Less than 2% of India’s population is invested in stocks and mutual funds.
Yet, India has at least half-a-dozen business newspapers in English. And just as many business news channels. Every newspaper in every language, in every part of the country, has a page—or half of page—dedicated to business news.
Or what they think is business news.
Not surprisingly, when the exodus of migrant labourers began from the big cities after the lockdown was announced on March 25, the news media was as surprised by their movement as those consuming its output.
Suddenly, everybody began scampering around looking for information, insight and analysis. Thankfully, the Tabhlighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi emerged—or was produced—to distract attention from the humanitarian crisis.
Left to fend for themselves by a government which gave them exactly four hours to reach home—before it shut down buses and trains and planes—millions criss-crossed the country on foot, on cycles, on boats.
Virtually, on a wing and a prayer.
It’s been called the greatest internal transmigration in India’s history, even bigger than the one during Partition. Many have died in accidents. Many were not so lucky, hunger killing them before apathy did.
As media houses continued to practise stenography, and hoped for the sake of the government that the situation would blow over, it took independent journalists to draw attention to the horrifying situation.
The only person in India’s vast media firmament unlikely to have been surprised by either the government or the media or the migrants is Palagummi Sainath.
Working on a fellowship provided by The Times of India in the 1990s, P. Sainath probed life in India’s poorest districts, and the stories he wrote became the landmark book Everybody loves a good drought, which has been reprinted 43 times.
As a longtime rural affairs editor of The Hindu, Sainath chronicled the deep distress in India’s countryside, the suicide of farmers in debt being but one slice of it.
In 2007, Sainath was awarded Asia’s most prestigious prize, the Magsaysay Award. The trustees recognized his “passionate commitment as a journalist to restore the rural poor to India’s consciousness”.
Sainath has since set up the People’s Archive of Rural India to fill the blanks in the media coverage of two-thirds of India’s population.
What is also does in the process is to record and document the everyday experiences of everyday people. Everyday people like migrant labourers some of whom have only just reached home after 70 days of hell.
In this 1-hour 42-minute episode of J-POD, Sainath thinks aloud on how India’s grand media tradition has reached this sorry pass, addresses the new labour laws, and answers questions from select invitees.
4.40: “A lot in the media has shocked me, but not surprised me. On March 26, the so-called mainstream or corporate media discovered migrant labourers. It’s not as if they came a month before or three months before. Inter-state migrations, the 2011 census says there were 54 million people which is a huge underestimate because it doesn’t take into record short-term migrations, circular migrations or footloose migrations.
6.00: “I used to measure migration in The Hindu by taking bus journeys. The number of buses, from Mehboobnagar to Mumbai, shot up from one bus a week to 45 buses a week. From Mananthavady to Kutta, from zero buses a week to 24 buses a week. Obviously something gigantic was going on, but we never asked the questions. Why are people leaving their villages? It is much more important than asking why they are going back.
6.50: “The Centre for Media Studies of Dr N. Bhaskara Rao derived data for me on questions I posed. Three years ago we learned the average national daily dedicates 0.67% of its front page to news of rural origin where 69% of the population lives. That 0.67% figure is a huge exaggeration. It a five-year average, with an election year in between. If you take out the election year, coverage is between 0.18 to 0.24%.
9.00: “When I joined journalism in 1980, every single newspaper had a labour correpondent. An agricultural correspondent actually covered farming. Today, the primary function of the agriculture correspondent is to cover the agriculture ministry, and if it is somebody like Sharad Pawar, you cover the agriculture minister. In the last 10 years, significantly, the agriculture correspondent is also covering agri-business. We don’t have a farming correspondent looking at things from the perspective of the farmer and the farm labourer.
10.20: “The news media has taken a decision by default that 75% of the population don’t make news, except at election time. When you do this, it shouldn’t surprise you that they haven’t a clue of migrant labourers. There are hundreds of journalists in those very media who are perfectly capable of covering it. And there are hundreds who will give an arm and a leg to be able to do that kind of journalism. But that’s not what the media structures want.
