Friday, February 21, 2014

Media ‘activism’ in Dharmasthala rape and murder case

While the Delhi rape case in December 2012 and the Mumbai gang rape of a photo journalist in August this year ignited widespread reactions from civil society and a quick course of action from the government, the investigation of a similar and equally brutal rape and murder case that took place in Dharmasthala of Karnataka a year ago is unfortunately being sabotaged. Sowjanya, a class 12 student of Sri Dharmasthala Manjunatheshwara (SDM) College was raped and murdered in the world famous temple town of Dharmasthala, about 80 kilometres away from Mangalore, on October 9, 2012. Attempts have been made to hush up the case, as the culprits are alleged to be closely associated to the Shri Kshetra Dharmasthala management, which includes the religious head D. Veerendra Heggade’s nephew Nischal Jain. Unfortunately, the media in the region has woken up far too late, most of them out of pressure rather than pro-activism. But, better late than never! The case is now turning out to be a major embarrassment for the Dharmasthala temple management and the State government as well, what with a series of public protests and rallies taking place on a daily basis demanding thorough investigation.  

Sowjanya – the victim
Sowjanya went missing on the evening of October 9, 2012. Her body was found in a mutilated state on the following day morning. The post-mortem reports confirmed that she was gang-raped. Thereafter, the police arrested Santhosh Kumar who is said to be mentally unstable and found roaming in the area. It is alleged by the family members and many others that Santhosh Kumar has been unjustly victimised and planted as a proxy for the real culprits who are out there roaming freely. The media a year ago never went behind the case and forgot the incident within a few days. Added to that, the Delhi rape case of December 2012 took all the attention away from an equally important case like this. Fortunately, the never-give-up attitude of the family members of the victim and the support of social activists did not allow the case to die down. Now, more details are coming out. With pressure mounting and protests rising by the day, the Karnataka State government has finally, after much delay and reluctance, decided to hand over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Hopefully, justice will be done to the deceased victim.

What was very unfortunate about the entire episode in the last one year is the lacklustre response of the local media. Not a single newspaper or television channel tried hard to go dig deeper or simply did not muster enough courage. It is only this October, after one year of the incident that TV 9, a Kannada news channel, has gone all out to expose the skeletons in the closets of the Dharmasthala fiefdom. While one can debate as to the actual intentions behind the channel’s ‘activism’ now a year after, at least its campaign is having a ripple effect, even as its activism borders media trial. A series of reportage and panel discussions were held by the channel for days together. Interestingly, on October 12, 2013 when the channel was broadcasting investigative features and holding live panel discussions with Sowjanya’s parents and other activists, the cable transmission mysteriously failed and there was unannounced load shedding in and around Dharmasthala for greater part of the day. The channel claims that this was orchestrated deliberately and it showed that the impact of the coverage had made a dent with the powers-that-be trying to willy-nilly stop the damage. With this, other channels and newspapers could not be silent. The activism snowballed into a well organised campaign. Various organisations took out processions in Dharmasthala, Mangalore and other places, some supporting the Dharmasthala establishment, but most demanding justice for Sowjanya.

Those actively involved in protests such as the Seer of Kemar Math, Sri Esha Vittaladas Swamiji and social activist and leader of Belthangady Prajaprabhutva Vedike, Mahesh Shetty Timarodi, have reasons to believe that the management of Dharmasthala temple and the close relatives of D. Veerendra Heggade, the religious head of Dharmasthala Manjunatheshwara Temple, have links to the case. According to Mr Mahesh Shetty, in the last decade or so over 400 unnatural death cases have been reported in and around Dharmasthala, the veracity of which has been ascertained through an RTI application. He alleges that most of these deaths occurred owing to land maphia of several people associated with the temple management. He also alleges that the temple administration has occupied large swathes of land in the area and it is near impossible to own a piece of land without the consent of the temple management. Mr Shetty, whose organisation has been involved closely with such issues, holds that the temple management in general and Veerendra Heggade in particular are very powerful not just in the area but nationally as well, and no one dares question them. Mr Heggade’s brother D. Harshendra Heggade, according to Mr Shetty, looks into property matters and has illegal land dealings. Incidentally, his son Nishchal Jain has been accused in the rape and murder of Sowjanya. What is indeed shocking is the fact that the police have refused to even question the four suspected – Nischal Jain, Dheeraj Kella, Mallik Jain and Uday Jain – mentioned in the FIR filed by the family members of Sowjanya. The family members and activists allege that all evidences related to the case have been destroyed systematically. For example, a TV 9 visual showed that there was a piece of paper with some phone numbers on it found near the body. However, there is no mention of it in the charge sheet filed by the police to the court. The charge sheet also has several contradictions as to the arrest of Santhosh Kumar. Experts in the panel discussion on TV 9 further suggested that the post mortem report of the victim is a farce, as it does not mention anything important that could lead to further investigation. According to them, all this has been done deliberately by the powers-that-be in collusion with the police to subvert the investigation.

