Archive | January, 2010

Farm suicides: a 12-year saga

25 Jan


In 2006-08, Maharashtra saw 12, 493 farm suicides. That is 85 per cent higher than the 6,745 suicides it recorded during 1997-1999. And the worst three-year period for any State, any time.



The loan waiver year of 2008 saw 16,196 farm suicides in the country, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Compared to 2007, that’s a fall of just 436. As economist Professor K. Nagaraj who has worked in-depth on farm suicide data says, “the numbers leave little room for comfort and none at all for self-congratulation.” There were no major changes in the trend that set in from the late 1990s and worsened after 2002. The dismal truth is that very high numbers of farm suicides still occur within a fast decreasing farm population.

Between just the Census of 1991 and that of 2001, nearly 8 million cultivators quit farming. A year from now, the 2011 Census will tell us how many more quit in this decade. It is not likely to be less. It could even dwarf that 8 million figure as the exodus from farming probably intensified after 2001. The State-wise farm suicide ratios — number of farmers committing suicide per 100,000 farmers — are still pegged on the outdated 2001 figures. So the 2011 Census, with more authentic counts of how many farmers there really are, might provide an unhappy update on what is going on.

Focussing on farm suicides as a share of total suicides in India misleads. That way, it’s “aha! the percentage is coming down.” That’s silly. For one thing, the total number of suicides (all groups, not just farmers) is increasing — in a growing population. Farm suicides are rising within a declining farm population. Two, an all-India picture disguises the intensity. The devastation lies in the Big 5 States (Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh). These account for two-thirds of all farm suicides during 2003-08. Take just the Big 5 — their percentage of all farm suicides has gone up. Worse, even their percentage of total all-India suicides (all categories) has risen. Poor States like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are doing very badly for some years now.

In the period 1997-2002, farm suicides in the Big 5 States accounted for roughly one out of every 12 of all suicides in the country. In 2003-08, they accounted for nearly one out of every 10.

The NCRB now has farm suicide data for 12 years. Actually, farm data appear in its records from 1995 onwards, but some States failed to report for the first two years. Hence 1997, from when all States are reporting their farm suicide data, is a more reliable base year. The NCRB has also made access much easier by placing all past years of “Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India” reports on its website.

The 12-year period allows us to compare farm suicide numbers for 1997-2002, with how they turned out in the next 6-year period of 2003-2008. All 12 years were pretty bad, but the latter six were decidedly worse.

Reading a ‘trend’ into a single year’s dip or rise is misleading. Better to look at 3-year or 6-year periods within 1997-2008. For instance, Maharashtra saw a decline in farm suicide numbers in 2005, but the very next year proved to be its worst ever. Since 2006, the State has been the focus of many initiatives. Manmohan Singh’s visit to Vidharbha that year brought the “Prime Minister’s Relief Package” of Rs.3,750 crore for six crisis-ridden districts of the region. This came atop Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s Rs.1,075 crore “CM’s relief package.” Then followed the nearly Rs.9,000 crore that was Maharashtra’s share of the Rs.70,000-crore Central loan waiver for farmers. To which the State government added Rs.6,200 crore for those farmers not covered by the waiver. The State added Rs.500 crore for a one-time settlement (OTS) for poor farmers who had been excluded from the waiver altogether because they owned over five acres of land.

In all, the amounts committed to fighting the agrarian crisis in Maharashtra exceeded Rs. 20,000 crore across 2006, 2007 and 2008. (And that’s not counting huge handouts to the sugar barons.) Yet, that proved to be the worst three-year period ever for any State at any time since the recording of farm data began. In 2006-08, Maharashtra saw 12, 493 farm suicides. That is nearly 600 more than the previous worst of 2002-2005 and 85 per cent higher than the 6,745 suicides recorded in the three-year period of 1997-1999. The same government was in power, incidentally, in the worst six years. Besides, these higher numbers are emerging within a shrinking farm population. By 2001, 42 per cent of Maharashtra’s population was already urban. Its farmer base has certainly not grown.

So was the loan waiver useless? The idea of a waiver was not a bad thing. And it was right to intervene. More that the specific actions were misguided and bungled. Yet it could also be argued that but for the relief the waiver brought to some farmers at least, the suicide numbers of 2008 could have been a lot worse. The waiver was a welcome step for farmers, but its architecture was flawed. A point strongly made in this journal (Oh! What a lovely waiver, March 10, 2008). It dealt only with bank credit and ignored moneylender debt. So only those farmers with access to institutional credit would benefit. Tenant farmers in Andhra Pradesh and poor farmers in Vidharbha and elsewhere get their loans mainly from moneylenders. So, in fact, farmers in Kerala, where everyone has a bank account, were more likely to gain. (Kerala was also the one State to address the issue of moneylender debt.)

The 2008 waiver also excluded those holding over five acres, making no distinction between irrigated and unirrigated land. This devastated many struggling farmers with eight or 10 acres of poor, dry land. On the other hand, West Bengal’s farmers, giant numbers of small holders below the 5-acre limit, stood to gain far more.