12.45: “Not less than a 1,000 journalists have lost their jobs since March 25. Hindustan Times has dispensed with 27% of its staff, the Ananda Vikatan group has let go of 175 journalists. At the very time the public need them the most, you are throwing out journalists. I can understand small publications, struggling groups have to make compromises. But we are talking of media houses whose profit lines would be the envy of the top 30 companies on the Sensex.
15.05: “Media and entertainment is one industry. See how much the news media focuses on entertainment. The M&E industry is worth two trillion rupees or $26 billion. A handful account for the greatest chunk. You are having this kind of money and your hearts are bleeding all over your columns on the poor people in distress, and you are throwing out people at 24 hours’ notice so that we don’t look like gorillas in the public eye.
16.45: “If you discount Hickey’s Gazette and such scandal sheets and tabloids, Indian journalism will complete 200 years in 2022, which I date to the founding of Raja Rammohan Roy’s Persian newspaper, Mirat-ul Akhbar. From day one he sees the role of a journalist as having a social function—widow remarriage, female infanticide, burning social issues. Our rich journalistic heritage include a Gandhi, an Ambedkar, and Bhagat Singh, who wrote in four languages and was learning a fifth when he was hanged at age 23.
20.00: “Much of pre-independent Indian media was an apology for the British empire, like The Times of India, which was British owned. In 1841, it had an editorial which said we Indians are truly blessed to be ruled by white European gentlemen but by British gentlemen; it could have been French.
“This was in contrast to the tradition of the Tilaks, Gandhis and Ambedkars, and what made it different was moral authority. They had an organic link with the illiterate masses. When Tilak was convicted of sedition and sentenced, it was not the Birlas or Godrejs who came to protest to defend his right to free expression. It was the mill workers of Bombay. 22 people died in police firing. They may not have been able to read Tilak but they knew he was saying what they were trying to say.
23.30: “India’s boisterous pre-independence journalism had a parallel in 18th century US journalism, both rooted in the common tradition of anti-colonialism. But in the US media, freedom meant the freedom of the white, adult, propertied male. The papers which spoke so eloquently of freedom referred to native Americans as vermin; blacks were inferior sub-race, not human beings. Thomas Jefferson who supposedly authored the declaration of independence had 137 slaves, who he did not free even in his will. India began in 1947 began with universal adult franchise. The nationalist press of Gandhi, Roy, Bhagat Singh and the Ambedkars had a much nobler vision and idea of what freedom was.
25.30: “Diversity started dying after independence because there was no uniting common colonial enemy. A process of concentration began. There were two Press Commissions, one in 1954 and another in 1977 which was dismantled and reconstituted in 1980. You will see from the debates how they saw the greatest threat to freedom of press coming from business house ownership of the media. As concentration grows today, you see the wisdom of those discussions. Today the biggest media owner in the country is also the richest Indian in the world.
27.40: “Many billionaires are what we call ‘rent-thick’ billionaires, who have captured public resources by striking a contract with the government of India for oil and gas blocks, mines, cleared forests, etc, which they then sublet to others. So they are actually living on a rent of public resources and that’s where their wealth comes from. The Economic & Political Weekly estimated that 43 of 94 billionaires were rent-thick billionaires. Why the heck are they going to confront a government in power when the source of their wealth is in having a crony equation with them?
29.30: “When we started out in journalism, there were still newspapers that was the only business the owner had. They were dedicated to the journalism business and what they earned they poured back into journalism. Now one major newspaper owner has 200 other interests. If I start listing the businesses, our time will be over before we reach the alphabet E.
30.30: “Everything is judged by revenue. We reduce journalism to a revenue stream. I will cover something only if there is money to be made in covering it. I will cover migrant labourers if the sky is falling on our heads or if I get money. Once I do that I am no longer a newspaper, I am industry, I have to make profit, give returns to shareholders.
“The corporatisation of media has advanced very very far in a period of rising fundamentalism. We are the only country in the world which has TV channels which cover the neighbouring country more than their own. Why is why I make the distinction between media and journalism.