Palpable caution by media
Even as TV 9 has been vociferously going after the case, one cannot miss the palpable caution and restrain by media in general in the region. No newspaper or TV channel, barring TV 9, seems to take a chance. Hence, the newspapers are only giving some space to report protests and press conferences and are refusing to go beyond. Care is taken to see that the opposite view (read, the temple administration!) is given due space whenever activists and protest groups point fingers. While there have been many such reports appearing, there has never been a single editorial or op-ed article written analysing the issue in prominent newspapers in the region, including the widely circulated Kannada daily, Udayavani. The reasons are there for anyone to see: D. Veerendra Heggade and the Dharmasthala administration have never had a history of being put under the scanner. It seems that they are too big an institution to even be questioned, let alone probed! Though Sowjanya studied in a college run by the temple administration, no concerted efforts were made by the administration to press for deeper investigation. Mr Heggade, in fact, never visited the victim’s family. But, now when fingers are directly pointed at him, he is mobilising large scale sympathy for himself and the temple administration, stating that ‘those against us are trying to malign the name of Dharmasthala’.

As regards media’s role in the entire campaign, the developments have clearly shown that the on-going media campaign is bearing fruits, though unintended. Channels like TV 9 have a history of making hay while the sun shines. In Sowjanya’s case, though, the channel has to be commended for at least daring to probe against all odds. Its extensive reportage, coupled with the subsequent public protests, has made the ‘establishment’ jittery and run for cover. One only hopes this ‘activism’ will continue until the truth is uncovered and justice is done.
- Melwyn Pinto SJ

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Death of broadcast news!

There is no prime time news on our English television news channels anymore. What we have is only the cacophony of studio debates. These debates have different nomenclatures in different channels, such as Talking Point, The Newshour, Buck Stops Here, Centre Stage and so on. However, what is common to all of them is the saga of talkativeness and argumentativeness. Everyone, including the anchor, talks and argues almost all the time, just to prove a point. Why not? After all, we are ‘argumentative Indians’ if Amartya Sen were to be true. But these television channels have reduced talk shows into a spectacle of sound and fury with very little substance. There is an old saying, “Whenever argument is weak, shout!” Television panellists (of course, most of them politicians) have taken it literally just to be sure that even when they have no arguments, at least the decibel level of their voice could intimidate the opponents.

Well, the credit (or the blame!) for setting a trend in such prime time television debates has wrongly been attributed to Arnab Goswamy of Times Now. His channel may have been the first to begin a studio-based debate during prime time on week days, but Indian channels have had such debates, though not always around prime time on week days. The real cause, as it seems, for most channels to resort to such increasingly studio-based programmes is sheer economics. In an era of broadcast media incurring huge losses, cost cutting seemed not a mere choice but a necessity. And the easiest option that was available for most channels to bring down the cost was to cut down on expensive field reporting and increase the relatively cheaper studio-based ‘talk shows’. As a result, any news there is today, is generally borrowed from news agencies such as ANI or UNI.

But if we think that it is lazy journalism and an easy way to deal with economics, we are mistaken. These studio-based debates are fraught with their own problems. For one, the respective channel has to find a ‘worthy’ topic day in and day out to attach a ‘meaningful’ debate (and, of course, something that can spur maximum argumentation). The subject needs to be current, if not something related to some important occurrence of the day. Fortunately for the channels, the recent flash floods in Uttarakhand and the politics that followed, gave enough fodder for endless debates. However, a cursory glance at some of the debates on ‘dry days’ reveals that channels have indeed struggled to find worthy issues to debate on. And hence, even flimsy issues, which would otherwise have passed off as just another news item, have been made to look larger than life.

