Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The obsession with farmer suicides

The Press Council Chariman Justice Katju’s recent salvo has come over the front page coverage of actor Dev Anand’s recent demise. While Dev Anand’s demise may not have technically qualified for front page news, neither does farmer suicides (as was stressed upon by Justice Katju), particularly when there is little or no development in the issue. My piece on the Hoot stressed on this. It is reproduced below.

Farmer suicides and its poor coverage has become a favourite topic for the PCI chairman to reinforce the message of media’s insensitivity and warped priorities about news. Given the number of times Mr. Katju has mentioned this, either he has not understood why the media is unwilling/ unable to cover this issue or he knows something which the media does not. In either case, it is necessary we take a close look at the issue of farmer suicides.

A quick analysis of P. Sainath’s extensive coverage of farmer suicides in The Hindu reveals that debt is the key reason for these suicides. This debt is fuelled by three primary factors.

  1. Crop failure resulting in farmers borrowing from money lenders for their subsistence.
  2. Illness in the family resulting in loss of farm hands and consequently reduced productivity.
  3. Daughter’s wedding where dowry is an important component.

 At some level all these three factors need to be addressed by the government. Considering close to 70% of our economy is engaged in agriculture, it is the government’s job to make available alternate means of subsistence so that farmers are not driven to moneylenders. It is also the government’s job to provide access to quality healthcare for its citizens and ensure that any illness is curable and recovery is speedy. The government also needs to stress on women’s empowerment so that farmers are encouraged to educate their daughters and thus significantly reduce the burden of dowry.

What has the government done on all these aspects that the media can report about? Only two significant steps have been taken – providing farmers with seeds/ crops for free or at subsidized rates; and asking banks to waive farm loans. The impact of both these moves has been amply covered across business and general news media in the past.

Why then should the media cover farmer suicides repeatedly again when there is little development around the issue? How long should they harp on the same issues? Should we dedicate a portion of the newspaper or a segment of air time exclusively for farmer suicides and perhaps run the same stories because we have no new ones to discuss?

 While it is understood that media has a moral responsibility towards creating awareness about lesser known yet grave issues, it is largely a private enterprise and must be allowed to function as one, keeping in mind its readers and business prospects. To expect front page news to focus on a particular issue is just short of deciding what other news should go on the front page.

 If the PCI has serious intentions to sensitise the media about the key issues facing in the country, it should take the lead in working with the government to provide incentives to the media to publicise such causes as the farmer suicides. For starters the PCI needs to draw up a list of issues that can be considered serious enough for sustained reporting. To ensure that news organisations cover those issues some of the following incentives can be extended to them:

  1. Subsidy on newsprint – The so-called irresponsible (frivolous) section of the newspaper is often responsible for bringing in profits. Advertorials, news on companies and entertainment is what earns revenues from clients, not news on farmer suicides (unfortunately). Should organizations get a subsidy on newsprint, they would be happy to dedicate a page to farmer suicides and if possible hire dedicated correspondents in rural India.
  2. Tax waivers for news organizations that can show an annual coverage of a certain number of hours or inches of space towards critical issues. 
  3. Scholarships for journalists from those newspapers to pursue certificate courses and formal education on covering niche issues such as farmer suicides. Most correspondents of foreign media have undergone such courses before extensively covering key issues such as rural affairs, military and politics. 
  4. Travel grants for journalists to enable them to cover these critical issues. 
  5. Recognition for the media house based on the quality and quantity of reporting of grave issues.

 The current criticism against the media does not take into account one fact – the readers choice. Do urban Indians (or rural ones for that matter) want to read/ watch depressing news all the time? India’s former President APJ Abdul Kalam once recollected how an Israeli newspaper had decided to stop focusing on war [with Palestine] (considered the most critical issue in Israel’s existence then) and chose instead to cover success stories around agriculture, technology, medicine and livelihoods in general. The idea was to give hope to people that amidst all the conflict, there could be happiness. Today Israel is green and at the forefront of biotechnology and computing.

The Indian media is doing this in its own way by balancing soft, positive news and hard, depressing news. In that process, if it chooses to momentarily ignore the depressing news, should it be seen as being ignorant? Is it proven that constantly bombarding the news with negative , depressing pieces sees positive response from the government and changes the victims’ lives for the better?