33.13: “The media has come in for a very serious dose of reality therapy [while covering the migrant workers issue versus farmers suicides]. The same newspapers that have woken up are the ones which are shedding journalists like confetti. Even in the worst of newspapers and channels there are journalists, young and not-so-young, who have been dying to do some journalism that connects them with their society, with their people, and have not had the opportunity under the structures which do not keep any major beat on the social sector. Now I find those people energetically trying to cover what is going on, even if some of it does not get published. The migrant crisis is having a great impact on the minds of journalists, especially young journalists.
34.43: “At the height of the farm crisis, The Hindu coverage of Marathwada and Vidarbha was reproduced by local Marathi papers. A lot of journalists at The Times of India were deeply moved by what they were seeing on the suicides and farm crisis. They were not indifferent. They asked their management, asked their leadership, why they cannot cover this when a Chennai-based newspaper could. “Dying farmers of Vidharbha do not buy The Times of India, the elites of SoBo (south Bombay) do.” There was a written memo on it. I admire the statement for its honesty. It said we don’t give a damn. The goodness of journalists was there then too; people tried.
36.30: “Reality is not allowing you to look away now. COVID has presented us with a complete, total, thorough, unsparing autopsy of our development in the last 30 years. We could look away after demonetisation. Now the fire is at our door.
37.05: “How little history appears in the media. In 1896 and 1905, half the population of Bombay left after the bubonic plague. The population was 8.5 lakhs. Four lakh people fled it. Newspapers were existing at the time. You would think that somebody to pull out the bloody archives and tell us—and they have digitised their archives.
“The migrants were mostly mill workers from the Konkan area but also elsewhere from Maharashtra. People were subjected to exactly the same kind of treatment that poor people today are. Their dwellings were burnt down, they were sanitised with hideous chemicals. The mill owners were split when they had to reopen. One section wanted to import labour from North India; a more enlightened section want to wait for the Konkan labourers to return. Chawls were built by the Bombay Improvement Trust. The mill owners camp which was against pampering the workers was led by Tata; the owners who wanted better conditions was led by Nawrosjee Wadia.
42.15: “A whole generation of young people has grown up believing that there is no other journalism but what you get in the supplements of The Times; that there is no economics other than neo-liberalism. Switch back to the present and you find that in Europe there is a serious rethink of the economics of the market, and countries trying to move back to their welfare-state moorings. Spain and Ireland have completely nationalised all healthcare facilities for the duration of the crisis. We didn’t do that for more than a month till Maharashtra sought 80% of beds. We are going down the same path.
46.45: “What we understood as Hinduism 30-40 years ago, there have been major deviations or departures from that. India is in the grip of an alliance between socio-religious fundamentalists and the economic-market fundamentalists. There are boundaries which overlap between the two. The prime minister, the home minister, the late Arun Jaitley are proud Hindi fundamentalists, but are also huge worshippers at the temple of the market. This has influenced our thinking, our direction, our policies.
48.57: “The economic market fundamentalists are your clever clever boys from Wharton, Harvard and IIMs. They are making the mistake that many of them have made in other societies. They think it is good to go with these guys because we can push our agenda too. They think they are fully capable of riding the back of the tiger. Both these groups have made this a very different country.
49.55: “In the countryside, the base identity is caste. We should never run away from it. If you ask a farmer in Anantapur who he is, his first answer won’t be Telugu or Indian or Andhra. He’ll say: “I am a Reddy.” If I ask a Dalit in South Tamil Nadu he’ll say: “I am SC”. I believe we have been fooling ourselves, by looking away from this, not understanding what people have been trying to tell us. We should have paid a lot more attention to the upward surges and movements and protests of Dalits and poor OBCs.
52.15: “What we are looking at is the culmination of a process not of the last two years or last six years. When you compare farm suicides under UPA and under NDA, there is not much of a difference, but from 2014 we have completely destroyed whatever flawed data that existed.
52.50: “What has changed, and changed politics and affects journalism in every way, is even if we did not suffer much, but it mattered to us that others did. The word justice meant something to everybody, not just those denied it. The movements of the oppressed were led by people who were neither oppressed nor affected. Empathy and compassion is not the monopoly of one religious or socio-cultural group.