Setting agenda
Maxwell McCombs, who has carried out breakthrough research in media’s role in agenda setting, opines that the traditional agenda-setting role of mass media ‘involves both the surveillance and consensus functions of communication, calling attention to the new and major issues of the day and influencing agreement about what are the priorities of these issues’. The present day television debates are also setting agendas. However, the difference is that this agenda setting is not so much for ‘influencing agreement about what are the priorities’ of the issues, thus positively influencing public opinion; rather it looks as though these debates help the channels only to showcase the argumentative abilities of their ‘firebrand’ anchors, besides providing some infotainment to viewers. In a recent insightful article in EPW, former TV reporter Sandeep Bhushan calls this trend as ‘manufacturing news’ in studios which, in his opinion, ‘manufacture consent on behalf of the power relations.’ (Manufacturing news, EPW, June 8, 2013).

Finding right panellists
The other major problem that the channels face in sustaining these everyday debates is to find the right persons to come and carry on the show. The problem becomes compounded when the channels have a herculean task in finding people on both ends of the debating tug of war. The obvious choice, thus, is to get some prominent speakers from the two major national political parties. Most channels are based in Delhi and they must try as much as possible to find people locally. Also, those being called must have the all-important quality of the gift of the gab: they must be fluent in English, reasonably articulate and astute in rebuttals. Not many, even if they are intelligent and smart, possess this quality. Hence, television channels have to return to the same faces time and again. That is why we see on a daily basis the likes of Manish Tewaris, Ravi Shankar Prasads, Abhishek Singhvis, Nirmala Sitharamans, Chandan Mitras, Aun Jaitleys, among others, hopping studios. But, even these panellists are very calculative in appearing too often on TV, as they know that people can get bored of the same faces. However, as Nalin Mehta in his book India on Television points out, they will not mind appearing any number of times during 'high viewership days’ such as elections.

With the disappearance of any meaningful coverage of news and field based stories, the TV  audiences have to either give up watching news on television or change their taste. TV channels may not really be perturbed by the loss of such an audience, as they know they will always find newer audience, especially in those who like more drama on the floor. However, the issue here is not so much about losing or gaining audiences as loss of broadcast journalism per se. It seems, broadcast journalism in India is on a steep decline, if not on the verge of extinction, unless some serious thinking goes into making it palatable. It is not that channels must put an end to these talk shows. However, most of these talk shows end up just that: mere talking with hardly any new insights and nuances being tabled. Perhaps, our men and women must take a cue or two from the highly watchable and insightful debates and talk shows on BBC, such as Question Time, Date Line London and Hard Talk, where the anchors intervene only when it is absolutely necessary and not so much to prove that they have better knowledge. In these shows also there is disagreement and differences of opinions among panellists. But, all that is presented in a manner most worthy of a professional mass medium. Further, these shows, with deep research and thorough professionalism being their forte, add a newer dimension to broadcast journalism. Perhaps, Indian channels have a long way to go in bringing such dimensions to the studios, or will anything similar suit us Indians – the argumentative lot – at all?

- Melwyn Pinto SJ

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Losing ‘moral’ ground

The last couple of weeks have been stormy for the BJP government in Karnataka. While the Chief Minister and his ilk went outright justifying the infamous rave party in St Mary’s Island near Udupi which took place between February 3 and 5, the ‘porngate’ scandal of three Ministers has not given the Party any route to escape the embarrassment. That one of them happens to be the Women and Child Development Minister adds to the irony of the entire episode. Incidentally, the same Minister C C Patil had famously said recently, ‘I don’t want women to dress provocatively.’

After observing such a development in the state, one is reminded of what former Vice President of US, Adlai E. Stevenson had said: “A hypocrite is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation.” The ones who preached morality and decency for quite sometime now have been caught miserably with no place to cover their shame.

The moral brigade of Sangh Parivar in the state came to its resurgent best after the Saffron Party came to power in the state in 2008. While Churches were attacked within a couple of months of BJP assuming power, pubs were attacked in the name of ‘preserving our culture’. However, the same government had no qualms to allow the obvious indecent rave party in St Mary’s Island. It is indeed an irony of sorts that the Chief Minister of Karnataka should publicly make a statement justifying the rave party, which was a slap on the moral brigade of the state. The CM said that such celebrations were needed to promote tourism in the coastal belt. One wonders where the Sangh Parivar is now. There seems to be no widespread protest or any statement to this day from any of its patrons as regards the rave party of St Mary’s Island. Their prolonged silence in the face of grave embarrassment betrays their hypocrisy.

In the case of porn episode, that these Ministers had the audacity to watch porn on the floor of the House only speaks of the regard they have for decency. Forget about their regard and reverence for Vidhana Soudha, the State Legislature; they did not even have the prudence to hide their banality for a while.

