From health emergency to parliament, little changes for the media under new govt

Like this government’s past record on human rights, it is unlikely that the media will suddenly change.

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
A TV screen showing Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi meeting Om Birla.

The death of a poor person is rarely front-page news, especially in this post-election season when the daily drama of the 18th Lok Sabha is understandably drawing attention. But even as we watch this session of the Lok Sabha and note the changes and the repetitions from the past, it is important to remember that in the last month, hundreds of Indians have been killed, not due to the spread of a disease but because of extreme heat.

But first, coverage of the Lok Sabha session. Thanks to Sansad TV, the live telecast is available for anyone interested in knowing who says what on the floor of the House. This also facilitates the sharing of video clips on social media. So, even if television channels and newspapers pick and choose what they report, much more is circulating by way of social media. 

Take, for instance, the statement by first-time MP Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi from Kashmir.  When he got up to speak, he reminded the newly elected Speaker, Om Birla, of what had occurred when he occupied the same chair in the previous Lok Sabha. He mentioned how a Muslim MP had been called a terrorist, and also spoke about how little time had been allotted to debate the reading down of Article 370. 

Reminiscent of his actions in the previous Lok Sabha, Birla interrupted the MP and asked him to stop and sit down. The next day, this exchange did not make it to any of the prominent English language national newspapers. It had, however, already been circulated on social media platforms.

Then take the invocation of the Emergency by both the Speaker and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Solemn sentiments were expressed about democracy and the dangers of dictatorship. The reason for this, one assumes, was that the session was held on the anniversary of the declaration of Emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975. However, the motive behind bringing this up was obvious. The government, and the Speaker, who is supposed to be non-partisan, used the occasion to hit at the largest party in the opposition, the Congress.

The next day, only one paper, The Hindu, called out the blatant hypocrisy. The Congress Party was in power when Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency. And it was a dark period, as anyone – including this writer – who lived through it will confirm. For journalists, it was particularly dire, with direct censorship and the threat of imprisonment hanging over your head if you dared to publish the truth.

Yet today, 49 years later (not 50 as Modi and others insist it is), where do we stand regarding freedom and fundamental rights? Has there been any indication so far that the coalition government headed by Narendra Modi will backtrack on some of the laws and regulations that are on the anvil to curb freedom of expression and restrict the media? That it will reverse its actions that are reminiscent of the Emergency? 

As The Hindu points out in its editorial:

“If the government of the day is truly committed to undo the damages of the Emergency and not repeat its grave errors, it would have not taken recourse to the same measures in the recent past, seen in the attack on the free press, the use of enforcement and investigative agencies to selectively target Opposition representatives, and draconian preventive detention laws to keep political prisoners, activists and journalists in jail without trial, including by the foisting of charges against them.” 

By attacking the Congress on its record on fundamental rights, the government is clearly trying to deflect any attempt by the united opposition to raise questions around fundamental rights and freedom.  We will have to wait to see if any of the parties in the opposition decide to call out the government on this issue. 

Even as we wait for that, we will probably have to wait even longer for our elected representatives on either side of the political divide to wake up to the ugly reality of climate change and its devastating impact on the poorest and the most vulnerable in this country.

The whole of northern India, and in fact the subcontinent, has been reeling under high temperatures accompanied by high humidity. The combination is a killer. And those dying, literally collapsing on the streets, are poor people who have no choice but to continue doing back-breaking manual labour in this heat.  An estimated 300 million of India’s adult workforce is engaged in this kind of manual labour.

Yet, it is difficult to come across any reporting on this health emergency in our major newspapers. Fortunately, independent news platforms are reporting on this unfolding tragedy that has been invisibilised by an indifferent media.

Take this excellent story by Anumeha Yadav in the Migration Story. She visited one hospital in Delhi to track the impact of the heat wave. In Delhi in May, temperatures exceeded 45 degrees Celsius for 16 days. She describes the condition of a migrant worker, identified simply as Rohit, who lay unconscious with a body temperature of 40.5 degrees Celsius.

Rohit is typical of the men who work as manual labourers, pushing handcarts, working as construction workers, or as cooks in hot kitchens with little ventilation, or as delivery workers. They get no respite even when they return to their rooms in poor settlements where there is practically no ventilation, and the tin roofs make them like ovens. No human, even a perfectly healthy person, can survive in these conditions.

The heat crisis might not be like a pandemic, but it is a silent killer of the poorest and the most vulnerable. The minority, people who earn enough to afford coolers and air-conditioners and who need not step out in the heat, are also affected but have ways to survive. Not the poor. And it is their story that we in the media must tell because ultimately the crisis the world faces with a rapidly warming planet will affect everyone. 

Will mainstream media, obsessed as it is with the rich and the powerful, turn its gaze towards such a story? Again, like this government’s past record on human rights, it is unlikely that the media will suddenly change. 

In the meantime, we must appreciate that some determined journalists are stepping out and reporting. This video by the team at Newslaundry is another example of such reporting as is this article in Migration Story on the specific impact of the excessive heat on women workers.

An added complication is the fact that medically, it is challenging to certify a death as that caused by heat, as this story in Scroll explains. Furthermore, we do not get accurate mortality figures because there is no clear system of certification. The only way, as several experts have emphasised is to look at normal mortality figures and check if these are noticeably higher. Such an exercise was done during the Covid pandemic to give us a more accurate count of deaths due to the virus at a time when the government was attempting to downplay the real mortality numbers.

Dealing with the impact of climate change in a poor country like India calls for policy interventions by the government. The people most affected, the poor, cannot push for this. The responsibility lies with the media to put pressure on policy makers by reporting on the current heat crisis that is daily killing hundreds of Indians.

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