56.00: “The nature of capitalist development has atomised us. Lack of empathy comes from growing up in an atmosphere of selfishness of a consumer-led growth and consumerist-led development which makes you think in terms of me, my family, our betterment.
56.55: “I have been teaching journalism since 1984. I haven’t seen a single group of students that was not idealistic. That’s why they come into journalism, otherwise they would go to advertising, film-making or other money-making prospects. They want to connect with their society, they want to do great things, they want to set wrongs right. They go into newspapers and channels and that idealism is beaten out of their heads in three years.
58.00: “The worst affected during the famine of the Great Durbar of 1911 was Mysore. On the Mysore-Madras route 140,000 people died of hunger. In that atmosphere, this country could hold a durbar with 68,000 guests, mainly royalty. People were dying on the streets and people running to Mysore or Madras were clubbed to death by the police at the barricades.
“The newspapers of the time reported both: the magnificence of the durbar and the deaths, which is better than what some of us have done. But they did not connect the two, as if they were two separate processes. It has parallels with the Durbar for Donald Trump in Ahmedabad when people were in panic.
59.32: “I believe in the basic goodness of young people who have grown up wanting to do something, but each generation knows less and less of its history, which is why a large number of people follow a group calling themselves nationalists, who made zero contribution to the nationalist movement for independence, and whose contribution they don’t want anyone to looking too closely at. I cannot teach journalism without teaching history.
1.00.32: “Social media has exacerbated and extrapolated a disease that was already spreading, but it has given a scope it never had. The internet guarantees you a voice, at least so far, it doesn’t guarantee anyone will listen to you. When people romanticise and say digital media will come to the rescue of media, I say, boss, it is all owned by the same guys, the same companies. They are looking at it in terms of which platform is yielding them higher profits. Getting away with newspapers, getting rid of journalists, are not just naturally happening, they are consciously worked on decisions.
1.02.05: “Social media is one of the most misnamed phenomena in history. The bulk of the voices, the once that have lots of traction, are paid for. Coronavirus is an Islamist conspiracy and at the same time the Chinese are responsible for it. Social media is owned by the same groups, the same five or six companies which rule the media. It comes back to confronting capitalist power. The atomisation is in their interest.
1.03.15: “There are media groups in this country who have their own private universities. The next big race is going to be how to make money from online education. They are going to use this to do away with more and more teachers. It is going to damage the socialisation process of students. Millions of poor students will be affected without smartphones and computers. It’s the privatisation and commercialisation of just about everything.
1.07.55: “At PARI, we are on the verge of creating a free education platform, in collaboration with Swecha, the free software movement. We trying to create material for totally excluded students. We have created the only online library in the world dedicated to rural India.
1.12.15: “The ordinance of Uttar Pradesh and some other states was a proclamation of bonded labour by ordinance. Nowhere else in the world has someone suspended 38 labour laws. The extension of working hours in five states—three BJP ruled and two Congress—from 8 to 12 comes from morons with zero knowledge of history.
“You are going against every convention India is party too on labour, some of those conventions were pioneered by Indians like Ambedkar. You have reversed the gold standard of labour legislation of 100 years in destroying the 8-hour day. Three of those states—Gujarat, UP, MP—have denied overtime; it’s to be paid at pro rata basis.
1.14.10: “Why did the capitalist world accept the 8-hour day? The struggles of workers were intense, immense, which saw revolutions in some countries. The welfare-states that emerged in Europe were largely a result of working class struggles. In the United States, the capitalist groups accepted the 8-hour day because they did studies which showed that after 8 hours, productivity tapers off. So you will be paying more for less. Ford motor company was one of the first to accept the 8-hour day. They understood it is not going to make us more money.
1.15.36: “In Narendra Modi’s five speeches from mid-March to May 31, he does not mention the word labourer nor “migrant labourer” in the first four speeches when the whole world is watching the phenomenon. It took a couple of months to even acknowledge there was amigrant labourers
1.16.56: “If COVID gave us an autopsy of Indian society, it also gave us a brain scan of elite thinking, and a brain scan of media thinking. Nobody has made a big deal of the fact that on March 31, the Union home secretary and solicitor-general, the latter in Supreme Court, said there was not a single migrant on the streets. Twelve days later, they were saying 1.4 million people in camps, and 1.3 crore were going to food camps.
