrated its 62nd year as an independent country, in its northeast corner there was little to celebrate. On July 23, “an ordinary day” in the Manipur capital, Imphal — if indeed there is such a thing as an “ordinary day” — Rabina Devi, a pregnant woman, was going to the market when she was shot dead as the police chased a young man. At the same time, a “suspected militant” was pushed into a pharmacy and shot. The police claimed he had shot at them. But the fake “encounter” killing was captured by a photographer (who is petrified of being discovered) and leaked to the magazine Tehelka. The 12 pictures are a damning indictment as they clearly show an unarmed Chongkham Sanjit being pushed into the pharmacy and then being brought out dead and loaded onto a truck. All this happened in a crowded market place in broad daylight (at 10.30 a.m.).

Anger on the streets

The Tehelka expose has led to an explosion of anger on the streets of Imphal. Women, men, young people are out on the streets, agitating, demanding justice and an end to the impunity granted security forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This demand is not new. It surfaces every now and then but refuses to die out. It requires only one incident for the anger to spill out on the streets. The State’s response to such agitations is also not new. Dusk to dawn curfew, tear gas used against agitators, a show of force. In turn, people respond by calling bandhs, defying curfew and courting arrest. And so the cycle of violence continues.

This time, the problem is not limited to the Imphal valley, inhabited by the majority Meitei. Even in the hills where the Tanghkul Nagas live there have been bandhs and protests over the killing of two “suspected militants” on August 12. Manipur, according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address at the recent meeting of Chief Ministers in New Delhi, accounts for a third of all violent incidents in India’s Northeast.

Amazing resilience

What always continues to amaze the outsider looking in to Manipur is the mobilisation of women and their fearlessness. Amateur videos on You Tube show scores of women on the streets, throwing down the gauntlet literally (they spread the cloth they wear as the upper garment as a sign of defiance as no one is supposed to trample on these) and facing a phalanx of police personnel armed with rifles and tear gas shells. The women from Imphal’s remarkable all-women market, the Ema Keithel, have been courting arrest in droves as their mark of protest. The women are calling this another “Nupila” (women’s war), reminiscent of the struggle against the British.

“We women cannot bear anymore as it has reached beyond a tolerable limit. That’s why we have come out unitedly to get ourselves killed or get arrested by the police”, Chaoba Devi, one of the women leading the agitation, told the press. Women talk about how curfew has disrupted education and the livelihood of thousands who depend on daily wages. A visit to Manipur earlier this year showed us the challenge of living under dusk to dawn curfew — and the burden women have to bear to ensure that their children are fed, that there is enough water, and that they can reach a healthcare facility if someone falls ill.

(To read the rest click on the link above)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Did the media catch the flu?

From The Hoot, August, 2009

The tempering words of a few individuals cannot possible negate this overall picture that comes through the visuals. KALPANA SHARMA asks if the media lost perspective in the way it covered the HINI Flu.

Posted Wednesday, Aug 12 16:48:10, 2009

Kalpana Sharma

Is the media responsible for the current swine flu panic in India or is the government’s response to blame? This question is being asked and will continue to be asked. While the government could be faulted on many counts, we have to consider the media’s responsibilities when there are health emergencies.

First of all, is this a health emergency? Union Health Secretary Naresh Dayal was heard on television within a day of the first death being reported appealing to the media to have a sense of perspective on the issue. He pointed out that in India, of every 1,000 live births, 55 children die. Yet, the media never considers this a health emergency worth their attention. But with swine flu, every news channel and newspaper has led with this story for days on end.

So has the media lost perspective? If you look at just the numbers affected and the fatalities, you would conclude that it has. More people die each day from malaria, infection, diarrhoea and other gastro-intestinal infections, and tuberculosis than have died of swine flu since the first incidents were reported. Therefore why the overdrive by the media?

One obvious reason is that when a disease hits the metros or the middle classes, it becomes a subject worth pursuing but when it affects people in remote areas, no news organisation is willing to invest in sending people to cover it. Every year, hundreds of people die of kala azar, malaria and other infectious diseases in non-metro areas in India. Yet the coverage is only perfunctory. Only if the spread of infection threatens our cities does the media wake up and take note.

Typically, television news focused almost exclusively on the swine flu for days on end. On August 11, the Centre asked TV channels to show restraint in their coverage. Although NDTV was one channel that did run a programme reminding viewers about other diseases and deaths caused by them that are a daily occurrence in a country like India, the main news bulletins on all channels were filled with non-stop visuals of people in face masks, crowds lining up in front of hospitals and grief stricken families who have lost a loved one. The problem with this type of coverage is that it tends to make the problem larger than it is. The tempering words of a few individuals cannot possible negate this overall picture that comes through the visuals. And when one issue is covered to the exclusion of all else, then the general public is forced to believe that the problem is acute and out of control when it actually is not.

