Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Ideal and reality: media’s role in India

Reproducing here a thought-provoking article of Justice Markandey Katju, Judge of the Supreme Court of India

The media, along with art and literature, must help the people in their struggle against poverty, unemployment, and other social evils in contemporary India.
Having discussed, in a previous article, the role of art and literature in a country such as India as it stands today, we should consider the role of the media in such a context. What do we see on television these days? Some channels show film stars, pop music, disco and fashion parades (often with scantily clad young women), astrology or cricket. Is it not a cruel irony and an affront to our poor people that so much time and money are being spent on showing cricket, film stars, disco-dancing, and pop music? What have the Indian masses to do with cricket, film stars, fashion parades, disco and pop? The Indian media today are largely acting irresponsibly and not serving the people in their struggle against poverty, unemployment, and other social evils, as they ought to be doing.
Historically, the media were born as organs of the people against feudal oppression. In Europe, they played a major role in transforming a feudal society into a modern one. Everyone is aware of the role the print media played in preparing the people for, and during, the American and French Revolutions, as also in Britain. The only medium at that time was print, and writers such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Junius, and John Wilkes used it in the fight against feudalism and despotism. We know about the stir created by Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense during the American Revolution, and by Junius’ letters during the reign of the despotic George III in England.
The media became powerful tools in the hands of the people at that time. They could not express themselves through the established organs of power, which were in the hands of feudal and despotic rulers. Hence the people had to create organs that would serve them. In Europe and the U.S., the media represented the voice of the future, as against the feudal or despotic organs that wanted to preserve the status quo in society. In the 20th century, other types of media have emerged.
What should be the role of the media? This is a question of great importance to India today.

Big responsibility

To my mind, in underdeveloped countries such as India the media have a great responsibility to fight backward ideas such as casteism and communalism, and help the people in their struggle against poverty and other social evils. Since a large section of the people is backward and ignorant, it is all the more necessary that modern ideas be brought to them and their backwardness removed so that they become part of enlightened India. The media have a great responsibility in this.
Underdeveloped countries like India are passing through a transitional age, between a feudal society and a modern, industrial society. This is a painful and agonising period. A study of the history of England in the 17th and 18th centuries, and of France in the 18th and 19th centuries, shows that such transitional periods were full of turbulence, turmoil, revolutions, intellectual ferment, and so on. It was after going through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe.
India is now going through this fire. The barbaric “honour killings” in western Uttar Pradesh districts such as Meerut and Muzaffarnagar of young men and women from different castes who get married or wish to get married show how backward we still are, full of casteism and communalism.
Our national aim must be to get over this transitional period as quickly as possible, reducing the inevitable agony. Our aim must be to make India a modern, powerful, industrial state. Only then will we be able to provide for the welfare of our people and get respect in the world community.

Need for cultural struggle

Today the real world is cruel and harsh. It respects power, not poverty or weakness. When China and Japan were poor nations, western nations referred to their people derisively as ‘yellow’ races. Today nobody dares to call them that as they are strong industrial nations. Similarly, if we want our country to get respect in the comity of nations, we must make it highly industrialised and prosperous. For this purpose, our patriotic, modern-minded intelligentsia should wage a powerful cultural struggle, a struggle in the realm of ideas. This cultural struggle must be waged by combating feudal and backward ideas such as casteism and communalism, and replacing them with modern, scientific ideas among the masses. Art, literature, and the media all have an important role in this cultural struggle. But are they performing this role?
Today in India there is a total disconnect between the media and the mass reality. A speech delivered by P. Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu and Magsaysay award winner, on September 6, 2007 in Parliament House in the Speaker’s Lecture Series, had some revealing facts.
The mass reality in India, which has over 70 per cent of the people living in the rural areas, is that rural India is in the midst of the worst agrarian crisis in four decades. Millions of livelihoods in the rural areas have been damaged or destroyed in the last 15 years as a result of this crisis, because of the predatory commercialisation of the countryside and the reduction of all human values to the exchange value. As a result, lakhs of farmers have committed suicide and millions of people have migrated from the rural areas to cities and towns in search of jobs that are not there. They have moved towards a status that is neither ‘worker’ nor ‘farmer’: many of them end up as domestic labourers, even criminals.
We have been pushed towards corporate farming, a process by which farming is taken out of the hands of the farmers and put in the hands of corporates. This process is sought to be effected not through guns, tanks, bulldozers, and lathis. It is done by making farming unviable for the millions of small family farm-holders due to the high cost of inputs such as seed, fertilizer, and power, and uneconomical prices.
India ranked fourth in the list of dollar billionaires but 126th in human development terms. This means it is better to be a poor person in Bolivia (the poorest nation in South America) or Guatemala or Gabon rather than in India. Some 836 million people (of the total of between 1.10 billion to 1.20 billion) in India exist on less than Rs.20 a day. Life expectancy here is lower than in Bolivia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. According to the National Sample Survey, the average monthly per capita expenditure of the Indian farm household is Rs.503. Out of that amount, 55 per cent is spent on food, and 18 per cent on fuel, clothing and footwear — leaving precious little for education or health.