1.17.55: “We charge full fare for trains, people are borrowing, going into debt to buy tickets. The same people who told you there wasn’t a single migrant tell the SC that 9.1 million have been transported. Where is the accountability? Where is the media’s accountability? We don’t jump on this and point it out.
1.18.50: “We will never know how many millions of human beings hit the streets between March 26 and May 1. And we will ever know this.
1.21.25: “There is a prominent editor on his own online TV thing say ‘never waste a good crisis’. This is the time to ram through the labour reforms. What does it say about the Indian elite and their cruelty and absolute rapaciousness and ruthless toward the less privileged sections of society?
1.22.03: “It is very easy for the government to pressure the media. The media are very heavily locked into dependence on the government. Their structures, monies, profits, contracts come from on what they do with government. Also, let’s face it, a large section of media have gone the fundamentalist route. When the solicitor-general took off the media, i was wondering which media was he talking about? 95% of the media are with him.
1.25.55: “Precisely because of the political situation in India today, the Editors Guild of India should have been actively congratulating the Magsaysay Award and Pulitzer Prize winners this year.
1.27.26: Answering Aunindyo Chakraborti from Delhi: “Why did larger sections of rural poor in Tamil Nadu vote in one way and in Kerala in another way, in the north in yet another way. The rural poor are not all homogenous. The welfare schemes of the Modi government have been disastrous. On his first day, he mocked the rural employment guarantee scheme and then went on to claim the maximum allocation for MGNREGA had been made under his government.
1.29.32: Answering Sashi Kumar from Chennai: “Migrants are going back to livelihoods which we extinguished long back. When the 2008 downturn took place, over 100,000 Odiya migrant workers in Surat and Ahmedabad had to go back home. Property disputes, domestic abuse and violence, crime rates went up. They are going back to a places where we have destroyed the health system. The fastest growing component of rural family debt in the last 20 years is health expenditure. Bankruptcies are health driven. In 2016, 55 million went below poverty line pushed by health debt and expenditures. There will be pressure on land and farm wages. Right now they are living in fields in 45-46-47 degree temperatures.
1.34.24: Answering Swati Maheshwari from Hong Kong: “The meeting ground of socio-religious fundamentalists and economic market fundamentalists, the bed they cohabit, is corporate media, mainstream media.”
1.35.02: Answering Indrajit Gupta from Bombay: “The migrant trains have been racked by confusion and chaos. The government says there are no migrants and claims it has transported 9.1 million of them. Then they charge full fares and bring out Rajdhani class trains. Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa cancels the trains at the behest of builders in Bangalore, who are also the builders in Mumbai and elsewhere. It amounts to quelling an incipient slave revolt. There is a saying that when the poor get literate the rich lose their palanquin bearers. We didn’t want to let the remaining palanquin bearers. The Shramik trains are an element of the imbroglio reflected by labour “reforms”.
1.37.20: Answering Bharath Kumar from Chennai: “We are watching the fastest dismantling of parliamentary democracy in our history and the Emergency was nothing in comparison. It still had a Parliament and it still had a tiny minority of Opposition leaders who tried to hold the Emergency machinery to account. Now, there is no Parliament or e-Parliament or virtual Parliament. There are no functioning Assemblies. Chief ministers are at the mercy of the Centre, which is squeezing GST funds due to them and starts a privately registered PM Cares trust takes money away from the states.
1.40.50: Answering Satish Acharya from Kundapur: “The idea of “One nation, one market” came with GST and it was always based on a lie. What we are creating are slogans, not policies. Even in the largest capitalist economy in the world, the USA, you have three levels of taxes.
1.43.44: The situation in Palagummi—and the next big crisis. In the kharif season, grow food crop for your family’s safety, because a miserly government is destroying food to create hand sanitisers. Every marginal farmer and labourer should get NREGA wages till the crisis is over whether work is possible or not, in the interest of their health and survival.”