When the hungry go on hunger strike

BY Seema Kamdar| IN Media Practice | 15/06/2010
Why can't media houses keep up a relentless coverage on the unseen and ongoing disaster of hunger -- give voices and faces to the voiceless and faceless who live and die in our villages?
SEEMA KAMDAR makes a passionate plea for the media to break the glass wall that separates the two Indias.
I saw it just when I was having lunch. A brief report on an inside page of The Times of India of June 1, on a hunger strike by hundreds of farmers and widows of farmers at Pandharkawda in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra (also known as the suicide capital of the country). The farmers were trying to draw attention to  their desperate situation, which the "relief" doled out to them by the government had done little to alleviate. They had two demands -- an official probe into the reasons for the failure of the Rs 370 crore special relief package from the PMO (in which a CAG audit had found several irregularities), and fresh crop loans for the kharif season, with "sustainable crop alternatives" rather than the high-tech and high-risk crops promoted by American MNCs.

The item had all the ingredients required for a perfect news story -- new information, human interest, pathos, controversy. Yet, most newspapers gave the story a miss, or covered it so poorly that most readers missed it anyway. 

A few days later, a similar report, tailor-made for a banner headline, made a fleeting appearance in the media. On 5 June, World Environment Day, 213 people died of heat stroke in the course of ten days in Vidarbha. According to the report, these people were not just casualties of the ongoing heat wave -- the root cause of their deaths was the water scarcity in the region. According to the report, most rivers and reservoirs in Vidarbha are dry and the groundwater table is sinking fast. The little water that can be extracted from the ground is not fit to drink, but people drink it anyway -- they have no choice. 

Activist Kishore Tiwari says that dams in Vidarbha have water upto only three per cent of their capacity while those in neighbouring Marathwada have only four per cent of their capacity. Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has admitted that over 20,000 villages are facing water scarcity -- a conservative estimate in all likelihood.   This drought is not only a consequence of monsoon failure -- the report linked it to the destruction and plunder of the forests, skewed agricultural policies, inefficient cropping patterns, and the invasion of genetically modified crops. 

This is little short of a horror story -- one of a string of such horror stories from the villages of India which, for some reason, are blanked out by our byte-thirsty media.  The priorities are clear -- the city comes first while Mahatma Gandhi's precious villages, like the state in the Marxian scheme of things, can wither away unnoticed. 

There is an unsettling disconnect between the urban and rural Indias. While urban India doesn't care about the farmers of Vidarbha, the farmers in their turn have rarely contested the logic that awards almost the entire pie to their privileged urban cousins. 

The metaphor of two Indias -- one savvy and upwardly mobile, the other barely surviving and perpetually at the mercy of the rain -- is a familiar one. It is nothing short of a miracle that both these Indias can occupy the same space without crossing each other's paths. 

The Skoda that swishes through the countryside, the driver in shades and skinny jeans and glued to an i-pod, is within touching distance of another reality, but the connection can be made only if the window is open. The driver has control -- if he chooses not to roll down the window, there is little chance of the world outside ever intruding into his consciousness.

The unfeeling insulation from rural realities that characterises many city dwellers today can be broken if the media, which is supposed to be the ordinary person's window to the world, is willing to take the risk of covering rural news with honesty and sensitivity.

Every village has a story that needs to be told. Stories of the dying farmers of Vidarbha. Stories of villages without electricity, drinking water, schools, health care. Stories of the new generation, disillusioned with farming and hooking their aspirations to what they are fed on TV, turning to petty crime for want of other options. Stories of communities that are losing their faith in our supposedly democratic systems, and looking for other ways to get justice.

It's not so much the reporter as the publishers who must accept the larger share of the blame for this blocking out of rural realities in the mainstream media. Most publishers imagine that their readers would find rural stories dull and weepy, and would instantly connect with racy urban stories. Thus, readers are fed a Bollywood-enhanced diet with Sunday supplements full of stories on which Khan does what to whom, while rural news is hidden in a tiny corner of an inside page. 

Why can't media houses print the story of the farmers of Vidarbha on the front page with banner headlines, scream out their questions to the government, keep up a relentless coverage on the unseen and ongoing disaster of hunger, tell people the truth behind the bland government statistics, give voices and faces to the voiceless and faceless people who live and die in our villages? 

Isn't this what the Indian Express did during the Emergency? Why can't they -- and others -- do it now? 

Gen Next is tuned in, all we need to do is play them the right song.

   

Copy editor: Kalyani Menon-Sen

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