Every suicide has a multiplicity of causes. But when you have nearly 200,000 of them, it makes sense to seek broad common factors within that group. Within those reasons. As Dr. Nagaraj has repeatedly pointed out, the suicides appear concentrated in regions of high commercialisation of agriculture and very high peasant debt. Cash crop farmers seemed far more vulnerable to suicide than those growing food crops. Yet the basic underlying causes of the crisis remained untouched. The predatory commercialisation of the countryside; a massive decline in investment in agriculture; the withdrawal of bank credit at a time of soaring input prices; the crash in farm incomes combined with an explosion of cultivation costs; the shifting of millions from food crop to cash crop cultivation with all its risks; the corporate hijack of every major sector of agriculture including, and especially, seed; growing water stress and moves towards privatisation of that resource. The government was trying to beat the crisis — leaving in place all its causes — with a one-off waiver.

In late 2007, The Hindu carried (Nov. 12-15) the sorry result emerging from Dr. Nagaraj’s study of NCRB data: that nearly 1.5 lakh peasants had ended their lives in despair between 1997 and 2005. Just days later, Union Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar confirmed those figures in Parliament (Rajya Sabha Starred Question No. 238, Nov. 30, 2007) citing the same NCRB data. It’s tragic that 27 months later, the paper had to run a headline saying that the number had climbed to nearly 2 lakh. The crisis is very much with us. Mocking its victims, heckling its critics. And cosmetic changes won’t make it go away.


Questions and Answers: Aruna Roy

21 Jan

Aruna Roy, a political and social activist, gave up her career in the Indian Administrative Service in 1975 to devote her time to social work and social reform. She has focused her energies on Rajasthan, where she helped establish the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan in 1990, a grass roots peoples organization that works for the empowerment of workers and peasants. In 2000, Ms. Roy won the Ramon Magsaysay award for community leadership and for her role in empowering Indian villagers to claim what is rightfully theirs by upholding and exercising the people’s right to information. As Maoist violence continues unabated in the country, Ms. Roy spoke exclusively to Jyoti Malhotra for the Wall Street Journal. Excerpts from the interview.

WSJ: In recent weeks, India’s Maoists rebels have unleashed a reign of terror across the countryside, especially in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, murdering people and damaging public property. As someone who has worked as an activist for many decades in rural India, what is the reason for this sudden violence?

AR: It is now widely accepted that development has not reached people in Chhattisgarh and other parts of the country. The Adivasis, or tribals who live here, are delinked from other parts of the country socially, culturally and politically, they are really like an island. Since Independence, most government officials have treated these areas as punishment postings. Few have wanted to live and work there and those who have gone have not treated the tribals as their equals. It’s been a sort of sahib-servant relationship. Several activists and those in the development sector did work there, but always came under surveillance like Binayak Sen. With Sen, as you know, he was arrested and put behind bars and accused of sympathizing with the Maoists. An important group which reached the tribal areas were the Christian missionaries who set up schools there, followed by Hindu right-wing groups who decided that the tribals must be “saved” from the Christians. These religious tensions usually ended in violence. In the meantime, the tribal belt, which is really the mineral belt of India, became the focus of interest of multinational companies…

WSJ: Tell me the geographical extent of the tribal belt?

AR: It’s huge, from Bihar and Bengal to Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, via Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and parts of Maharashtra. Maoist rebels claim they control 182 districts out of 604 districts in the country. Because of this overwhelming mineral wealth and the desire of the MNCs to tap it, the government, very often, are in hand in glove with these MNCs, and rode roughshod over all democratic norms and principles of political equality and equity to acquire the land. The government tried to use the laws to clear the forests of the tribals who opposed the taking over of their lands. It didn’t work because the law also empowers the tribals to rights over land. When you touch a raw nerve like land, the people rise up. In fact, there is this contradiction today in India, where we talk about the right to property as a fundamental right . But that should also mean that the right to property of the tribals is equally valid and important. So the “persuasion” tried by government and MNCs didn’t work. Alternative employment was offered, but it was so meager that there was an uncomfortable impasse for some time. Meanwhile, there remains no system of governance, no delivery, no sympathy or understanding on the part of the government per se.

WSJ: But there were several infrastructure projects that came up, dams and roads and bridges, surely they were made to help the people?

AR: If you’ve been to any dam site you’ll realize that once dams are constructed, they often don’t benefit the oustees. Often the land gets sold to outsiders. I saw an interesting pamphlet the other day about “Jat land” in Chhatisgarh. Now the Jats are a community in faraway Haryana and Punjab and they’ve been sold land in Chhattisgarh ! It’s illegal because it’s a violation of the rights of tribals who cannot be alienated from their land. So it’s a ‘benami’ transaction (carried out in someone else’s name).

WSJ: How did the Chhatisgarh tribals end up selling their land to the Jats?

AR: The tribals are still not only needy but also very naïve, they don’t know what their rights are, they often make uninformed choices and can be persuaded to mortgage their land and when they cant repay their loans, well, they sell it. In fact, the rest of India has allowed them to remain primitive in their responses. We have not done anything to offer proper opportunities for education or given them a meaningful stake in the mainstream.

WSJ: So how did the Maoists get involved?

AR: This fertile ground offered the Maoists the perfect opportunity because the state was seen as the villain in every way possible. Of course, the state reacted too. With violence it wasn’t going to take things lying down. So they created, at least in Chhattisgarh, the ‘Salwa Judum’ or a people’s army. They armed people, including children, with guns to fight the Maoists. Several people opposed the creation of such a vigilante army, set up and supported by both the Congress and the BJP.

