A better-informed society is the need of the hour

A better-informed society is the need of the hour

Hari Jaisingh

Hari Jaisingh

Amidst all its varied problems, the country is witnessing a revolution of rising expectations. And this “revolution” constantly looks for free flow of information. Look at the “hidden restlessness” in the Kashmir Valley following radical political moves taken by the Narendra Modi government in J & K and certain restrictions imposed on information flow. Thankfully, those restrictions are being eased. But guessing games in the media continues on official news of normalcy of the situation in the Valley. Those who have some ideas of ground realities would not accept the “official line of normalcy”. Herein hangs the tale of unknown tomorrow.

What is heartening is that despite its functional handicaps, democracy has helped to sharpen the rough edges of common sense among ordinary people, even in the Valley. In the face of “temporary curbs” on information flow, it needs to be appreciated by those at the helm of national affairs that free media helps to create “a rich marketplace of ideas and serious information”. If it fails to do so, then it leaves the people “partially blinded” simply because they will have “defective understanding” with which to cope with the new circumstances thrown up in the Valley.

It needs to be appreciated that the media by its thorough examination and reporting of the people’s problems, increases understanding ground realities and thereby it creates an “adequate reservoir of insights into the changing social process”, as American scholar Ben H Bagdikian once talked about in a different context. We, journalists, are in the business of information and communication. It is our job to help the process of creating a Better Informed Society. Only better informed citizens can help to improve the quality of democracy and bridge the credibility gap between the rulers and the led.

Rightly or wrongly, I occasionally feel that ours is still an ill-informed democracy, notwithstanding the fact that it is very much thriving and kicking. The people have come to enjoy their electoral power. And I believe that they will not accept any other form of government, whatever be its functional flaws, distorted functioning and socio-economic imbalances on the ground. Credible information is power. And the job of media persons is to ascertain, whether in development matters or politico-economic and social concerns, it show’s the mirror of ground realities to the powers-that-be. I believe the authorities require a new orientation for proper appreciation of the daunting task of understanding India’s complex and diverse realities.

Our main area of concern at the senior media level for the rulers and policy-makers is the quality of education, health care of ordinary people and the availability of drinking water and other basic facilities for rural folks. Is the media doing its job properly? I keep my fingers crossed. There are surely serious gaps between promises and performance of politicians and administrators in the country. Let me recall the UNESCO Advice. It once said, “Link education to life, associate it with concrete goals, establish a close relationship between society and economy, invent or rediscover an education system that fits its surrounding….. Surely this is where the solution must be sought”. The ground reality in this critical arena is known to knowledgeable persons. We have still a long way to go in this regard.

I have always tried to judge India’s prestigious Right to Information on the touchstone of the people’s ability to see through the red-tapism in the government moves. We have to see its operational facets on the ground in terms of whether the official measures are for the good of the people and for qualitative improvement in the functioning of our democracy. As it is, any government loves to run its business secretly. It may swear by transparency and accountability. But, in practice, it does just the opposite of what it professes.

The bureaucracy, with its colonial burqa, tries to cover up even simple matters of decision-making and governance. For that matter, sensitive decisions taken in the name of the people are covered up to our dismay. Take the latest amendments to the Right to Information Act which gives more powers to the National Investigation Agency and extends its jurisdiction beyond India’s borders. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has assured Parliament that  “the amended provisions of the NIA Act of 2008” would never be misused but would be used to finish terrorism, irrespective of the terrorist’s religion. He also talked about “urban Maoists”, saying that some people supported “urban Maoism in the name of ideology. We have no sympathy for them”.

However, the amendments give to the NIA more powers than to the CBI which is expected to follow set procedures of taking due permission from the state government concerned before it starts the process of probing a case. On the other hand, the NIA now can take suo motu cognizance of a “terrorist’s activity” without the permission of the state government concerned. Does this go against the federal spirit? Yes. But the Modi government has its own national agenda which has a number of good points in overall national interests.The amendments to the Right to Information Act do away with the fixed tenure of five years for the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and the Information and Election Commissioners (EC).

I do not wish to go into the details of the amendments which have already been endorsed by Parliament. My sole concern is that follow-up action on the amendments must not be politically motivated and it should not go against the federal spirit of the Constitution. Also, the changes must not deny the people the right to information. Well, we have to wait and watch how the present government goes about its task in this sensitive area. Every small step by the government matters. And amidst the on-going changing scenario, the moot point is: will Indian intellectuals respond and try to be honest with themselves and the people, especially the have-nots?

A lesser known Indian tragedy is the lengthening shadow of intellectual dishonesty. As it is, the Indian intelligentsia has been politicized and, therefore, it increasingly plays partisan role in which the truth becomes the first casualty. The intelligentsia must work for the attainment of excellence in national life. They cannot be indifferent to ugly aspects of developments. They have to participate actively in national affairs. Only then can a qualitative thrust be ensured in the polity. It is time to pull down the ivory towers of intellectuals so that they work honestly for the growth of well-informed society.