Moral responsibility and moral obligation are two different things. The Indian media has a moral responsibility to its readers and not a moral obligation. Perhaps it is time the PCI chief realized this.

Friday, December 9, 2011

FDI in retail: Reportage and the Bill seem to be heading no where

Since the issue on allowing 51% FDI in retail was announced early this month, there has been a bipolar view of the issue with the media making no efforts to explore alternatives. In a bid to remain unbiased, the media seems to be reporting on the FDI issue without realising how the reportage is adding little value to the readers/ viewers.
My piece in The Hoot highlights this. It is reproduced below.
The Indian media seems to have made it a habit to promote cacophony and frenzy in emerging political situations with little attempt to independently analyse the scenario. The FDI in retail issue is no different. While one heard positive things about it last week, this week has begun on a negative note with parties doing an about turn and retail entities voicing “concerns” over the initiative. Amidst this yo-yo-ing, does the common man have scope to discover the real dangers (and potential benefits) of this executive decision? Not if the manner of reporting on this issue continues.

There are three fundamental gaps in the media’s coverage of the issue. For starters, there is no independent analysis of the various opinions shared by politicians, industry bodies and private parties. Almost every story is carefully crafted to include an opinion followed by three key reasons substantiating that opinion. The journalist fraternity seems to have been so busy collecting and appending these opinions that they did not have the time to question some of these points to elicit a reaction. If they did, those portions seem to have been too insignificant to include in the report. As a result most stories now read like school essays containing a “Pros” and “Cons” section followed by a conclusion which is so generic that it could have been avoided. Some of the smarter reports have stopped with just propagating one opinion.

Is FDI in retail a new topic? No. Is there dearth of international material on what have been the consequences of such a move in other countries? No. A google search on ‘FDI in retail China’ showed that there has been positive impact of opening up retail in China. There are several other documents such as this presentation that indicates how FDI in retail in India can be introduced in phases and how it will benefits all stakeholders. When there is such a wealth of information available, why are journalists sticking to cliché’s and not exploring possibilities?

Is FDI in retail a black and white issue? Do we have only two options – to accept it or reject it? Is there no third perspective that can suggest if this decision can be modified to suit the interests of all stakeholders? While political parties may foist their straight-jacketed views upon journalists, do journalists not get curious and seek a third alternative?

This is the second gap in reportage – The absence of a third view that seeks to consider all interests. If the government or any other entity has such a view, it has not been sought by the media. In a democracy there are multiple solutions to every issue as was evident by the Supreme Court’s decision on the Ayodhya case, which left just about everyone stumped. I am sure finding alternate solutions to FDI in retail (considering that this is hitherto untainted by religious color) would be simpler. Talking to some retailers on how they want to tackle these fears of monopoly could have generated good ideas. Some suggestions on how the decision can be amended can include – retailers tying up with Indian/ foreign infrastructure players to build the back end supply chain infrastructure; setting development benchmarks for the regions from where procurement happens (this will ensure that farmers are not cheated out of their produce); limiting retail outlets to those parts of cities and towns with relatively less development (so as to grow that region); retailers to hire and train locals; and incentives for retailers supporting green practices.

The third gap noticed in coverage was the absence of a Vox-Populi (people’s voice). Reports have hardly sought people’s opinions to develop an independent perspective on the issue. While I read about Anju from Jammu and how she is comfortable with the existing retail system, I did not read about how the current stand will impact (if at all) her retail experience. Her opinion on the issue is cursorily sought and tied to a common sentiment - “if something is working, why tear it apart?” What about talking to the urban Indian who has experienced malls and hypermarkets? Or those who have shopped abroad at Wal-Mart? That will perhaps bring out three perspectives – The urban Indians want FDI; those in towns perhaps don’t care; and villagers fear job and loss of income if FDI is passed. Each of these perspectives can be explored to holistically build the pros and cons of FDI in retail and suggest possible amendments to the current executive decision.

A classic example of sensitizing people to the woes (and benefits) of a situation is by following P. Sainath’s work on farmer suicides. Similar stories across the retail supply chain can sensitise people to the pros and cons of the FDI in retail.

India is known as a country of shopkeepers. An issue impacting their livelihoods needs more definitive coverage.