Now an army is mandated to fight an outside, invading force, but how can it fight its own people? The need to seek political and developmental solutions remains on top of the agenda. But the State of Chhatisgarh has become a police state. All those who protested against the ‘Salwa Judum’ were and are being silenced and jailed. So in a situation where the tribals are beaten up by the forest guards, fired upon by policemen and even set upon by the Salwa Judum, what is their recourse without access to democracy ? We have now set up a group called the ‘Citizens for Peace’ and our stand is that all peaceful means must be explored and political negotiations must take place.

WSJ: Home minister P. Chidambaram has said that you should negotiate on behalf of the tribals…

AR: We have offered to come up with new ideas, and help set up a dialogue. But we are clear that we can’t negotiate on behalf of the tribals or with the government. It is the government’s business to negotiate, not ours.

WSJ : So what is your group going to do?

AR: We want to create public opinion that tells both sides of the story. Those of us who live in the big cities know the power of the media and how the media has access only to one kind of thought. But people need to know both sides.

WSJ: Do you think Mr. Chidambaram’s offer to negotiate with the tribals is an acknowledgement that the state has failed?

AR: The government has failed, yes! But the state will fail if the Army and Air Force are used to crackdown against the Maoists. The Air Force is already supposed to have done a survey of the entire area. If the Army and the Air Force do go in, it’s war. That is what we want to avoid. We have openly said that anybody who indulges in violence or kills is a murderer, be it a policeman or a tribal person.

However, I also want to make one thing clear. The law must be fair, there must be good governance and the state must allow independent monitoring teams into the area.

WSJ: Do you think good governance will solve the problem? Isn’t there an ideological underpinning to the Maoist violence?

AR: Good governance may not resolve it, but it will prepare some space for resolution.

WSJ : But you don’t think it’s an ideological struggle ?

AR :The ideological struggle is for the Maoists. For the people it’s different; they are fighting for succor. The people have taken to this ideology because there is no alternative, or they see it as their best alternative. If you give them a better alternative, the people will go there. I would like to quote the Bolivian prime minister Evo Morales here who said, there is the Left and there is the Right, but we are the people.

In our country, the way it often works is that when we vote for a particular political party, the vote is the most reasonable choice from the vast set of negative choices that we face. For the tribals, the truth is that there is no choice, or very little.

WSJ: Are you saying that there is little alternative for the tribals but to follow the Maoists in taking up arms because the government doesn’t exist?

AR: Yes. The truth is that the government doesn’t exist in any of these areas, or hardly. It has only existed to exploit them.

WSJ: So why the violence? Do you think the violence is justified?

AR: These are two separate questions. Violence from either side cannot be justified, but it occurs due to many reasons. It’s a failure of listening to the people. If the state consistently doesn’t listen to the people who are the sovereign, then what results may seem like “irrationality.” Although I don’t think it’s irrational, the fact that the tribal is taking up arms to defend his life, his family, his land. If a man dies fighting for his country against Pakistan he is considered a hero. But if a tribal dies fighting for his land, why don’t we call him a hero? Isn’t it the same thing? As for the violence, we can’t justify it, but we have to understand the circumstances that lead people to choose violence over other means to fight for their lives and livelihood.

WSJ: What about a state like West Bengal which have been run by the Left parties for several decades, why are the Maoists rebelling against them?

AR: There again, MNCs were brought in without consulting the people, which is why they rose up against the Left in Bengal. This has had a direct impact in the elections. Nandigram and Singur, two sites in Bengal where large tracts of land were sought to be given to MNCs are an example of the alienation from people. Truth is, the people who have gone to the “other side,” who became Maoists, were once with the Left, they were supporters of the party. A party which used to consistently listen to the people and were its voice has, somewhere, not listened to them.

WSJ: You say that MNCs grabbed land in the name of development, but several MNCs like the Tatas in Singur in West Bengal, Posco in Orissa are trying to build industry, improve per capita income and socio-economic indicators…?

AR: Let us say that most of the projects grab more land than they need and come in without any democratic process of consultation with people. The government has given large tracts of land to Special Economic Zones and to MNCs in the name of boosting export, but I would like to know whether exports have really gone up. Moreover, they hardly employ local people…We have to ask ourselves, who is benefiting from this industrialization. Who is losing?

WSJ: Aren’t we romanticizing this? After all, industrialization is the way forward…

AR: This is the voice of the people, not a few romantic young people with revolutionary ideals. There is no transparency, that’s the problem. Nobody knows whether the MNC is telling the truth when they demand a certain acreage for developing a project. Or whether the people have really been consulted and whether the government has the people in mind when it agrees to certain terms and conditions. There have been so many betrayals…The breakdown of trust is more or less complete.

Meanwhile, the question also is, what is “development”? If I don’t have food in my belly and my land has been taken away for a big project, is that “development?” How am I going to gauge it? Does 8% or 9% growth every year constitute “development”? Should we measure it by the property we own in the cities or the amount of gold that is bought and sold or whether the people of India have access to food, shelter and health?

And if someone thinks that this 8%-9 % growth is going to take India forward and India’s going to fly, then believe me, it is going to be pulled down by the remaining 80%. That is why this 80% has got to be nurtured, they have to be given rights and access, they need some share in this spectacular growth of ours.