Hungry millions

A report of the Food and Agriculture Organisation shows that between the period from 1995-97 to 1999-2001, India added more newly hungry millions than the rest of the world taken together. The average rural family now consumes significantly less than what it was consuming earlier. Indebtedness has doubled over the past decade. Cultivation costs have increased exorbitantly and farming incomes have collapsed, leading to suicides by farmers.
While there were 512 accredited journalists covering the Lakme India Fashion Week, there were only six journalists to cover the suicides in Vidharbha. In that Fashion Week programme, the models were displaying cotton garments while the men and women who grew the cotton were killing themselves an hour away by flight from Nagpur, in the Vidharbha region. Nobody told that story except one or two journalists locally.
Is this a responsible way for the media to function? Can the media turn a Nelson’s eye to the harsh economic realities that over 75 per cent of our people face, and concentrate on some ‘Potempkin villages’ where all is glamour and show biz? Are not the Indian media behaving like Queen Marie Antoinette who, when told that the people did not have bread, said they could eat cake?
No doubt sometimes the media mentions farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra, the rise in the prices of essential commodities, and so on. But such coverage at the most constitutes 5 to 10 per cent of the total coverage. The bulk of it goes to cricket, film stars, pop music, fashion parades, astrology, and so on. Is this not really trying to divert the attention of the people from the real issues, which are basically economic, to non-issues?

Opium of the masses

Some TV channels show cricket day in and day out. In India, cricket is really the opium of the masses. The Roman emperors used to say: if you cannot give the people bread, give them circuses. This is precisely the approach of the Indian establishment. Keep the people involved in cricket so that they forget their economic and social plight. What is important is not the price rise or unemployment or poverty or lack of housing or medicines. What is important is whether India has beaten New Zealand (or better still, Pakistan) in a cricket match, or whether Tendulkar or Ganguly has scored a century. Is this not sheer escapism?
To my mind, the role of art, literature, and the media in our country today must be to help the people in their struggle against poverty, unemployment, and other social evils and to make India a modern, powerful, industrial state.
For this purpose, scientific thinking should be promoted, as science alone is the means to solve our country’s problems — not physics, chemistry, and biology alone but a whole scientific outlook, which must spread widely among the people. Our people must develop rational, logical and questioning minds, and abandon superstition and escapism. For this, the media can, and must, play a powerful role.
Many TV channels today show programmes on astrology frequently. Astrology is but superstition. Elementary common sense can tell us that the movement of the stars and planets can have no rational connection with our lives and cannot determine whether one will become a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer, or whether one will die at the age of 40, 50 or 60. Astrology is totally unscientific, but many TV channels propagate it, which is in my opinion is against the national interest.
The nation faces a socio-economic crisis. Artists, writers, and mediapersons must act responsibly and help the people solve their problems. This they can do by focussing on the real issues, which are basically economic, and not by trying to divert the attention of the people from the real issues to non-issues.

Source: The Hindu (http://www.hinduonnet.com/2008/08/19/stories/2008081955330900.htm)

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