Tuesday, October 30, 2012

In defence of Siddhartha Mallya

I read an interesting piece in the Economic Times yesterday figuring out if Siddhartha Mallya was just a lucky inheritor or whether he really had what it took to run a business. The sole reason for this quest seems to be Mallya Jr.’s activity on social media. Many people including yours truly have shuddered reading his tweets about playing volleyball with bikini clad models on the sets of the Kingfisher Calendar shoot, when around 4,000 employees of Kingfisher Airlines haven’t got their salaries for the last seven months.

(Image courtesy: http://reviews.in.88db.com/)

What surprises me however, is that people who do not pay their domestic help on time and engage on social media pursuits for at least 3 hours in a working day have problems with Mallya Jr.’s behavior. (I know this is not entirely an accurate correlation. Mallya Jr. has little or nothing to do with the airline, except that it was launched on his birthday seven years ago.) Would it help if one did not know how he was spending his time? Would it help if he just became incommunicado like his father?
A decade ago, when social media use was not as compulsively used as it is now, many crooks just vamoosed over night. That included infamous chit fund owners, fly by night operators who made their money duping clients based on false stock market promises, politicians who had jumped camp, couples who had eloped etc. It was a while before they resurfaced in a new avatar and most people believed these folks had changed for the better. And that time spent incommunicado was actually time spent repenting their deeds. How terribly wrong these assumptions turned out to be.

What Mallya Jr. is doing is living his life – like he always has. Somehow it was ok watching him go from fat to fab, coochie-cooing with former girlfriend Deepika Padukone at the IPL, or seeing him make a mean cocktail on Simi Garewal’s show India’s Most Desirable – even as the airline wasn’t at the pink of its health then. He seems to seek no greater publicity now than what he sought then. He tweeted as much about his observations on life as he does now. Women, nightlife, entertainment, politics and London continue to be a part of his social media life. I’d say the man has at least remained consistent and transparent about his doings!

It has been made amply clear that Kingfisher Airlines is faced with bankruptcy, not the Mallyas’ personal fortune or for that matter any of their other businesses. Technically, the Mallyas do not have an obligation to pay anyone in their present condition. Morally, they might. But since when did we start caring about morality among the rich and powerful?

Update: Apparently, Siddhartha has stopped tweeting his observations on life. Does that now make him a better businessman?

Dislaimer: I have never had any professional or personal interactions with Kingfisher Airlines or the Mallya family. I do not own any stock in any of the companies floated by the Mallya family. I am as much of a spectator on this issue as most readers would be.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Should media do more of its own investigations?

My recent visit to google news revealed yet another scam, this time in my home state of Tamil Nadu - Granite scam. The issue made me think about what our society has evolved into. Research shows that over 80 scams came to light in the last two years - most of them revealed with the help of whistleblowers. I wrote a piece on how this impacts journalism and society at large. It was published by the The Hoot. I am reproducing it here for your convenience. I look forward to your comments.

(Image Courtesty: http://sushantskoltey.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/scams-scandals/)

In the last one year, India has seen several scams – Coal gate (over misallocation of coal blocks), NRHM land scam (Uttar Pradesh), Toilet scam (All India), Irrigation scam (Maharashtra), mining scam (Goa) and the most recent being the granite scam (Tamil Nadu). Popular media has broken these stories primarily based on whistleblower information and done a fair bit of reporting on developments around them. What the media has not done is help detect these scams in advance before they ballooned into several thousand crores, denting the economy. This reflects the state of investigative journalism in the country and the unwillingness of leading media houses to encourage such stories.

In the recent past only a handful of scams have truly been unearthed by the media – the 2G scam involving Nira Radia, some journalists and former Ministers Kanimozhi and A. Raja (broken by Open Magazine), ISRO – Devas scam (The Hindu), Defence Equipment procurement scam (The Week) and Adarsh Housing society scam (broken by Indian Express in 2003, with little follow up until 2010 though). This comprises only four of the 80 plus major scams that have been reported by the media since 2010. (The list referred to here is by no means exhaustive; it points to scam stories that most leading media houses carried). The rest were revealed by whistleblowers (whatever their reasons) and reported by the media. This is unlike the past where large corruption was often exposed by the media taking the lead. The Securities scam 1992 (unearthed by Sucheta Dalal, then with Times of India), the 2004 expose showing the involvement of key BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders in the Godhra riots, cash for votes scam 2008 and the bribery and corruption in the Ministry of Defense (both unearthed by Tehelha magazine) are some popular stories that were carried by all media outlets. Such caliber of journalism made the media reprise its role as watchdogs of society, and made the establishment wary.

Today, however, such journalism has been more or less relegated to niche publications, with popular media by and large relying on third parties to unearth scandals. This needs to change and leading media organizations should take their role of watchdogs seriously and encourage investigative journalism.

Investigative journalism has one objective – discovery of truth. While this should form the core of journalism itself, it seldom does. Most media organizations and reporters are happy merely reporting what they see as long as there are some facts and figures backing their reports. Few bother questioning these facts and figures at first glance or go beyond them to see if something is amiss. This is why Indian media in recent times has relied on whistleblower sources to detect most scams. Over time, such reporting has made even journalists complacent, where one is merely interested in getting the story aired/ published “first”, before the rest of the gang catches up. Not only does this produce shallow content where the journalist merely reproduces the whistleblower’s version of the story followed by versions of other sources, it takes focus away from the larger issue thus defeating the purpose of such an expose’.