WSJ: And violence…

AR: It is the absolute last resort. When reason has failed, when rationality has failed, when compassion has failed…History teaches us that violence only occurs when everything else has failed. If this is beneficial development, why is there so much violent opposition to it?

WSJ: So this “red corridor” that runs through the heart of India, a state within a state…

AR: I don’t know how “red” it is. But we have to ask ourselves, how to take this forward. I would go the Gandhian way, which is talk to the other side and treat them as equals, negotiate, find out what’s gone wrong. But we can’t send the army in as Home Minister P.Chidambaram is threatening to do. In any case we must talk to the people who are facing the consequences the most.

WSJ: Its interesting that the Congress-led government at the Centre has the same views as all the opposition parties which run the affected states, whether it is the Left in Bengal or the BJP in Chhatisgarh?

AR: Why is that surprising? After all, every political party laying claim to a different ideology has ruled different parts of the country at different times and nothing changed for the tribals. Moreover, the tribal leadership has either not been accepted and promoted, nor have their histories or ideologies become part of the mainstream. Instead, they’ve been forever the subjects or recipients of ideologies evolved by others. One of the biggest failures of independent India has been the failure to give the tribals a place in the national scene.

WSJ: Do you think government programs like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) work in disaffected areas like these?

AR: That’s what the states are claiming. However, programs like the NREGA demand a modicum of peace, you can’t work in the fields if violence is breaking out all around you.

WSJ: On the Right to Information (RTI) Act, with which you’ve been closely associated since its inception 4 years ago, what is the progress so far?

AR: The RTI has become a lifeline for democracy in our country. Despite the failures of various state commissioners or government to implement Section 4. (This mandates the government to publicly disclose as many as 17 bits of information, including its budget, personnel, areas of work, etc.) That’s why today the government can’t touch the RTI without touching the whole of India. Because it’s been used by a variety of people for a variety of reasons, with reasonable success. Sharing information is sharing power and nobody understands this better than the bureaucracy and the politicians, in that order.

But the people are now asking for their, for our share of governance, our share in decision-making, in fact if the tribals of India had had RTI 40 years ago, the situation that we face today wouldn’t have happened. Wherever I travel, people feel the RTI is their Act and they own it. This is a fundamental change from what existed years ago.

Of course, a number of problems remain, of infrastructure, non-delivery, of systems not being in place, information commissioners not being trained, etc. But on the whole, the Act has worked.

WSJ: But despite its success, the government wants to amend it. Why?

AR: The government wants to put all file notings under wrap. Meaning, all discussions, consultations, all reasons for decision-making should become secret. Which means you’ll know nothing about the process, just the end decision.

WSJ: But so far the process has been open?

AR: Yes, so far the process has been open, although they now want to close that. The Department of Personnel & Training which comes under the Prime Minister’s Office, which is responsible for the functioning of the RTI, is now saying that the “consultative process” as well as anything that protects the “candour” of people expressing their opinion, will not be revealed. Behind this move to amend the Act and to kill its spirit, is the bureaucracy.

WSJ: So the government which gave the RTI to the people four years ago is now taking it away?.

AR: Equally horrifying is that all applications which are “frivolous or vexatious” will be disallowed. Now who is going to decide what that is? Possibly, the policeman or the ‘patwari’ (village revenue official) or the ‘sarpanch’ (village headman)… Naturally, everything will be “vexatious”…The move undermines the entire Act itself.

WSJ: You’ve been involved with the NREGA on the ground, how well do you think it has worked?

AR: I will say that this is the first rural development service where people know what they are receiving so they can monitor it, where there has been concurrent evaluation, where we know what the losses or gains are. So, every time I read about corruption in the NREGA I am thrilled, not because there is corruption but because for the first time, so many people are protesting against waste of public money. India should be proud.

WSJ: Give me an example…

AR: A women’s group in Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, has got 1400,000 rupees ($29,710) as unemployment allowance because they applied for work and didn’t get it. According to the Act, you have to get work in 15 days within five kilometers of your village, and if the government can’t give you work, it has to pay you unemployment allowance…Could you ever think of something like this before?

WSJ: But what about the enormous leakages and lakhs of rupees down the drain…

AR: For the first time, we know where the money has gone, even if its down the drain. We know who’s swindled it and how it has been swindled. In Bhilwara, in Rajasthan, we have just completed a social audit. We used RTI to access public records and bring them out into the public domain, share it with people whose names are on the records and took a public meeting to testify whether their names were rightly or wrongly there.

You see, RTI is a mandatory provision in the NREGA, which means transparency and accountability on the part of government functionaries is now mandatory. That’s how you find out what’s going on, because now the people can’t be refused information. It’s mandatory for every ‘panchayats’ to do a social audit before the next installment of money is released by the government.

WSJ: What is a social audit?

AR: It is an audit where every penny can be tracked, but it goes beyond the money to questions like quality and choice. They are now taking place all over the country. In Andhra Pradesh, they do more than 2 dozen audits every day, and over the last few months they’ve recovered more than 60 million rupees from defaulters…For me, this is democracy at work.

WSJ: Tell me about your Bhilwara social audit?

