Media Failing The Farmers
Media Failing The Farmers

Media Failing The Farmers

T.K Thomas

The week gone by was a media person’s delight. Our new president Ramnath Kovind has been elected and would take over on Tuesday 25th July. A new Vice President will be elected this week. The stand- off with our biggest neighbour continues and border skirmishes by Pakistan are also on with plenty of violations of cease fire. The Monsoon session of Parliament has just begun with the usual pandemonium, the highlight of which was the resignation of Behen Mayavati from the Rajya Sabha. Farmers continue to demonstrate expressing their anguish with the Tamil Nadu farmers back in Jantar Mantar with the skulls and bones of their near ones who committed suicide burdened by farm debts. The matter was raised by the opposition in Parliament. Strong warnings were issued by the government against continued cow vigilantism. The list is exhaustive.

How have the media especially the hundreds of news channels covered such events? One recalls, how before the advent of private commercial news channels, television news was the monopoly of the government media viz. All India Radio and Doordarshan. Objectives of broadcasting were identified as information, education and entertainment in that order. News and current affairs overage of AIR & DD was monitored and scrutinized especially after 1977 by critics and political parties. For any over projection of the government and the ruling party, there were complaints galore. Even the lines given in news bulletins were counted and often there were parliament questions and any undue coverage to the ruling party was raised in the Consultative Committee attached to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Daily reviews of the proceedings of both the houses were also monitored and if the name of any Member of Parliament who spoke on that day during the session was left out, there were complaints of discrimination!

Let us come back to the scene today. There is hardly any complaint against the totally one sided coverage by the private media unlike what we witnessed against the government media. There may be self regulatory bodies of news channels but coverage of news from the Parliament is left to the sweet will and discretion of the channels. Channels also take live feed from Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha television channels, of course according to the channels’ agenda. A new trend of channels owned by many a corporate body is that editorial decisions are left to those who control the revenue of the channel. There are a number of national, regional and local channels who have definite agenda and openly support the government, ruling party or a particular political party. There are also channels owned and run by political parties. No one seems to be bothered about the basic tenets of journalism like truth, objectivity, balance etc. Last Thursday some unacceptable comments by an opposition member in the Rajya Sabha were expunged by the Chair who made a special announcement that the matter is closed and no media should report it. But at least one news organization ignored this warning, carried the story. On Friday the issue was raised by opposition members as a privilege motion the ruling on which is under the consideration of the Chair as these lines are being punched in. This matter is mentioned here to show how arrogant some of the news organizations have become.

One attended a very interesting programme last Sunday of P Sainath, undisputedly one of the most respected commentators on corruption, development, etc who raised some fundamental questions about the agrarian crisis in India. Sainath was delivering the Prabhash Joshi Lecture [former celebrated editor of Jan Satta and a cult figure in Hindi journalism] .Lecture at the Sathyagraha Mandap, Gandhi Darshan , Rajghat. The huge hall was overflowing with people. The event gains significance as one of the main organizers was a senior R S S functionary, probably hinting at a glasnost in the saffron outfit. Well one is not writing about that organization.

Agrarian crisis was the subject matter of his lecture, a burning topic that may not be attracting the kind of media attention it deserves. And that of course is the problem. Continuous droughts, resultant crop failures, unpaid loan installments, starving families and children dropped out from schools- what more do you need to drive a farmer to suicide? This has been the story of most farmers in many parts of the country. The figures given by the National Crime Records Bureau [N C R B] for 2015 were frightening. According to the N C R B data Maharashtra [3030], Telengana [1358], Karnataka [1197], Chhattisgarh [854] and Madhya Pradesh [516] led the table of the number of farmers’ suicide. It is another matter that in Madhya Pradesh it is a problem of plenty. Coverage on this human tragedy is mostly from a political angle and rarely a meaningful investigation and discussions on the real causes of today’s agrarian crisis.

But there was a twist in the tale in the facts presented by Sainath. Quoting the N C R B he said rather sarcastically that figures in 12 states and 6 Union Territories soon will be zero suicide of farmers thanks to the way the cases are reported. It is worth mentioning that the Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh insisted [in the Rajya Sabha last Wednesday] that the number of suicides by the farmers have come down in the last two comparative years of 2015 and 2016. Singh cited figures of N C R B and said that the number of suicide cases was 12602 which declined to 11458 in 2016. It is sad that human tragedy of suicides has been reduced to simple arithmetic.

Political parties are only scoring brownie points instead of finding a real solution for this humanitarian tragedy. The real problems facing Indian agriculture, concern seeds and fertilizers; drought, water and irrigation; credit, minimum support price, procurement and marketing are given only lip sympathy and loan waiver is considered to be the panacea. The electronic media while spending hours of prime time trolling opponents, hyping issues which have no relevance to a majority of ordinary citizens or burning issues like the agrarian crisis, pressing public health and sanitation concerns, unemployment, environmental problems, etc. What Sainath said has to be viewed from this perspective. He pointed out that 67 % of coverage of news is Delhi-centric. The percentage of rural population is almost the same but coverage on their issues and concerns is an abysmal 0.6%. The media hardly covers core agrarian issues. Earlier there used to be rural reporting on core issues concerning agriculture and allied topics. Radio and television had played a seminal role in ushering the Green Revolution. What role is media playing now as the nation is facing unprecedented farmers’ suicide and agrarian crisis? If channels that spend hours and hours on programmes to support the government, trolling political opponents and hyping inanities dedicate a daily slot to farmers and their concerns, they can contribute a bit in nation building. Will a market and profit drive media ever do that?

On 26th May 2015, the Prime Minister launched a 24x7 television channel dedicated to farmers amidst the usual well intended statements and promises: Food grain productivity must rise from 2 tons per hectare to 3 tons; Tehsil must be the unit of agricultural development, the P M announced from Vigyan Bhavan while launching the channel. The government earmarked Rs.26 crore for the Kisan channel. TAM Media Research, a private media research agency in its findings claimed that weekly reach of D D Kisan had shot up from 685,000 in the first week to more than 5 million in the fourth week [14-20 June] A couple of months later the Hindustan Times [August8 2015] reported that the Agriculture Ministry was unhappy with the Kisan Channel and was cutting its spending on farm related T V content on the channel, as it felt that it was not getting its money’s worth from their programmes. What message does such conflicting communication send out? What about the credibility of the national broadcaster? One is not sure if the Agriculture Ministry is now getting its money’s worth!

The official rating of Doordarshan and other channels is done by Broadcast Audience Research Council India. [BARC] They come out with weekly Gross Viewership in Lakhs [GVL]. According to the latest figures for week 28 [July 9 to 15] the GVL of DD Kisan was 45 lakhs. If statistics can be taken on face value this figure is encouraging considering the hundreds of entertainment channels available to people. It is another matter how far the wishes of the Prime Minister while launching the channel on 26 July 2015 have been fulfilled. An impact study by an independent research agency only can prove that. Here is wishing DD Kisan meaningful service to the farmers of India!