Rahul Gandhi's on February 2, in response to the union budget, made it to some front pages﹘Indian Express, Telegraph and Hindustan Times, but not the Hindu or the Mumbai edition of Times of India.
While the Hindu ran it across two columns on page 8, TOI did not report it at all in the edition I checked. It was an important intervention, whether you agreed with what he said or not. Then why bury it, or ignore it altogether?
The newspapers that did report Gandhi's speech picked his key point about there being two Indias, one of the rich and the other of the poor.
This is not even a debatable issue any more given the statistics in the on inequality in India. The top 10 percent of the country control 77 percent of its wealth. And between 2018 and 2022, India has apparently produced 70 new millionaires a day, states the report.
That other India, of the poor, was barely represented in the media as a whole on the days following the economic survey and the budget. Many pages, with colourful graphics and illustrations, were devoted exclusively to reporting and comment on the budget. Typically, the most space was given to the responses from industry and the markets.
How many newspapers sent out reporters to speak to poor people to find out whether the budget means anything to them or not?
In the 1980s, when neither private television channels nor social media existed, print media made it a ritual to get the views of the aam janta on the budget. Of course, quite often this vox populi consisted of a quote from the cigarette and paan vendor outside the respective newspaper office. But at least an effort was made to find out what ordinary people thought.
Today, it is evident that media houses calculate that these voices will not sell their product. So why devote space to them?
On the day the budget was presented, I spoke to two men who can be found on a pavement in one of Mumbai's upmarket localities. Shankar is a cobbler, originally from Satna district in Madhya Pradesh. Srinath sells bananas and is from Allahabad (now Prayagraj) district in Uttar Pradesh. Both men have been around for over two decades. Shankar has a room elsewhere; Srinath sleeps on the pavement next to his stall.
Neither had any idea what I was talking about when I asked them about the budget. Did they know that this happened every year, I asked. No, said both.
I explained briefly what it was about. Srinath, who is always ready with a philosophical comment to any question I ask, said, “What difference does it make to our lives what these politicians say? We are barely surviving.” Shankar echoed these sentiments, adding that in his village, people had no work. He had no option but to continue to sit on that patch of pavement and work as a cobbler.
I know two is not a representative sample. But any conversation, even if it is not for a story, with that other India reminds us that for a vast majority of this country, the hectic and loud discussions on television, or the learned op-eds in print on the annual union budget, mean very little.
What Gandhi said will be debated, and ironically the responses to his speech by ministers and spokespersons of the BJP will be reported at length even if what he said was barely covered. But apart from the slanging matches that have predictably followed Gandhi's speech, surely the media can occasionally turn its eyes towards that other India? Speaking to people like Shankar and Srinath might not make for scintillating copy. But talking to them acknowledges that they exist, that they are as much a part of this country as the experts we quote.
K Sujatha Rao, former union health secretary, in her in Indian Express on February 2, makes a telling comment that ought to be a cue for a media follow up. She writes, “Inequalities have widened. An estimated Rs 70,000 crores have been spent by the people in this short time for medical treatment that the government ought to have provided.” The period she is referring to is the Covid pandemic. The Oxfam report quoted above reiterates this by pointing out that health care in India is virtually a luxury good, only available if you can pay for it.
Yet, given that health reporting has now become one of the most important beats in the last two years, you have to work hard to find the stories that tell us about the state of public health care. Most often such stories can only be found on independent digital platforms.
Take, for instance, by Parth M N on the Pari website. He reports from UP about a community of Musahars, the lowest even amongst scheduled caste communities. His story tells us not just about the lack of adequate health infrastructure, but also about deep prejudice, where a Musahar woman is forced to deliver her child on the pavement outside a hospital because the staff will not admit her.
Another woman tells him how many of them preferred to stay at home when they took ill during the second wave of the pandemic last year rather than go to a hospital. “Who wants to be humiliated when you are already scared of the virus?” she said.
Parth also spoke to Muslims in nearby villages who tell their own stories of discrimination and being compelled to go from one hospital to another to get emergency treatment. As a result, most of them have built up debts due to medical expenditures.
Illustrating Sujatha Rao’s point about the money people have been forced to spend during these pandemic years, Parth writes, “In many of UP’s villages across nine districts, people’s debt grew by 83 percent in the first three months of the pandemic (April to June 2020). The data was gathered through a by COLLECT, a collective of grassroots organisations. It recorded that in July-September and October-December 2020, the increase in indebtedness was 87 and 80 percent respectively."
This is the type of granular reporting that is sadly missing from the English print media today, barring an exceptional story. As a result, that other India is vanishing from our consciousness, even though it represents the majority of the citizens of this country.
In the past, election coverage gave journalists an opportunity to understand the real problems that people faced in rural India.
Today, you read endless reports about caste and community calculations and the strengths and weaknesses of various political parties and politicians in the fray. While this has to be reported, do people reading these stories know anything about the region being covered? Do these places have their own histories? What are the sources of livelihood? Is there availability of water? What about public health care facilities? Are they within reach or do most people pay private doctors and fall into debt? And what about environmental issues?
These issues can be integrated into the reporting on elections. They give the reader a picture of parts of India that are otherwise routinely ignored. They come into our line of vision only if there is a major calamity. And, of course, during an election.
Such stories make for much more interesting reading than the routine and predictable. Yet, once again, it is hard to find such reporting in mainstream media. On the other hand, independent digital platforms like Newslaundry, Wire and Scroll are doing this with fewer resources.
While at least some people have appreciated Rahul Gandhi’s reminder of the other India in his speech, it is likely to be forgotten soon. As election day approaches, Big Media is in full form speculating about winners and losers. In the meantime, the Shankars and the Srinaths of this country will still be there, just barely.
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