AR: We were able to get some transparency in the muster rolls, in the labor lists. Then we discovered how money for materials was being wasted. There was this bicycle repair shop that was issuing bills for the supply of cement and materials worth lakhs of rupees. We traced this through VAT, etc, and now the whole lower political system and the lower bureaucracy is up in arms against us. I’ll give you a positive example too. Thirty Bhil tribal families, which have been migrating for several years looking for work in the big cities, for the first time did not migrate last year. Because of the NREGA, they found work in the village.

If there had been a process like this in Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand, in the tribal areas, why should there have been any violence at all? Fifteen years ago, when we talked of social audit, we were told we were Naxalites, but today a social audit is an institutional form of governance.

WSJ: So this is now being replicated all over the country?

AR: Two years ago, an industrial design institute in Pune, Maharashtra, came to us asking us they wanted to look at the tools used by women in the NREGA. In the last 60 years, nobody has taken so much interest in tools used by poor women. What should the ‘gainti’ or the pick-axe be like, can fiber-glass rods be used to reduce its weight, and should it be both-sided or one-sided? What about the ‘tagari,’ or the tray in which the mud is lifted, should it be lighter? If you carry it on your hip, should it be shaped round or should it have a dent?

Now, with one click of the computer mouse you can find out the name of the man or the woman who has got work under NREGA, her job card number, how many days of work they’ve got, how they have been paid, etc. It’s all on the Web site and its open to everyone.

WSJ: Thank you very much.

Paid news, a deep-seated malaise

20 Jan

N. Bhaskara Rao IN THE HINDU JANUARY 20 2010

The practice of paid news is no longer limited to smaller or regional language news media. If not addressed now, it will become overt as a normal course of the news media’s function.

The practice of paid news is not a recent phenomenon. It was blatantly evident in the Assembly and the Lok Sabha elections. It has been there all along in the coverage of corporates also. Earlier, it was limited to a few journalists, and covertly. It has now become an overt and institutionalised affair, as if there was nothing unusual or deviant about this. It has now reached the proportion of being described as “fourth estate on sale” (EPW). This practice is no longer limited to smaller or regional language news media. It is happening all across the news media. Like ‘overzealous ad managers,’ there are overzealous journalists. This practice, if not addressed now, will become formally overt as a normal course of the news media’s function.

It is difficult to define paid news. It could also be described as quid pro quo news, it may even be better described as unfair or camouflaged news or advertising. It may not always be possible to establish something as unfair or camouflaged. But it should be possible to develop a methodology even without circumstantial evidence. There could be an independent monitoring and analysis arrangement in a transparent way for a six-month period before a Legislative Assembly election. An ASCI-like arrangement could be mobilised by the Press Council of India (PCI) and the Election Commission of India (ECI) together. Various bodies like the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) and the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) should also be involved in formulating guidelines. But they should not wait for a consensus.

Much-talked-about political reforms, particularly electoral reforms, are yet to see the light. In the meanwhile, everyone knows how money and media power in India’s electoral politics has been on the increase. The ‘note for vote’ phenomenon nationwide is hardly a secret. Transparency by way of disclosures both by political parties and contesting candidates is vital. The ECI’s measures to restrain money power and media power should be viewed as well within its purview. In a democracy, free and fair elections and a free press are equally important. Each should sustain the vibrancy of the other.

The situation calls for protective measures and corrective initiatives by news media themselves in their own interest and by other stakeholders in civil society. No single initiative or measure can curb such deviant behaviour; a combination is required in the spirit of “checks and balance.” The best bet, of course, is a more active audience and citizenry. But in the absence of such sustained activism, three-pronged efforts are needed. First, from within news media, individually, and as a Fourth Estate institution. Secondly, from professional bodies like academics, independent research and civil society groups. Lastly, from regulatory agencies like the PCI, the ECI, the Information Commission, and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

Series of initiatives needed

1. Dependence on ratings/ranking: There are by corporate instruments, not editorial ones. Discussions on the pros and cons of this syndrome need to be encouraged and promoted so that more reliable and relevant criteria can be evolved in such a way that the credibility of the news media is retained.

2. Disclosure practice: This should happen at two levels. One, news media must state any conflict of interests in the course of news coverage and presentation. The media should also disclose their own ethical code or standards. They should indicate the responsible person for such disclosures periodically, like the readers’ editor, ombudsman or a panel of internal and external experts. The disclosure should also be of revenues, linkages with other industries and corporates, and shareholding in other media. Disclosure should be built into the reporting pattern as well, as Mint has been doing for a couple of years. The news media, for example, should report on their own how much space and time they have devoted to commercials in the previous quarter or six months. Editors too could disclose their assets voluntarily and periodically in their own interest.

3. Redressal arrangements: Complaints about any aspect of media operations have positive implications — for content. There should be some provision for readers and viewers to “write back” or “talk back” and for an explanation in turn by the person responsible in the news media. The Readers Editor of The Hindu has set a good precedent in taking note of complaints and explaining wherever necessary, as he did in the case of the paid news phenomenon. News media should promote such arrangement so that readers and viewers are aware of it. This is over and above what the state agencies are expected to do. In the more specific context of paid news during elections, the Election Commission should be both proactive and also take on measures to curb such practices on its own and preferably with the Press Council of India.

