Does The New York Times have an India problem?

A look at three India-based op-eds published over the past 18 months.

ByRain Man
Does The New York Times have an India problem?
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The New York Times’ (NYT) public editor recently wondered if the news organisation has a “Hillary Problem”. The article was referring to how NYT has trouble reporting accurately on Hillary Clinton.

On reading NYT stories about India, you wonder if the organisation has an India problem too.

Here are three examples of NYT stories on India from the last 18 month, which created a lot of buzz, but are riddled with half-truths and inaccuracies.

1) “India’s Attack on Free Speech”
— Sonia Faleiro (October 2, 2015)

In her recently published op-ed, Faleiro doesn’t bury the lede, and ties the attack on free speech to the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government.

Here are the first few paragraphs:

IN today’s India, secular liberals face a challenge: how to stay alive.

In August, 77-year-old scholar M. M. Kalburgi, an outspoken critic of Hindu idol worship, was gunned down on his own doorstep. In February, the communist leader Govind Pansare was killed near Mumbai. And in 2013, the activist Narendra Dabholkar was murdered for campaigning against religious superstitions.

These killings should be seen as the canary in the coal mine: Secular voices are being censored and others will follow.

While there have always been episodic attacks on free speech in India, this time feels different. The harassment is front-page news, but the government refuses to acknowledge it. Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence is being interpreted by many people as tacit approval, given that the attacks have gained momentum since he took office in 2014 and are linked to Hindutva groups whose far-right ideology he shares.

The main issue with Faleiro’s assertion is that she portrays the attack on free speech and on rationalists as mainly driven by the current BJP government, and gives the impression that it was “episodic” before the BJP government came to power in 2014.

However, an analysis of data shows that India has always been attacking free speech. Here is a matrix of three deaths referenced in Faleiro’s article and governments in charge at the Center and state.

PersonDate of incident /issueState governmentCentral government
Narendra Dabholkar20 August, 2013CongressCongress
Govind Pansare20 February, 2015BJPBJP
M M Kalburgi30 August, 2015CongressBJP

This matrix doesn’t include Sanal Edamaruku, who showed that the source of water coming out of an idol at a church was from a drain and was chased away to Finland by Catholic organisations in Mumbai when the Congress government was in power at the state and Center.

Here are some more examples of “India attacking free speech” pre-May 2014 from Ogmer’s news archive database:

India has always had a free speech problem. It was never and is not a monopoly of the BJP government. By making it look like it’s a problem of a specific government, she misdirects readers’ attention.

2) “India’s Feudal Rapists”
— Fontanella Khan (June 4, 2014)

Amana Fontanella Khan in an op-ed in NYT injected caste, using questionable statistics and research, into a very charged issue.

The article’s central thesis refers to a statistic:

”Dalit women are still the most likely to be victims of gang rapes. An analysis of Uttar Pradesh’s crime statistics for 2007 by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties showed that 90 percent of rape victims in 2007 were Dalit women.”

The “90 percent” link goes to this BBC article from 2011 that talks about the problem of rape in Uttar Pradesh. The article quotes SR Darapuri, who is vice-president of People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Uttar Pradesh: “I analysed the rape figures for 2007 and I found that 90% of victims were Dalits and 85% of Dalit rape victims were underage girls,” he says.

A search on Google for Darapuri and his assertions shows no evidence of a study on the issue. Darapuri is a member of the Republican Party of India. The Republican Party of India has its roots in the Scheduled Caste movement of Dr BR Ambedkar. However, search results show Darapuri referencing rape and Dalits in Uttar Pradesh in this article. The article cites reports from the National Crime Records Bureau. Here is the latest report for 2012.

On Page 206, Table 1.8, Uttar Pradesh, shows total rape cases of 1,963 cases. Page 424, Table 7.2, shows 285 rape cases against Scheduled Castes (a term used interchangeably with Dalits) in UP. This comes to 14.5 per cent (285/1,963). Dalits constitute about 21 per cent of Uttar Pradesh’s population.

If you look at the 2007 NCRB report as well, the assertion that “90 percent of rape victims in 2007 are Dalit women” doesn’t hold true. If you look at Page 5 of this document of NCRB 2007, it shows a total of 1,648 rape cases in UP and 20,737 cases across India in 2007. The first page of this document of the same 2007 NCRB report shows 318 rape case against Dalit women in UP and 1,349 across all of India. The percentage of rapes on Dalit women comes to 19.2 per cent in UP and 6.5 per cent for India.  Additionally, the assertion that “85% of Dalit rape victims were underage girls” is also not borne out by the NCRB data. Page 5 of the same document of NCRB 2007 shows that 71 per cent in UP and 75 per cent in India of all rape cases were actually above the age of 18.

Based on these statistics, rapes against Dalit women (assuming the male/female ratios are the same across all caste groups), is actually less than the overall population. On one hand, there seems to be no evidence of Darapuri’s analysis that the NYT piece mentions and, on the other, the article that Darapuri writes references a statistical report that contradicts his claims.

The claim that 90 per cent of women who are raped are Dalits is statistically startling. Even more startling is the assertion that 85 per cent of those Dalit rape victims are underage girls. This implies that about 75 per cent of rape victims are underage Dalit girls. A statistical anomaly that needs to be backed with more credible evidence than a single person’s assertion.

There could also be problems with reporting of rape statistics. The same BBC article that Fontanella Khan refers to can’t seem to make up its mind if rape statistics are credible or not. Here is the main assertion that UP is particularly bad:

Mrs Joshi says “at the moment, Uttar Pradesh is one of the worst places to be a woman”. Her claim is borne out by official statistics. According to National Crime Records Bureau figures for 2009, 1,759 women were raped in the state. That is almost five rapes a day.