The porn scandal of BJP Ministers in the State Assembly may have shocked the country at large, but such developments were expected considering the fact that the BJP which came to power for the first time in the state went all out to ‘relish’ it. Excise Minister Renukacharya was accused by nurse Jayalakshmi of sexual harassment, while former Food and Civil Supplies Minister Hartal Halappa was accused of allegedly raping the wife of his friend in Shimoga. All these acts only suggest one fact: while the BJP and its Sangh compatriots may demand moral high values from others in the state and act as the custodians of ‘high morality’ to garner political mileage, they have not been able to convince their own men to practice high moral values.

While the state government tries to put a brave face after making the three Ministers resign from their office, the Opposition is harping for their disqualification from the primary membership of the Assembly. The Opposition may have its own agenda, but its demand is indeed justifiable. It is not enough for the government to ‘accept’ the resignation of the disgraceful ministers and wash ones hands. A case in point is what happened in London recently. A clerk in a London court was caught watching hardcore bondage porn during a rape trial. The clerk reportedly said that he indulged in such act only when the proceedings in the court turned boring. The clerk has since been dismissed from the office and a case has been registered against him. He will be sentenced later this month for public misconduct.

All public servants and people’s representatives, whether they like it or not, have a responsibility to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of a public servant. Anyone who breaches this privilege is not worthy to be in that office any longer. If the BJP is serious about sending a strong signal to its members who might indulge in such similar acts, and if it truly believes in preserving high credibility and morality in democracy, it must act now and disqualify all the three tainted members and try them for bringing the State Legislature into disrepute. This will also redeem the Party of the grave embarrassment that it currently facing.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Making MGNREGA self sustainable

Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has recently announced his plans for mega mechanisation in agriculture sector in the 12th Five Year Plan. This, he said, was to address the issue of “scarcity of labour” as a result of the “successful implementation of the MGNREGA” (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Act). While the issue of scarcity of labour in agriculture may be true, the reason behind it cannot solely be attributed to MGNREGA. Further, one doubts if MGNREGA has been implemented “successfully” as the Minister has us believe.

It is in such a situation that there needs to be a serious rethinking as regards the implementation of MGNREGA. While it is true that the scheme has provided widespread employment to unskilled rural masses, what with the Government increasing the budgetary allocations to 40,000 crore rupees in the 2011-12 budget, recent studies have shown that a large amount of work is either non productive or there is simply no work allocated. To add to such miseries, even when labourers have put in work, the salaries have not been paid for days together. (In June this year, in a protest of one of its kind,members of the Karnataka Pranta Krishi Koolikarara Sangha in Gulburga staged a dharna demanding immediate release of dues pending for labourers under MGNREGA.) There are also reports of fake offer letters being circulated in many parts of the country, thus raising concerns if this scheme too will end up becoming just another toothless government scheme.

The drawback

According to Census 2011, since the time census began in India, for the first time ever the urban population has grown marginally more than the rural population. While rural India added 90.6 million people, the same was 91 million for urban area. The only possible explanation for such a development seems to be the large scale migration of rural masses to the cities where the construction industry is booming. If MGNREGA was “successfully implemented”, perhaps such large scale migration would not have happened.

If Mr Pawar thinks that most workers prefer MGNREG scheme to working as daily labourers in the farm sector, the problem lies in the scheme itself. One of the main drawbacks of MGNREGA is that as of now the work can be undertaken only on government owned land. This indeed defeats the purpose. If the ideals of the scheme were to be true, the scheme seeks to become self sustainable in the years to come. However, in the six years since the Act was implemented, it has not shown any signs of becoming self sustainable.

Earlier this year, speaking at the award presentation ceremony of effective initiative under MGNREGA, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “If MGNREGA work were to help rebuild productivity through water harvesting, drought proofing and ground water recharge, these labourers can go back to full time productive farming. Or they could take up other livelihoods on the foundation of water security created under MGNREGA.” In fact, the purpose of the scheme was exactly that. But, as it has turned out, the productivity has been just minimum.

Work under MGNREGA taken up on government land in most cases turns out to be non productive. It is true in some states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh construction of kuccha roads have led to rural connectivity. In some places works like water harvesting and a-forestation have also been useful. However, such works are limited. There is a large scale criticism that in most places the labourers end up playing with soil just to get salaries with no productivity. This is unfortunate.