4. Media watch: Academic bodies, independent research agencies, and civil society groups should be encouraged to monitor media contents and articulate their views from time to time. Several such independent media watch groups are needed in the country. Basic data based on trends of space and time for advertisements and analysis of ad content is essential for preventive initiatives. The Centre for Media Studies (CMS) has been doing this. In fact, way back in 1995, it came up with the description, “marketing media not mass media.” And in 2001 it brought out a publication for the first time, “Paradigm shifts in media operations.”

5. Professional bodies engaged or associated with news media in various capacities like the Editors Guild, the Advertising Standards Council of India, journalists associations, and the Indian Broadcasters Foundation, should take the initiative towards a more responsible and accountable news media. This can be done by setting up their own panel, as the Editors Guild did in the case of paid news and codes or guidelines for their members, particularly on conflict of interest.

6. State bodies like the Press Council of India, the Information Commissions, TRAI, and the Election Commission of India need to be proactive. Only then can they play their role. But their taking up deviations by individual news media organisations is equally important. The Press Council should come up with guidelines after involving the media across the country (even if a consensus is not possible) and the Election Commission should take the responsibility to implement the guidelines.

7. The media should be brought under the Right to Information Act (RTI) so that some accountability comes into media operations and managements.

8. Government media campaigns, other than on specific occasions, should be discouraged six months before elections.

9. Real-time counselling services should be provided to individual journalists, political leaders, and candidates in specific situations on how they should go about their tasks in a given context. Such counselling can be by an independent body but specialised.

10. Guidelines, however broad, for the news media on poll coverage should be formulated. Television channels and newspapers should be viewed together in relation to their coverage of candidates, parties, issues, and campaigns.

11. Limits on ads either in terms of percentage of space or time or in terms of percentage of revenue from commercials can be considered. Such limits may not be legally sustainable but could come through a voluntary industrial effort. Apart from this, advertisements of all kinds should be positioned distinctly to demarcate them from the edited space and time the same way as facts and comments are demarcated from news reporting.


The practice of paid news or camouflaged news or advertising is not limited to election times. It was not something new, which was encountered for the first time, during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The practice has been there in many different contexts and for much longer. It is not always possible to isolate such coverage. Circumstantial evidence may not always be available. Nevertheless, guidelines can be worked out for an independent monitoring and analysis arrangement in a transparent way. By not taking cognisance even when the practice has been brought to public notice, the concerned agencies have failed and professional bodies have gone along. The malaise lies much deeper. As free and fair elections are as important as a free and independent press, correctives are needed in our electoral process too. The issues involved need to be addressed comprehensively and the ‘cleaning wounds’ approach will have only a temporary effect.

(Dr. N. Bhaskara Rao is founder Chairman of CMS Academy of Communication & Convergence Studies;


The spectre of farmers’ suicides

15 Jan


Bidyadhar Bag was just 40 when he died. He had rented two acres in Khapsadera village of Orissa’s Sambalpur district to grow food for the family. The payment to the landlord was seven bags of paddy per acre. But the monsoon failed, so Bidyadhar, a father of three, sold household articles to keep the home fires burning. He also owed Rs 5,000 to an SHG (self-help group) and another Rs 10,000 to friends and relatives. Unable to meet any of these commitments, he killed himself in despair.Bidyadhar’s story is not unique. In fact, farmer suicides have become common in Orissa over the last decade. Over 50 farmers have committed suicide in the last six months. According to a study by the Mumbai-based Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, the rate of suicides by farmers went up from 5.2 per 100,000 males in 2000 to 9.8 in 2004 and rising. While this is still low compared to Maharashtra (52) and Andhra Pradesh (44), the trend is disturbing, to say the least.So, what are the reasons? Is it spir­alling debt burdens, or is Orissa again finding itself caught in a trap of tragedy and shame of impoverishment? The government speaks in two voices. One digs up conspiracy theories and the other somewhat reluctantly adm­its to the unfolding tragedy.“Agricultural traditions in Orissa,” reasons agriculture minister Damodar Rout, “are primitive. The  farmers’ tolerance to harsh conditions is quite high, which is why normally they don’t take such steps. It’s an insensitive Opposition and a section of motivated media which have made it out to be so without caring to understand the underlying causes.”On the other hand, “the reasons for suicide apparently are loss of crop and apprehensions over loan repayment, mainly from private sources,” concludes the fact-finding team of the ruling Biju Janata Dal in its report to party supremo and chief minister Naveen Patnaik.Stories of heart-rending distress are not new to a state that shook the heart of the country in the 1980s. The tribal hinterland of Kalahandi shot into the national headlines with shocking reports of starvation deaths. In the KBK region, abject poverty bec­ame a disease that continues to haunt it in the decades that have followed. The shame of hunger deaths was taken to another level in the early 2000s. Tribal deaths rocked Raygada district and this time due to consumption of mango kernels.For a state tagged as India’s hottest industrial and investment destination, it is time to wake up, let go of the fantasies and tackle the realities. And realise that things have not changed much. Hunger, deprivation and poverty still stalk the land.The figures cannot be ignored. Most of the deaths have been reported from the state’s western pockets, which is the rain-shadow zone.  Erra­tic rainfall last year pushed many farmers over the edge, driving them to the ultimate step.It is true, of course, that only a few go to the extreme. If one looks at the farmer sub-group and their suicide rate, one has to look at social as well as economic factors to understand the trend. High indebtedness could be one cause. A glance at the rate of poverty red­uction answers a few questions. In Orissa, the rate has been low — from 48.6 per cent in 1993-94, it dropped to 46.4 per cent in 2004-05. The recent report of the Suresh Tendulkar Committee, which singled out Orissa as one of the poorest states, corroborates this. Small and marginal farmers make up a large segment of the population and they have got no benefit from development programmes.“Agricultural and other labourers in rural Orissa,” says Srijit Mishra, a senior researcher, “have a high incidence of poverty. What’s worrying is 46 per cent are poor among those who are self-employed in agriculture.”Their plight has only worsened as holdings have declined in size over the years while their number has risen. Further, on account of declining retu­rns from agriculture, the incremental value of output has become negative. Over the last decade and a half, the cost of farming has risen multi-fold while returns have crashed, which explains the agrarian distress.With irrigation capacity more or less constant, the erratic monsoon has compounded the misery of the farmers. The Naveen Patnaik government focused on industrial growth and ignored the farm sector. The government’s excessive leniency towards industrial houses in water distribution has triggered serious unrest among farmers.Irrigation potential remains seriously unutilised, exposing farmers to floods and drought, which have recurred with alarming frequency in the last 10 years. The last monsoon saw at least 15 districts reeling under drought and sustained crop loss of 50 percent and more. It is from these districts the suicides reports have poured in.The daughter of Gourahari Patra (50), who ended his life in Sargapalli village of Jharsuguda district, has reason to agree. Her father owned five acres and grew paddy on three. But water stress and pest attacks devastated his crop. The Rs 20,000 Patra had borrowed from a co-operative society and another Rs 20,000 from a private lender became mountainous burdens. “Things became extremely difficult in the family. The pressure of crop loss, loan repayment and inability to provide for us, destroyed his fortitude. But still, he shouldn’t have left us,” she says.Minister Rout dismisses high indebtedness as a cause. “In the period between 1997 and 2008, 48,531 persons committed suicide in Orissa and only 3,509 of them were farmers.”He does, however, agree that small and marginal farmers need support. “We need to give them additional sources of livelihood from dairy, fisheries and other sectors. I have submitted a Rs 5,000-crore plan for the Animal Resources sector with the objective of boosting their income in the long run,” he says. The question is, how much if any of this will they ever see? For Bag and Patra it already too late.With inputs from Ratan K Pani—

