Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The forgotten poor - Part I

Anita drew my attention to an article that I had briefly noted in the Deccan Herald of April 23, 2007, which can be found here. It is good enough to be reproduced here, without permission, of course.

The forgotten poor

By K N Hari Kumar

The mass media has in recent years rarely focused on the problems and plight of the poor in India.

The need for development journalism, or journalism from the perspective of improving the living conditions of the poor, has acquired fresh urgency in recent years. For, in our country today the poor have been largely forgotten, ignored, sidelined and marginalised in the national reform agenda of liberalisation and globalisation adopted by our political leadership. Except when the latter have been hit where it hurts — as in the last general elections when it was perceived that the votes of the poor had led to the defeat of the ruling coalition in the Centre. But this challenge, by those who have got little, if any, of the much-touted benefits from the decade-and-a-half-old reform programme, has not been of such a nature as to lead to a radical transformation of the policies and actions of the government, or even those of most of the politicians and parties in the opposition. Besides a few gestures, including some handouts and much lip service, the basic programme of the nation remains unchanged. Hence, the interminable discussion day in and day out in the public sphere about the rates of growth (of Gross Domestic Product, industry, IT exports mostly) aimed at and achieved and strategies to increase, ignoring the alternative human development index which was developed to measure diverse aspects of the quality of life of the common people.

It is in this context that the mantra 2020, the avowed goal of which is to transform us into a developed nation by that year, should be seen. That objective is sought to be achieved by a variety of methods and strategies. Among these are, first, providing huge monetary incentives to the rich and super rich largely in the urban areas as an incentive to greater entrepreneurial initiative. Second, providing massive support to develop Indian multi-national companies (MNCs) in modern industry and services largely in the private sector, while neglecting agriculture and those sectors serving the poor and the rural areas. Third, motivating the young to become greedy entrepreneurs with a get-very-rich-quickly at-any-cost and by-any-method ambition and drive. Fourth, focusing almost exclusively on English even for the masses and in the rural areas as a passport to great global professional and business success to the neglect of Indian languages. Fifth, encouraging the citizenry to mimic the consumerist and ostentatious lifestyles of the advanced western societies. And, finally and rather incredibly, attempting to get advanced nuclear and other largely military technologies from the United States in particular, by toeing its line on major foreign policy issues, to the detriment of the nation’s longstanding commitment to an independent, non-aligned foreign policy.

The ultimate goal of all this is said to be to transform our nation into a global economic, political and military superpower. By thinking and acting big, even gigantic, it is said, we can become big and great. And eventually we can join the club of the rich and the powerful and sit at their table and discuss issues and influence decisions affecting the destiny of nations and all of mankind. All this is sought to be encapsulated in the much-proclaimed slogan — the 21st century will be India’s. To what end is not clear. It could be surmised that the protagonists of such fantastic ambitions are the urban propertied and professional elite, whose income and wealth the reform programme has increased vastly, as well as those who really feel that by their getting to sit around the table in the rich man’s club they may actually be doing something worthwhile.

Following this lead, the mass media also has in recent years rarely, if at all focused on the problems and plight of the poor and the damage to their means of livelihood and the environment under the new policy regime. Nor has it deliberated on the need for initiatives and programmes to improve their condition and enable them to take control of their lives. Rather, reflecting perhaps its ownership and readership which has largely been the educated and propertied elite, it has only been expending large amounts of energy in enthusiastically exaggerating stories of great business successes in the domestic arena. It has been even more enthusiastic in devoting vast amounts of paper, words and pictures to hype the real and putative success stories of Indians, living in India and abroad, even those with foreign passports, in professional and entrepreneurial roles and in R and D, in the advanced western nations, especially in the US. These men and women, including sportspersons who have achieved greater and lesser international success, are the heroes of the new reform agenda and the values, ideology and perspective on which it is based. They are seen to have, almost miraculously, succeeded where their compatriots back home have tried and failed. They are being sought to be promoted as models to inspire the nation, especially its youth, to greater ambition and endeavour. Their successes are seen to give confidence to a nation that has lost faith in itself. They are evidence for our belief that we as a nation can, indeed, do it.

In trying to swim against what has lately become the mainstream of Indian opinion and policy, and focus attention on the plight of the poor, powerless and oppressed — their needs and hopes, their troubles and obstacles, their frustrations and demands, development journalists face an uphill task. For, it is not enough to divert readers/viewers away from juicy stories glorifying the successes of Indian and Indian-origin buccaneers in the national and global arena and celebrating their vulgar and gross conspicuous consumption and ostentatious lifestyles. (Amazingly, the national public outrage led by the media at the extravagantly ostentatious wedding celebration in Mumbai of a fabulously rich diamond merchant family from Antwerp just two decades ago has completely faded from memory). It also has to contend with the cheap titillation and voyeurism of the stories, photos and videos of the rich, famous and successful of diverse varieties, but especially youthful and nubile models and film stars, that have now become the staple of the media.

( The above essay was published in the second edition of Samparka Sethu, the Karnataka Directory of Development Writers. The writer thanks the publishers, Communication for Development and Learning for allowing its republication)

(To be concluded)

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