Palagummi Sainath has been the stalwart correspondent of our times. In an era of “feel-good” journalism, the Hindu‘s rural affairs editor has an been unapologetic harbinger of drought, disease, despair and death from parts of Bharat that the Indian mass media can’t reach, won’t reach, and no longer wants to reach.
At the same time, Sainath has also been sharply critical of the mass media’s methods, priorities, skillsets and doublespeak—its disconnect from mass reality, its loss of compassion and outrage, its chase of the trivial and the frivolous that will fetch advertising lucre.
But, quod erat demonstrandum, few in the English hack-pack, have had the intellectual stamina (or editorial freedom) to attempt a counterpoint to Sainath’s blistering barbs. Is the agrarian crisis the only story the media must follow all the time? Is it so wrong to be interested in the stock markets? Is the media doing nothing right? Are reforms a bad thing merely because Sainath says so?
London-based journalist Salil Tripathi wrote a much-required piece for Mint, the business daily of the Hindustan Times last week, in which he raised precisely those questions. (Reproduced here with the author’s permission)
The foreign correspondent Edward Behr had titled one of his books Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? It pithily shows journalistic callousness, where reporters hardened by tragedy cannot respond in a humane way to a crisis. But it is one thing to be moved, quite another to be moved by the idea of being moved. And honest reporters try to avoid falling into that trap by reporting facts, letting them speak for themselves.
A journalist is supposed to be good at observing facts, reporting them accurately and objectively, and telling stories. A journalist is not a post-trauma counsellor, therapist, medical assistant, or someone who can compensate victims financially or represent them legally.
Accepting this circumscribed role requires humility: Journalists are neither qualified nor elected to play roles requiring different skills. And yet, in a scathing indictment, distinguished journalist P. Sainath has criticized his colleagues for their lack of outrage and compassion over India’s rural crisis, and for paying attention to frivolous stories, such as fashion shows.
In a recent address before the Editors’ Guild of India, the Magsaysay Award-winning journalist said the media is charmed by frivolity because of a fundamental disconnect between mass media and mass reality. The poor, he argued, are structurally shut out from the media. Corporate agendas dictate the media, and the institution has become more elitist than the other estates of democracy—the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.
To be sure, the Indian media is not infallible. But if newspapers fail to serve readers, the market will fix the problem, and more serious alternatives will emerge (as indeed they have).
By juxtaposing a fashion event with the Vidarbha farmers’ suicides, Sainath is pitting the so-called India against Bharat, or “shining” India versus “declining” India.
Far from solving any problem, it accentuates an unnecessary divide.
The tragedy of farmers’ deaths cannot be denied. But on a scale of outrage and compassion, is it the most important story of the day?
What about the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster, or the oustees of the dams on the Narmada river? Or the Sikh survivors of post-Indira Gandhi assassination massacres in 1984? Or the victims of the Gujarat pogrom, a group I feel compassion for, after the failure of Narendra Modi’s administration to protect civilians?
Who, if not the Indian media, kept those stories alive?
In any case, how sound was Sainath’s analysis of rural India and the solutions he offered? Was the narrative, in each case, one of debt-ridden farmers, driven by hunger and poverty, taking their lives? But then, in The Times of India, earlier in April, Mohammed Wajihuddin wrote of alleged murders passed off as suicides to get compensation from the state, making real the morbid fears of perverse incentives the government’s compensation package created. Economists had already pointed out potential moral hazard by loan waivers; few had predicted that the word “moral” would be in its original, and not economic, sense.
Sainath also lamented that eight million people have given up farming in the past decade, and many are looking for urban jobs “that are not there”. Really? As the informal sector of unorganized workers is far larger—and undocumented—on what basis can one conclude that there are no jobs for migrant labour in towns and cities? And what’s wrong with a few million farmers giving up farming?
Many economists have shown that Indian farm productivity is low because the land-holdings are too small, making efficient farming unviable. There are too many Indians trying to work as farmers and many would prefer to do something else. The land is not productive; agriculture’s share of India’s wealth is declining, and the sector is not growing rapidly. A transition to services or industry is a good thing.
Finally, Sainath returned to his perennial theme, rural hunger. He said that per capita availability of certain foodgrains had declined, implying that farmers committing suicide was a tragic consequence. He said, “The availability of foodgrain has fallen from 510g a day in 1991 to 422g in 2005—a fall of 88g 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?”
My outrage is over questionable statistics. As economist Surjit Bhalla showed in response to an earlier Sainath assertion, food consumption per capita has risen. As Indians have prospered, they are eating different types of food—not coarse cereals, but fish, meat, eggs and milk. In a 2007 study in the Economic and Political Weekly, Praduman Kumar, Mruthyunjaya and Madan M. Dey concluded that food consumption in India was moving towards higher-value commodities.
Maybe those reforms are working. Anyone here with an open mind and reads English?