Then, the counterpoint:

 Officials, however, say that is not bad for a population of 200 million. “We are the largest state in terms of population, but if you take the percentage of rapes, we are number 28th in the country,” Inspector General of Police GP Sharma told the BBC, stressing that the incidence of rape in the state was very low.

And, then, the backtrack:

 The statement has incensed activists. They say statistics do not reveal the real picture and only a tiny fraction of the crimes are reported and registered. In traditional Indian society, virginity before marriage is cherished and rape carries great stigma. Mr Darapuri, who is a retired police officer, says the police also keep the figures down. “The police do not want to register cases because they have been told by their political bosses to keep the crime figures low.”. For every case that gets registered, he says, at least nine go unrecorded. “The official statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau are just the tip of the iceberg. I get daily calls about atrocities, including rapes, and in a majority of cases, police do not register them.” Mr Sharma admits that under-reporting of crime is a problem, but insists the government is working to address it.

Again, these statistics come from reports from the National Crime Records Bureau. The same 2012 report shows MP has the highest cases with 3,425 rape cases in 2012, followed by Rajasthan (2,049) and then UP at 1,963. On a per capita basis, UP could actually be in the low end.

If there is under-reporting, wouldn’t it be across all demographic segments? If so, then it is worth investigating why the differences are so startling, especially for Dalits.

The BBC article was written in 2011 when Mayawati, a woman Dalit chief minister was running Uttar Pradesh. Any discussion of pre-dominance of rape against Dalit women has to factor in how rapes against Dalit women are the most when a Dalit woman is running the show.

The article mainly talks about the Katra Saadatganj case, where two Dalit girls were killed. The main accused are from the Yadav community. The Yadav’s in UP are not from a feudal caste and are classified as OBC (Other Backward Castes).

Rape, especially across caste/class/race is a very charged topic. We would be well served to see the documentary “The Central Park Five”, on how a group of four black and one hispanic juveniles, were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman. The documentary goes into how a racially-charged atmosphere created a false positive in the justice system.

Rape is a horrific crime and there could be a class/caste angle to the problem. However, if there indeed is a specific demographic angle to it, we need to be especially careful in using statistics in introducing that into an already charged atmosphere.

3) “Holding Your Breath in India”
— Gardiner Harris (May 19, 2015)

Newslaundry’s Anand Ranganathan dissected the issues with that NYT article in great detail.  Here is an excerpt from that article:

For an article that talks in excruciating detail of the cataclysmic effect Delhi’s air has had on the health of the author’s child – and the ethical dilemma faced by expats, whether they should risk raising their loved ones in this godforsaken metropolis – for all those morbid adjectives and gut-wrenching, bile-inducing descriptions, Harris quotes but a single scientific study.

“Delhi, we discovered,” he writes, “is quietly suffering from a dire pediatric respiratory crisis, with a recent study showing that nearly half of the city’s 4.4 million schoolchildren have irreversible lung damage from the poisonous air.”

Single it may be, a citation is still a citation. Except that here it is in the form of an article written in The Indian Express, and worse, the study it quotes is born out of data that was collected between 2002 and 2005. Yes, more than 10 years ago.

Discounting the fact that Harris insists on calling it “a recent study”; discounting also the fact that The Indian Express blunders with their subheading  “Just under half of the 44 lakh schoolchildren studied…” it says, while in reality only 11,628 schoolchildren were studied and the results of the survey extrapolated – the cited report is as comprehensive as one can get.

The study points to the harmful effect Delhi’s air had on the health of 11,628 schoolchildren between 2002-2005: “In lung tests conducted on 5,718 students, 43.5% suffered from “poor or restrictive lungs”; about 15% of the children surveyed complained of frequent eye irritation, 27.4% of frequent headache, 11.2% of nausea, 7.2% of palpitation and 12.9% of fatigue.”

But it is more nuanced than that. The study surveyed children from 36 schools, six of which were situated on Delhi’s main roads that are notoriously choked with traffic all through the day, with one, Lakshmi Public School – that presented one-tenth of the children surveyed – located near one of Delhi’s biggest bottle-necks – Vikas Marg intersection. It is also worth noting that in 2002, Delhi’s fleet of 6,000 rickety diesel buses had not yet been phased out despite Supreme Court orders, nor had most of the 25,000 odd auto rickshaws converted to compressed natural gas, or CNG.

In the age group of six to eight – the same as Harris’ son – the prevalence of current asthma in Delhi’s children was found to be marginally higher: 2.5 per cent compared to two per cent in the control group. Prevalence of current asthma shot up in children belonging to large-sized families and families with poor socioeconomic background (5.1 per cent for a family size greater than six).

The study found a strong positive association between PM10 and eye irritation, but not with asthma or headache. (PM10, or Particulate Matter of size 10 microns, and PM2.5, or Particulate Matter with size equal to or less than 2.5 microns, are the two major determinants of air pollution. It is now an accepted scientific fact that prevalence of PM2.5 – measured in µg/m3 – is more dangerous than PM10 as it settles deep inside the lungs).

Twenty-seven per cent of Delhi’s children studied were exposed to cigarette smoke at home (Control 28 per cent) and, crucially, the study found that a child’s BMI, or Body Mass Index, has a profound influence on his lung function.

Common themes across the three articles

The main theme across all the three articles was based on a central argument that was not backed by data. And wherever a study was used to hold the arguments together, an in-depth examination of the study would refute the primary arguments. NYT editorial management may not have their ear to the ground for India-related issues and, therefore, may “outsource” stories to who they consider to be India “experts” without the same rigorous fact-checking as US stories. However, if NYT is serious about covering India, it needs to have the same rigorous standards for India as they do for other issues they cover.

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