Print, because of the nature of the media, was a little more moderate although not across the board. Some newspapers did try and place the health crisis within the larger framework of health care and other diseases. Yet, as with television, the message that the front pages of newspapers conveyed cancelled any moderation that might have been there in the coverage on inside pages.

On August 11, for instance, three of Mumbai’s English language papers that I monitored led with a swine flu story and had banner headlines. The fourth carried it as the first lead but had another story on the top of the fold as the second.

The Times of India had a banner headline “Not ready for H1N1: City pvt hosps” and carried a photograph of doctors in white protective clothing at the Haffkine Institute where tests are conducted. At the same time, also on the front page was a story by Nirmala M. Nagaraj under the heading, “India’s public health spend amongst lowest” and stated that health spending was even less than in some sub-Saharan countries. The placing was significant as it used the swine flu to bring home the larger issue of health spending.

On an inside page, TOI carried a diagram explaining how and why H1N1 affects the young and healthy. At the bottom of the diagram it raised the question: Where is India headed? And answered it: “The last four-five months experience has led doctors to ask whether the endemic influenza strains of the country actually make us more immune. Incidentally, our mortality rates have been one of the lowest”.

The paper also had a five-column item on what other countries did to contain the spread of H1N1, including a graphic setting forth best practices. It gave a chart with the top 10 countries where deaths caused by the virus had been reported. The highest number was from the US. India did not feature anywhere on the list.

But do readers read this fine print? Probably not. Most of them will read headlines, look at visuals and get into panic mode.

DNA on the same day had a banner headline: “Govt expands war on H1N1” followed by a front-page edit with the headline “A 26/11 challenge for public health”. “War”? Comparisons to “26/11”, the short form for the terror attack on Mumbai last November? Are these really called for? The edit went on to state: “While the death toll is still small, there is little doubt that in a few weeks from now we will see a dramatic escalation. Nothing less than all-out war on H1N1 will suffice anymore.” The next day, August 12, it tried to substantiate this point by running a story, based on projected trends, under a banner headline: “Swine flu cases may hit 1 crore in December”. Are these kinds of projections and the hyperbole in the editorial justified in the current situation where in a country of over one billion people, there have been 11 deaths and less than a thousand cases of infection?

The Hindustan Times on August 11, interestingly enough, tried to bring in some kind of perspective even in its page one banner headline that read: “H1N1 kills 3 more, common flu could be killing 572 a day.” The story that followed explained how many people die of the common flu in a country like the United States and through extrapolation worked out the figure for India. One could quibble about the arithmetic but at least an attempt was made to place the issue in some kind of larger perspective. The paper also pointed out that in the US, there were 6,506 cases of infection from H1N1 and 436 deaths until August 6. Despite this schools were not closed. As we know, in India, dozens of schools have closed if even one student is found to have an infection.

On August 12, the Hindustan Times carried an editorial, “Don’t press the panic button” that acknowledged that media had “gone into overdrive and are reporting on the issue as though it were the Black Death itself.” Targeting the electronic media, the editorial went on to state, “Ill-informed interviews and the all-pervasive ‘breaking news’ logo have created a frightening scenario that has obscured the real facts about the virus and how to combat it.”

The Indian Express on August 11 led with a Pune datelined story and reported on how it had affected the city. As it is the place with the highest incidence of infection, the story would not have added to the panic. And it carried a second lead on a totally different subject. A full page was devoted inside to flu related stories but otherwise the paper carried news from all parts of India.

In some ways, even this partial survey of the print media underlines its importance at times like this. The newspapers that have attempted to place the issue in perspective would have helped calm the panic, that is if we assume people read at all, or read beyond the headlines.

Television news, on the other hand, contributed to the panic reaction that led hundreds of people to rush to hospitals to get tested even if they had the mildest symptoms. Even the best-equipped public health system cannot survive such a battering and India certainly does not have the best of such systems.

If the swine flu can teach the media something, it should be this: that there are areas like health that require constant and sustained attention and not just when a “pandemic” is declared. In many countries, newspapers and news channels have dedicated reporters who cover medical and public health issues. Over time, these individuals build up a background, contacts and a perspective that becomes particularly important at times like this. For instance, The Hindustan Times story mentioned above, is written by Sanchita Sharma who has been covering health for many years. But most Indian newspapers are not willing to assign a person specifically for this beat. As a result, when there is a crisis, no senior journalist on the staff is equipped to bring in a perspective and guide the coverage.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Power dressing

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 9, 2009


Power dressing

Meira Kumar: First woman Speaker

Does anyone care or comment on the colour of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s turban when he appears in public? Do the looks of a man or woman define their efficacy as leaders – of countries or businesses? The answers to both questions are fairly obvious and should not be a subject of debate. And yet, women in positions of power never seem to be able to escape public discussion about their looks and their appearance.

