We Indians have a great gift for creating myths. There is hardly any field of day-to-day life in which we do not weave myths. Religion, spiritual life, politics, history, sociology- think of any area and you will find nothing has been spared. Needless to say, media plays a crucial role in creating and propagating myths. In performing this role, the mass media has reached a stage where it has started spinning myths about itself. This phenomenon calls for some serious introspection.
One myth, which is in currency, is that with the spread of literacy in India, newspaper readership is growing. Exaggerated figures are presented to prove the point, and people readily believe them. It’s an old adage that there are three kinds of lies- lie, white lie and statistics. People often forget this. How the figures spread a lie, has been illustrated in a recent article by Ravindra Kumar, Managing Editor of The Statesman. He has threadbare analyzed that how in this age of cut-throat competition so-called national newspapers are resorting to statistics for boosting up their image. They would like us to believe that the circulation of Mumbai-based newspapers has remained static, but in the same time- period it has grown by 200% to 300% in Chennai, Delhi and Kolkata. Shri Kumar asks is it because a big newspaper in Mumbai is not facing any competition unlike other metros, so there is no need for cooking up the figures? Well, this is one aspect of myth-making.
There is a more important angle to this myth of circulation and readership figures, that how this growth has been achieved, and who has benefited. It’s a well-known fact that nowadays the newspapers are sold on the strength of myriad gift schemes, and not on the content. An average reader is tempted when a newspaper/magazine offers gifts and lucky-draws for the subscription. A reader may win at least a travel bag, a wrist-watch or a pair of plastic chairs, if not a free air-ticket to a foreign country. In this scheme of things, the newspaper as a product has been relegated to secondary position. One may read it or not. It should be obvious that a buyer lured by gift schemes is never a serious reader. That is why, serious journals like EPW, Mainstream, Frontline, The Hindu, Hans, Kathadesh, Vasudha and Bahuvachan etc. don’t ever indulge in such gimmicks.
This scenario gives rise to some more questions. In last few years, fast food chains like McDonalds have opened their outlets in India. From Chandigarh to Chennai, one can enjoy a burger in these restaurants. But have these junk-food stalls proved to be beneficial to health of India, and can they be deemed as true symbols of India’s onward march? We know that liquor consumption is increasing in the country at an alarming rate. Bars and pubs have come up here and there. Even in small towns so-called Dhabas have opened which the youngsters for a mug or two of beer frequent. But should we accept them as testimonials of progress of the town? One may ask that what all these examples have to do with the media. The answer is not far to seek. Is the media portraying genuine social concerns? Has it benefited the people? The answer is no. I raised the point about myth-making. The myths have become the vehicle to carry the dream of economic prosperity and overall happiness in our country. Fast-food, mineral water, cable TV, glossy magazines and per capita consumption are the tools of the myth making industry. This needs to be understood in proper perspective.
On one hand are the myths of prosperity. On the other side is ground reality, with multiple dimensions. Let us take example of water. The Supreme Court instructed that the task of river-linking should be completed within twenty years. Govt. of India went one step further and assured that it would be done by 2016. Heated debates are going on in the media about the proposal. Politicians, bureaucrats, contractors and manufacturers of cement and steel etc. are elated. Within a short duration of about four weeks the myth has been sold to the people of India, that river-linking would solve all water-related problems of the country. But would this really happen? If the media is honest to itself, it must carry a thorough examine. It must ask, for example, that what was the original schedule for the Narmada water to reach Kutch, to what extent project has been completed, and whether there will be enough water in Narmada on the day canal system becomes fully operational? Another point can be raised about the end result of the Ganga-cleaning operation undertaken during Rajeev Gandhi’s regime. What was the cost involved in it, could it take the desired shape, and did it give expected results? More question then will be asked, such as why urban and even rural, tanks and ponds are disappearing, who is reaping the profits by raising shopping malls on the lands so reclaimed, and why can’t water supply through municipal pipe-lines, in stead of water tankers, be ensured in the cities?
Another question is about the food. It is common knowledge that the godowns of the Food Corporation are over-flowing with food grain. Yet, a vast number of poor has no access to it. We know that average calorie intake in Russia has come down from three thousand to two thousand per day and average life-expectancy has decreased from seventy years to sixty years in just ten year’s time. This is one eye-opening result of the collapse of the socialist system. But where do we stand and what is the attitude of our media on what ails us? Our editors ask the Prime minister on his birthday that what does he take for breakfast; others print photographs of sweat-meat baskets being presented to Sonia Gandhi on her birthday. We show, without any remorse, BJP leaders pushing laddus down each others throats. Amidst this if some day news is published about starvation death in some remote tribal village, denial is promptly published without asking any questions. Such is our attitude in almost all spheres of life. One need not go into details.
One can see islands of prosperity emerging out of the ocean of poverty and misery. All communication satellites and printing facilities are based in and operated from these islands. Those who are exceptions prove the rule. Myths are manufactured and floated from these sources, and are used to prevent the truth to prevail. Tall tales are told about water being dispatched from Gangotri to Kanyakumari, but no one talks about the village woman commuting five kilometers a day to fetch a bucket of water. Much ado is made in the cities about the rising price of LPG, but silence is maintained about the poor woman gathering deadwood in the jungle to kindle the fire in her Chulha. Scores of tribals are sent to jail on false charges without trial, but nobody takes pains to visit the deserted villages. The mid-day meal ration is stolen by showing bogus enrollment in the schools, but none writes about it.
As against this, what is circulated in the name of truth has no direct bearing on the society. The so-called spiritual leaders give sermons on TV channels on sublime values, but then Gujrat happens. The newspaper columns are replete with photographs of social events of the privileged class like competition for ice-cream eating, or beauty contest, or cooking competition. Shrewd manipulators are anointed as social workers by the media. In order to secure its place on the island of prosperity, the media enters into all sorts of compromises and dutifully plays its role in spreading myths.
This situation may prevail for a long time, but it will not last forever. Some day the people will find their lost moorings. India has not witnessed any large-scale mass-movement for several decades, but waves of change have risen in other parts of the world and sprinkles have reached us too. This is the time that India needs an alternative media, which is free of hypocrisy, can make distinction between myth and reality, and stands up for the truth and the people. There may be the problem of resources for this media and for the journalists. This media will not have access to glossy magazines, cable and TV, but the inherent power of the people will be its greatest asset and resource. The need of the day is to have every village its own newspaper. It may be in the form of a wall-paper. It should print news about the real issues, and discuss them openly. Social workers and media workers and students and labor leaders should give this proposal a serious thought.
Written and translated by Lalit Surjan
Weekly column published in Deshbandhu, Raipur on 26th December 2002