Take the case of the irrigation scam. Times of India, cleverly claimed that they had unearthed the scam over a period of six months by showing various seemingly disjointed reports that they had published over the last six months. Two reports in April 2012 focused on the Balganga and Kondhane dam project costs being hiked by over 100 percent and 500 percent respectively. A subsequent report in June said that one of contracts had been terminated, but provided no other information. Four months later in August the newspaper published a story on why these costs were hiked. While this qualifies for an expose’ on the health of specific projects, by no means does the report indicate a wider scam in the making.

Further, when Times of India did break the irrigation scam story it quoted sources who not only said the state had spent Rs 70,000 crore in irrigation projects, but also shared various other information that the journalist should have ideally researched on. The facts quoted in the report were attributed to the Maharashtra Economy Survey Report and the Central Water Commission. Surprisingly, both these reports are released every year and copies of reports dating as far back as 2006-2007 are available on their respective websites. Why is it that the newspaper waited this long to expose the scam, considering the dam project costs were hiked frequently? Is it because a hike of say 20% cannot be considered important enough to report, vis’-a-vis’ a hike of say 150%? Why did the reporter not go beyond investigating three irrigation projects in Maharastra, when there was data available to indicate that the health of other projects could be no better?

Had the reporter on this beat noticed and questioned these issues earlier, the scam could have been nipped in the bud. It may not have got the required level of attention on front page but the lives of people affected could have been improved.

Perhaps this is the reason why the toilet scam received step brotherly treatment from media houses. News broke on April 18th,2012 when Telegraph broke the story of disparity in figures of the Union Rural Development Ministry and the Census pertaining to the number of latrines built. A gap of 3.5 crore latrines was indicated. Despite the first mover advantage, the newspaper stayed away from doing any follow up stories that could give a more definite shape to this scam. Times of India followed it up a week later putting a figure of Rs 2,900 crore as the value of the scam in Uttar Pradesh where most toilets had gone missing. Beyond that the report did not probe the reasons for such a scam, nor did it mention the contractors responsible for these latrines or why such data was over reported. The next story on August 16th, was generic in nature and reported that gram Panchayats would be held responsible for ensuring that requisite number of toilets were built in their respective jurisdictions. Where is the investigation in any of these reports? At best, all these stories are examples of clever statistic-play and numeric calculations.

The most recent granite scam in August this year, was revealed when former district collector of Madurai U. Sagayam’s letter to the Principal Secretary of the State Industries Department was leaked. The letter alleged a loss of around Rs 16,000 crore to the state exchequer due to illegal mining along with suggestions of how the scam was being perpetrated. Considering the amount of information already available on the case, most newspapers seem to have taken a stand of merely reporting developments. A report in the Frontline summed up the situation well. It says “The issue [of illegal mining] has for long been highlighted by environmentalists, social activists, functionaries of non-governmental organisations and leaders of Left parties. Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, while campaigning for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) during the Assembly elections last year, referred to the revenue loss suffered by the State owing to illegal granite quarrying.” The piece indicates that the government chose not to act on this issue until the letter found its way into the public domain. Why did newspapers too remain silent, if information on illegal mining was already available? Could their expose’ on the issue not spur the government into action much earlier?

A good case in point is The Week’s investigative report on the aftermath of the Rs 35,000 crore Goa mining scam (originally exposed by FirstPost). The report details how the region’s ecological balance has been disturbed due to mining, severely impacting agriculture and economy in those regions. It also provides information on the mining scam which was hitherto unreported, such as who was responsible for the mining activity, the modus operandi and tell tale signs that authorities chose to ignore. However, it is seldom that one sees leading media organizations carrying a blend of investigative and popular news stories.

Niche publications like Tehelka (which perhaps pioneered sting operations and revived the culture of investigative journalism in India), Open Magazine and FirstPost still manage to focus on investigative stories, no matter how small or large the scale of wrongdoing. Open recently exposed a smuggling and sex racket involving Uzbeki women and Indian customs officials where an estimated Rs 5 Crore was paid in bribe money to evade duty of around Rs 50 crore. FirstPost exposed the Goa mining scam.

Tehelka recently exposed the PDS food grain scam in UP (estimated to be worth Rs 2 Lakh crore) involving Food and Supplies Minister Raja Bhaiya. The Minister built a personal fortune of Rs 100 crore in four years stealing and diverting food grain meant for the poor, during his former term as Food Minister. It also published a shocking expose of the attitude of senior policemen in the NCR-Delhi region (which incidentally has reported the highest number of rape cases) towards rape. The piece showed apathy, prejudice and misogynist attitude towards women who filed rape cases, and indicated how they never believed rape could occur because “the woman is at fault” and “asked for it”. The Raman Singh expose highlighting corruption, nepotism and questionable business dealings in Chhattisgarh , was yet another investigation by Tehelka.

Magazines like the Outlook also come up with investigative stories occasionally. The publication unearthed the Rs 2500 crore rice scam in 2010 based on a RTI query pertaining to ban of Basmati rice, which in reality was not enforced. It exposed the NTRO’s dubious practice of tapping the phones of senior political leaders. It also published a brief report indicating land grabbing by past President Pratibha Patil’s son in Amravati. Although brief, it indicated the questionable manner under which land was being allocated to an educational society managed by then President’s son on the mere basis of a letter to the government with little or no scrutiny. Rare for a TV channel in recent times, CNN-IBN exposed the Odisha mining scam valued at Rs 3 lakh crore.

What is perhaps worrying is that many of these stories were not carried by other media publications and hence did not get the required visibility for readers or got the government to act. In an age of scams, social media and citizen journalism, it would greatly benefit society at large if TRP/ readership focused media organizations can develop the stomach for investigative journalism. If nothing, it would cure them of the one issue they have perennially faced - surviving the clutter of news.