A damning report in the Western media of a six-year old poverty-stricken boy from Jharkhand, Chotu Kumar suckling from a stray dog, has once again exposed India’s hollow growth story. The report which first appeared in Huffington Post and other websites (with graphic pictures in case you did not believe this dog-child story), is certain to cause ripples in India. This is surely not quite the way the Indian Prime Minister had imagined ‘animal spirits’ being unleashed in the country.
Ever since Pranab Mukherjee started his journey to Raisina Hill from the offices of the Finance Ministry, our good Prime Minister Manmohan Singh coveted this portfolio as well. Singh’s appeal for unleashing of the ‘animal spirits’ of the economy, triggered a salacious appetite in our country’s television media for the theory. But that it would take such an ironical turn with the Chotu-and-the-stray-dog story - now plastered over many websites and newspapers and TV channels - was quite unimaginable. Yet, why is it so unthinkable that a child belonging to a Below Poverty Level (BPL) family would be living in sub-starvation ?
Haven’t we known since 2000 that 33 per cent of our new born children are born underweight- one in three child births is below 2.5 kilograms ? Haven’t we known about the well documented cycle of poverty of malnourished mothers giving birth to malnourished children ? Haven’t we heard of poor mothers feeding their children mahua in Orissa because their milk has dried up ? Haven’t we heard the story of the poor eating rats to survive because the government would rather feed the grain stocked in granaries to rats rather than give it to the starving millions in this country?
The national shame of hunger and child malnourishment across the country has always provided a stark contrast to the narrative of India’s growth trajectory and its sensex.
According to an UNICEF report quoted in the dog-child story, 50 per cent of children are malnourished in Jharkhand. Of our 1.3 billion people, 846 million live on less than 20 rupees a day (around 30 cents at the present rupee dollar conversion of 57 rupees to a dollar) . Is it really so unthinkable then that hungry children will find some innovative way of looking for sustenance when they do not get it from the conventional sources ? Yet, what lessons will the Indian media learn from the story of Chotu Kumar?
As soon as the PM had taken over the Finance portfolio, the television channels in India went crazy. Reforms, your time has come! - they screamed over banners, slugs and shrill questions posed by seven- figure salaried anchors. This is the very window of opportunity the country was waiting for. The former finance minister in Narasimha Rao’s cabinet, who set the liberalisation ball in motion, now as prime minister and additional charge of Finance Minister , has once again got the reins of the finance ministry (so far being guarded zealously by Pranab Mukherjee) and was finally ready to unleash the much needed refoms in India.
Hadn’t Wikileaks reported some conversation of US officials saying that Pranab was the obstacle for reforms? Well, the obstacle was well on his journey to Raisina Hill and the Poster Boy of Indian Reforms was back in the saddle. The US must have watched the change with great pleasure. Now I do miss Julian Assange and his team giving us the conversations in the corridors of power in the US celebrating this as well. But let us return to the issue we are addressing here- the appetite in the Indian media for one-sided reforms.
There were unending chat shows in the business news channels and the mainstream news channels asking only one question- when will India embrace reforms- lock ,stock and barrel ? When will India tell the Western world that is ready to allow entry of foreign capital in India through FDI in retail, insurance, health care..just name it..a bed of roses?
Anchor after anchor on business and mainstream channels asked ministers and officials what the Indian government will do to convince Vodaphone that it will not have to pay its taxes with the penalty amounting to nearly 20,000 crores. Vodaphone is going through an inquiry even in the UK, and the manner in which British media report on that is honestly a stark contrast to ours.
Shireen Bhan of CNBC led the charge, pouting, and asking Montek Singh Ahluwalia – you met the Vodaphone top brass today..what did you assure them ? To Ahluwalia’s embarrassment- he had to take cover with- It is not my job to assure them of anything..there are others who are to decide this . Sometimes you think that even politicians are getting embarassed of India’s naked Corporate media!
It has been impossible to switch on Indian television channels this entire week as you got nothing but one-sided discussions one after another on “reforms” and “unleashing animal instincts”. I will not list the channel names, but suffice it to say that majority of them, if not all , were hooked to this ‘want-reforms-and-now-is-the-moment’ cacophany.
In stark contrast ,on CNN, International, the inimitable Richard Quest was reporting on the Barclays Bank scandal in the UK and the resignation of the CEO ,Bob Diamond . Quest made mincemeat of the banking sector and its frauds. “People like you and I will give these people sleepless nights now for what they have done to the ordinary people” the business anchor journalist thundered at his guest who was an author on a book on the banks in United Kingdom.
Richard Quest went on to describe the scandal in Shakespearean terms- something is rotten in the state of UK etc etc. His adjectives to describe the rot would make any politician, bureaucrat, banker run for cover and hide for the rest of their lives. Where, alas, I thought, are the Richard Quests on our TV channels ? How much more acutely we need journalists like Quest questioning the one sided reforms and opening up.
Frankly, I did not want to write this piece on corporate media because we have reported this stranglehold of India Inc on the Fourth Estate so many times before in articles, seminars. But I could not hold myself back after seeing the pictures of Chotu suckling at the canine.
One sided reportage has badly dented the image of the media- a dangerous trend in a country we indulgently like to call a “vibrant democracy”. Having just followed the Leveson inquiry in the UK closely and watched the big and powerful of Westminster dragged before the Judge and the fabulous QC, I could only rue the fact that we simply do not have a system that puts our politicians on the mat for the abysmal level of governance in our country.
Despite a vigilant media, a study just out on the state of democracy in Britain over the last decade says that the UK is in ‘long term terminal decline’. The report by Democratic Audit, obtained exclusively by the Guardian Newspaper last week , attributes this decline to the growing power of Corporations which results in politicians becoming less representative of their constituencies .This then has a cascading effect on the citizens who stop voting and get disengaged from their elected representatives.
However, it notes that there have also been many positive advances in the same decade with stronger select committees of MPs holding ministers and civil servants to account. They have also been proactive on issues like politicians’ expenses and party donors . But concerns were raised in the report over the very nature of representative democracy – how the system reflects the population it represents. Or in simple language- are the voters being heard? The answer is, no, in this report.
If the UK, the mother of all democracies ,with all its existing checks and balances and a largely vigilant and combative media, is in this state – then one shudders to think what will happen to Indian democracy.