Horror seems set to return

The spectre of farmers committing suicide, unable to make ends meet, appears to be slowly coming back to haunt Andhra, notes R Prithvi Raj.

The situation was grim in 2004, the time when N Chandrababu Naidu lost to Congress’ Y S Rajasekhara Reddy. The nine-year rule (1996-2004) of Naidu happened to be a prolonged period of drought and there seemed no end to the farmers’ problems.According to government statistics, during this period, as many as 3,690 people of various vocations committed suicide. This included 2,800 farmers. Most of the farmers had raised cotton and groundnut crops. They lost most of their investment they had leveraged from moneylenders. Unable to bear the debt burden and family life shattered, the farmers turned to the final solution, ending their lives.The nightmare continued till 2004 when YSR, with his pro-farmer avatar, secured a massive mandate from the people of the state. After he took over, as if by miracle, there were good monsoons year after year. Though farmers still depended on moneylenders for investment, they could manage the debt with the income they generated from their farming activity. As ample rains became a common occurrence year after year till 2008-09, farmer suicides became a rarity.But the problem has resurfaced now, with the monsoon playing truant last year. Though YSR was re-elected to power, he could do not do much. After his untimely death in September, the state experienced the worst ever floods with the swollen Krishna River ravaging large parts of the state. Though there was rain, it was too heavy, very late and proved to be of not much use to farmers as kharif season was already coming to an end. This combination of factors sparked a spike in farmer suicides though nothing on so alarming a scale as seen during Naidu’s rule. The Telugu Desam Party this time around championed the cause of farmers in dire straits and alleged that as many as 20 farmers had committed suicide, including 11 in Anantapur.Experts say that another important reason for the state’s farmers ending their lives was the extremely low price offered for their produce. Coupled with low yields as a result of the prolonged dry spells between 1995-2004, it created an impossible situation for them. This cyclical phenomenon of fluctuation of agriculture prices began showing an upward trend in 2004.Says Prof N Chandrasekhara Rao of Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS): “Farmers could manage their debt problem for three years after 2004 because of good monsoon and upward trend in prices for agriculture produce. But this year they are facing problems again. The structural factors still persist, defying a permanent solution. Even today, only 30 per cent of farmers get institutional credit. The rest are woefully dependent on moneylenders. This apart, the productivity of the farm sector has not at all improved,” he says.—

The changing face of Indian media

10 Jan

Journalists must protect social equilibrium, says Justice G.N. Ray

The technological breakthrough in printing has brought in unforeseen structural change in the print media. It has not only helped in better designing and layout and more attractive presentation with improved colour scheme in printing of the papers but also made it feasible and economically viable to print more multi-edition copies faster and at lesser cost with better get up and attractive type, thus, enabling the press to cater to more readers stationed at different locations.

Today’s readers of the print media have a wide variety of options to choose from the publications devoted to specialised subjects because of diverse information easily available on account of technological development. With a click of the mouse news and happenings in every part of the globe are before you.