Government needs to bring about an amendment in the scheme and allow works to be taken up in private land as well. Labourers under MGNREGA can be lent to rural private agriculture sector. This will result not only in productivity, but eventually the revenues drawn can help the scheme become self sustainable. Of course, the process has to be strictly monitored and no room should be given for foul play. Certain political will can make a big difference.

Further, if a labourer under MGNREGA has some cultivable land, he or she should be encouraged to work in his/her own land rather than undertake unproductive labour. For this they must be given incentives under the scheme. This too has a double effect. First, the end result will be highly productive and second, one who works in one’s own land has greater commitment to labour than working in an alien land.

While the West has dearth of human resource and hence can justify mechanisation in agriculture, the strength of India is its large scale population. Instead of mechanising the farm sector on a large scale, Government needs to take proactive steps to make good use of the availability of widespread human labour in the rural area. While mechanisation might seem an easy way out, it will rob thousands of people of their livelihood making only a few richer by leaps and bounds. Government must immediately stop any such plans and bring about a policy change in MGNREGA to not only make itself self sustaining, but also to make it credible and viable scheme for the poverty stricken rural India.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Plan panel’s idea of ‘tightening the belt’

One would have liked to term it as a comedy of errors, but sadly it was not. Even as the country’s inflation hovered around 9.78 per cent, the Planning Commission of India in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court on September 20, declared that anyone earning Rs 25 in urban areas and Rs 20 in rural areas is not poor.

Even the World Bank’s international poverty line is $1.25 a day, which amounts to about Rs 60. But the Planning Commission seems to have its own logic. A decent vegetarian meal these days would cost not less than Rs 20-25. If one goes by the Planning Commission’s numbers, a poor man has to eat only once a day. Health and education is a luxury which, at this rate, poor people should never think of.

A recent Asian Development Bank report says that the price rise of food items that India is seeing these days will push another 30 million people into below poverty line in the country. National Health Survey points out that over 46 per cent children in India are malnourished.

That is at a time when the food grain production in India reached an all time record of 246.6 million tons in 2010-11. It is, of course, another story that nearly 20 per cent of the food that is meant for these children is eaten up by rodents and moths.

Denial mode
What surprises is the fact that the Planning Commission is in a denial mode. One of the members of the Planning Commission, Abhijit Sen, said, “The poverty figures in the affidavit are the ones given by the Tendulkar Committee and the government has to accept it.” But the figures of the Tendulkar Committee are those of 2004-05 when the country’s inflation averaged around 5 per cent and the population was 1.09 billion. Today the inflation has almost doubled and the population stands at around 1.21 billion.

The Arjun Sengupta Committee Report on enterprises in the unorganised sector had said that over 836 million people in India lived just on Rs 20 a day. In other words, over 70 per cent of the Indian population was indeed below poverty line. But the government chose not to consider that report seriously; rather it is making much of the Tendulkar Committee report which has since been criticised by many economists. The State, though, found an easy way out to raise the poor from their penury: it compromised on the per capita income to lift the poor to above poverty line. Perhaps, the government thinks it can, thus, live in what is known as ‘happy illusion’ that all is well.

There seems to be a panic like situation in the media and government circles when the stock markets are plummeting. Even depreciating rupee value against the dollar too seems to be a cause of concern for many. However, the fact that thousands of people, especially children, are dying due to poverty and hundreds of farmers are committing suicides due to the callous attitude of the government and its wrong policies, does not seem to catch enough attention.

This is because poor people matter to the government only during elections and not otherwise. Gandhi had famously said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Unfortunately, the government, instead of reducing, seems to be perpetuating this violence. For example, most Indian states today have the worst public distribution system. The food that is supposed to reach the poor households is sold in the open market for a price. There cannot be worse violence than this.

It is time the government acted in a manner that is worthy of a true democratic state. While it is true that the government did a commendable job by introducing MGNREGA scheme in 2005 for rural employment, the scheme needs to be strengthened. Just 100 days of labour is not sufficient.

There is a need to increase the number of days to at least six months, as most farmers in the villages are unemployed for over six months. Also, minimum wages need to be increased to at least Rs 200, as the cost of nearly everything, and especially the fuel, has gone up incredibly in the last one year and the inflation does not seem to ease out.

Instead of playing with numbers and living in illusion, the government needs to take proactive steps to alleviate hunger from this country. It is unfair that millions go hungry everyday while the government tries to escape responsibility by playing the number game.