Hearing petitions about the Covid catastrophe unfolding in the capital on Monday, the Delhi High Court asked the Arvind Kejriwal government why they hadn’t yet advertised in leading newspapers for doctors to man new Covid facilities.
“You have yourself pointed out,” a bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli said, “that there is a dearth of doctors. Let's not run away from that...When there is election time, we see full page ads. Where is it?”
The government responded that they were in the process of putting out such ads and that they had already conducted 800 walk-in interviews for these posts. They did, however, release at least one such ad, on April 30.
Still, the court’s observation raises a valid point. Governments, central and state, spend crores of taxpayer money on publicity, particularly in election seasons. Why aren’t they spending on public health campaigns, in the middle of a raging pandemic no less? Where, for one, are publicity campaigns promoting the 18-44 age group vaccination drive, which was rolled out 10 days ago?
Newslaundry looked at five top English dailies – Delhi editions of the Times of India, Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Kolkata edition of the Telegraph, and Chennai edition of the Hindu – and two Hindi papers – Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagran – from April 30 to May 10 to see if they carried any government ads related to the vaccination drive.
Here’s what we found.
The Times of India and the Hindustan Times carried an ad by the Delhi government promoting the vaccination drive on May 2.
Dainik Bhaskar didn’t carry any ads about the vaccination drive. It did, however, run Haryana government’s ads on various aspects of Covid almost every day from April 30 to May 9.
In the same period, the Hindi paper also published ads about various Haryana government schemes.
In the absence of a government publicity campaign, Dainik Bhaskar did a public service announcement on its own regarding the vaccination drive.
The Hindu had no government ads about the vaccination drive. But, on May 10, it ran a frontpage ad of the Tamil Nadu government promising rice and Rs 2,000 in relief to people with ration or family cards.
Like Dainik Bhaskar, the Hindu, of its own initiative, twice carried two pages on “Covid resources”.
So, what did governments prioritise in advertising over the vaccination drive?
Five of the seven newspapers carried a full page ad by the Rajasthan government on May 1. In the Indian Express, it appeared on the front page.
The same day, the union culture ministry put out an ad celebrating the 400th Parkash Purab of Guru Teg Bahadur, as did Punjab and Haryana governments.
On May 6, the Telegraph saw a full page Bengal government ad about Mamata Banerjee taking oath as the chief minister for her third term.
On May 9, Bengal’s information and cultural affairs department put out two ads in the newspaper dedicated to Rabindranath Tagore.
On May 7, most newspapers carried a full page ad by the defence ministry about the Border Roads Organisation celebrating its 61st raising day. This was the only publicity ad, apart from the culture ministry’s Guru Teg Bahadur ad, that the central government put out in any of the seven newspapers between April 30 and May 10.
That’s curiously frugal of a government that has in the last seven years bombarded the taxpayer with ads, paid for by the taxpayer, displaying smiling faces of prime minister Narendra Modi.
In this time of confusion, frustration and despair, a publicity campaign pushing the vaccination drive or providing clarity about it would have greatly aided the cause of public health. Yet, the country’s seven leading papers carried a solitary government ad publicising the drive in the first 10 days after it was launched.