The advertisement revenue has become the main revenue base of the press. In the case of the metropolitan press, it accounts for about 70-80 per cent of its total revenue. Consequently, space in the newspapers is disproportionately occupied by the advertisements. The gap between news and advertisement ratio is fast widening.

The advertisements have also made inroads in the policy and outlook of the newspapers in more sense than one. With the rapid growth of advertisements by way of corporate communication and for luring potential consumers, the revenue earning of a newspaper from such advertisements is very often quite robust.

Investigative journalism as sting operation has opened a new chapter in the history of the press. It has made the press to acquire a more powerful position and has helped to enhance the image of the press as an active watchdog of society. Unfortunately, investigative journalism has often been misused to settle personal scores or to tarnish the image or blackmail individuals and men in position. This aspect of media behaviour deserves a careful scrutiny for taking appropriate remedial measures.

Today’s media, particularly big national level newspapers, are mostly owned by the corporate houses. These newspapers barring a few are running the newspapers to derive more and more profits like commercial enterprises. More and more revenue from corporate houses and commercial ventures being targeted, news content and articles have orientation suiting corporate houses and business community.

The emergence of big media houses and corporatisation of media is heading fast towards monopoly in the media. This is a matter of concern.

The small and medium newspapers, particularly regional newspapers with low circulation and operating in remote rural areas, are facing acute financial crisis and their survival is at stake because of rapid spreading of wings by big newspapers covering a large number of cities and districts.

The media, like other institutions, has also succumbed to the vice of malpractices and corruption. In the media, such malpractices operate in both explicit and implicit forms. Yellow journalism and blackmail were the known forms of corruption in journalism. But in today’s media functioning, subtle and implicit form of corruption is creating greater mischief.

The distortion, disinformation and “paid news syndrome” aimed to serve certain interests and suppression of news and concerns of other interests have become a usual feature in the media. The promotion of certain politicians and political groups, business magnets, commercial and industrial interests, products and services, and entertainment programmes through induced news and favourable articles and in the process, maligning rivals through interviews, articles, reports, so-called surveys and reviews have ushered in an era of tainted communication.

In the last parliamentary elections, the media in general and print media in particular has indulged in nefarious monetary deals with some politicians and candidates by agreeing to publish only their views not as advertisements but as news items and not to publish the viewpoints of other candidates and even publish news items against rival candidates as desired by the other party in exchange of specified amount of money. This “paid news syndrome” was so rampant that voices of concern were raised by members of various journalists’ unions and also members of civil society and eminent media personalities.

A committee has been set up by the Press Council of India to collect inputs from various parts of the country and make in-depth study of the malady of “paid news syndrome” in elections and to make its recommendation to the Press Council. Newspapers enjoy freedom of speech and expression as the watchdog of the nation and as a representative voice of the people with a solemn duty to inform the people and the government correctly and dispassionately. They do not enjoy freedom of speech and expression to misinform and give distorted news and project views of a particular party or group in the guise of news for monetary consideration.

Of late, trial by media of sub judice matters and incorrect reporting of court proceedings have become a disturbing phenomenon. Being perturbed by this growing menace, at the initiation of the Chief Justice of India, the Supreme Curt Legal Services Authority in association with Press Council of India, Editors’ Guild of India and Indian Law Institute organised a national level seminar in New Delhi to discuss this malady and to evolve remedial measures which were followed by regional conferences held in Kochi, Bhubaneswar, Mumbai and Guwahati. A training programme for reporters of court proceedings was also arranged.

Earlier, the editor used to control the contents of the newspaper, including the advertisements. Today, the office of the editor has been marginalised and the editor has very little or no say about the contents of the newspaper. It is the manager or director in-charge of advertisement who decides what space is to be left for contents to be published other than advertisements or write-ups desired by the advertisers and corporate sector.

It, therefore, does not require imagination to comprehend that real contents in the newspaper will be consumer and material-oriented thereby blatantly ignoring appropriate news. There is an imperative need to address serious issues for public awareness and good governance.

The representatives of media in seminars or round table concerning media functioning often assert boldly that the news contents are aimed to cater the felt-eed of the readers which they perceive as their duty and first priority. Such assertion is not only incorrect but a random statement without any basis.

The media being the most powerful mass communicator and watchdog of the nation and also the fourth pillar of democracy has a solemn duty to educate and inform people properly and correctly with appropriate news contents and not to slowly inert the urge of the readers for good and rich news contents, articles and write-ups.

By highlighting the needs and aspirations of the grassroot level of society, the media can truly contribute to the creation of a vibrant and developing India where every citizen would be equal.

The press in India has always been at the forefront of national life. Even though there has been a considerable erosion of ethics over the decades since Independence, the basic values adhered to by the Indian media over the ages, still continue to inspire. The media has always risen to the situation whenever there is a crisis.

In this new era of journalism rich with booming information and mindboggling entertainment and in the context of global invasion and competition, the need of the hour is sober introspection by the journalists and not losing the focus on the paramount duty of the media to be the fourth estate without making any compromise with vested interest.

In a multi-religious, multilingual and multi-ethnic denominations comprising the polity of India, the social fabric is quite delicate. Journalists must be very sensitive to this delicate and fragile social structure and should refrain from doing any act which may even remotely disturb the equilibrium of society.

The writer is Chairman, Press Council of India, New Delhi. This article is excerpted from his keynote address at the inaugural session of National Press Day in Hyderabad

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