The difference between print and electronic media is so obvious that it really requires little comment. Yet, every now and then you are confronted with a glaring example of how certain issues get blown out of proportion because television news needs some “news” all the time while print is under no such compulsion and treats the same “news” differently.
On June 6, on prime time, both NDTV and CNN-IBN chose to focus on the Rs 35 lakhs spent by the Planning Commission to renovate two toilet blocks in Yojana Bhavan. Reporters were shown badgering Planning Commission Deputy Chairman, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, as if this was his personal decision. The studio discussions kept oscillating between references to “two toilets” and “two toilet blocks” (of 10 “seats” each, we were told in passing). Vinod Mehta, a panelist on CNN-IBN, chose to ignore the difference between individual toilets and toilet blocks. Instead, he proceeded to inform us that he got the toilet in his home renovated for just Rs 1.5 lakhs. So what was the Planning Commission doing spending Rs. 35 lakhs on “two toilets”! Another panelist justified exclusive toilets for officers (apparently they will be given “smart cards” to access these plush toilets) tracing it all back to British Raj. She also said that it had become necessary to do this because people in this country tended to make toilets “wet” and therefore unusable. Only one person repeatedly pointed out this was a non-issue, particularly linking it up to the larger question of the absence of sanitation in the country. The anchors chose not to explain to viewers that the Rs 35 lakhs spent on Yojana Bhavan toilets did not come out of the Government of India’s budget for water and sanitation.
The argument about austerity and toilets was also not very logical. Does being austere mean using badly maintained toilets? Is that the marker of austerity or poverty? Poor people are forced to use such toilets because there is no alternative. But surely the government of India is not so poverty stricken that it cannot afford to build and maintain clean toilets in its offices. Few women would complain if their place of work had decent – even opulent – but clean toilets.
By the next morning, this so-called controversy had lost its fizz. The newspapers carried the story, but on an inside page. At least this was the case in the Mumbai papers. It is possible that the Delhi print media, being closer to the seat of power, is also more focussed on the behaviour of the powerful.
Meanwhile a far more tragic story had unraveled in Mumbai. But reading the Mumbai newspapers you would not know of it. As part of the slum redevelopment scheme that is operational in Mumbai slums, a builder can come in and raze the slum if 70 per cent of the residents agree to it being redeveloped. However, in the name of redevelopment, builders having been having a field day, particularly in areas where the real estate value is high. Sion-Koliwada happens to be one such area. Here builders have fudged names to show assent and sent in bulldozers even as people protested and the police looked on.
There is another important difference. The so-called “slum’ being redeveloped is not really a slum. It is one of the original koliwadas, or fishing villages, that over time joined together to become Bombay or Mumbai. In the last decades, the visibility of the Koli population has decreased but their stamp remains on many of the areas that they inhabit.
For a local newspaper, the Sion-Koliwada demolition story is not just one of the many injustices taking place in the name of redevelopment, but also how those who gave Mumbai its character and its name, the Kolis, are now so marginalized as to be virtually forgotten. There are stories from other Koliwadas (seven of them in Greater Mumbai) that could have been done following this one.
Oddly, the only paper to carry a detailed story on the demolition was one that does not even have a Mumbai edition, The Hindu. Activists who are working with those opposing redevelopment say that they find no response from the Mumbai papers. On the other hand, journalists from these papers who have filed stories find that their stories simply disappear.
So what are we seeing here? On the one side we see news agendas being set by the frivolous and compulsive needs of 24-hour television that is willing to turn even the whiff of a controversy into a full-fledged story-cum-discussion. On the other hand, you have stories with multiple angles unfolding in cities like Mumbai that are ignored or relegated to an inside left-hand page, probably as a single column without a picture, because those in-charge have decided that these developments would not interest their readers.
What is ironical is that the same media chooses its moments to be concerned about the poor. The Yojana Bhavan toilet story kept harping on the unrealistic poverty line set by the Planning Commission and on the need for the powerful to demonstrate austerity at a time of economic downturn. Yet, these channels saw no reason to check the many other “toilet” stories around them, where people simply cannot access a single toilet and are forced to defecate in the open.
Similarly, newspapers that had carried good stories on malnutrition, on the impact of drought in Maharashtra (which includes the Mumbai edition of Times of India), saw no inconsistency in ignoring a story about violations of the rights of the poor taking place right under their noses.
What we are seeing is the media whipping up anger against individuals without informing readers/viewers about processes. The devil lies in the details, they say. There is a difference between two toilets and two toilet blocks. There is a difference between the budget for sanitary repairs in a government office building and the sanitation budget of the government of India. An informed citizenry will understand these differences, and perhaps still get angry. At the moment, there is only anger, without information.