Recall the recent visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to India. For a week she was on the front pages of our newspapers and on every television channel. She had official meetings and unofficial ones. She met businessmen and politicians but also self-employed women and students. Most of the media coverage centered on these meetings. Yet Hillary Clinton could not escape the inevitable personal comments about her looks, what she wore, how she did her hair etc. One newspaper ran a feature asking local fashion designers to comment on Ms Clinton’s dress sense.

Occupational hazard

On her very first day in India, Hillary Clinton held a breakfast meeting with top industrialists in Mumbai. The headline? “Clinton makes fashion statement with red business suit.” And the news item about the meeting began as follows: “Her short blonde hair neatly pinned back perfectly complemented her attire with the ensemble being completed with smart cream and black pumps that seemed more than adequate for the long day ahead.” Are such comments necessary? When the foreign minister of any other country comes visiting, do we observe the clothes these gentlemen (and most often they are men) wear?

Personal comments are an occupational hazard most women in public life have to face. Hillary Clinton has survived the most vicious attacks on her looks, personality, way of speaking etc not just in the years when she was the First Lady and her husband Bill Clinton was the President of the United States but more recently when she tried to win the nomination to become the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party and lost to the present incumbent in the White House, Barrack Obama. She has probably developed a very thick skin after that kind of assault by the media.

In an entertaining book “Why women should rule the world”, Dee Dee Myers, who was Press Secretary in the Clinton White House, describes the constant focus on Hillary’s looks: “For more than a decade, her (Hillary’s) appearance has been the subject of an on-going and robust national conversation. She should wear pants. No, skirts. Her hair is too long. No, it is too short. Her gown is too conservative…”

Working their way

Media coverage in recent years continues on the same lines and the comments on the Internet, especially in the US, are full of personal invective against Hillary Clinton based on the superficial – usually how she looks or the way she says something. Only lately are some people acknowledging that she is actually doing a fairly good job as the Secretary of State

Ms Myers too faced this kind of attention in her first few weeks in office. “From the time I joined the Clinton campaign”, she writes, “virtually every story written about me included observations about my hair, my earrings, my makeup, my clothes, my coat.” When she became White House Press Secretary, a choice that was considered unusual at that time, the attention became even more pointed.

Women are supposed to laugh this off, take it on the chin and even be flattered by such attention. Yet, it is irritating and insulting. Women who make it to positions of prominence work their way up just as men do. Yet, when they get there, they are confronted by a barrage of speculation about how they made it followed by all-out attempts to trivialize their very presence in public life. If this happens once or twice, you can write it off as an aberration. But if it happens consistently, admittedly in some countries more than others, then you realise that it is a norm.

In India, partly due to our willingness to be utterly mindful of hierarchies, there is rarely an open comment about the looks or dress sense of the most powerful women in this country. No news item on Sonia Gandhi, for instance, makes a personal reference. Mayawati has been the butt of some jokes about her choice of clothes and handbags but the routine news item about the UP Chief Minister will not mention either. And even the top women in business escape this kind of personal attention. The reason is not that the media in India is particularly gender sensitive. It is because it is hierarchy conscious.

Effective voice

I suppose prominent women in this country should be grateful for such small mercies. When Meira Kumar was chosen Speaker of the 15th Lok Sabha, one wondered how the press would report on her performance. Thankfully there were no reports on what she wore on her first day as Speaker. But India’s first woman Speaker has surprised not just Members of Parliament from the treasury and opposition benches but also the media. A news item on August 3 in a national daily had the following headline: “House in order, thanks to Meira”. It described how effective Speaker Meira Kumar had been in controlling unruly Parliamentarians during the Budget session of the Lok Sabha. “Her small voice, almost languid demeanour and understated style have been deceptive”, writes the correspondent. Comparing her to the previous Speaker, the imposing Somnath Chatterjee, the correspondent writes, “Meira employs a tone of soft reasonableness and invariably get her way. In short, her softness and economy with words – which were initially viewed as handicaps – have actually turned into her strong points.” He goes on to ask why these attributes had not been recognised earlier either by MPs or by the media. “Would it be because of male bias?” he asks.

Good question. However, the attributes that this reporter describes, her “softness”, the tone of her voice or her “languid demeanour”, are not the ones that have worked for Ms Kumar. What has worked is her ability to negotiate, make peace, find the middle ground, persuade and calm tempers.

This does not come naturally to either men or women but I think women are better equipped because they have to use these skills more often in daily life. Hence, their ability to play the role of moderator – regardless of the pitch of their voices – or the clothes they wear.

(Click on the link above to read the original)