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Poor media coverage gives food for thought in India

Once the watchdog of the poor, India's press now focuses more on the interests of wealthy city dwellers. At the same time hunger in rural areas is on the increase.

When the internet portal scooped up awards for its revelations of corruption in Indian defence deals earlier this year, it proved just how the media can galvanise government response. As a result of the tehelka exposé, the defence minister and the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party were forced to resign.

But the minister, George Fernandes, has since returned to the cabinet, and there remain issues such as poverty that fail to elicit a similar media or indeed government response. According to several experts the implications of this are enormous for the 436 million Indians who live on an income of $1 or less a day – the largest collection of poor people on the planet.

A recent study by two academics from the London School of Economics looks at the role of Indian newspapers as a watchdog of poor people's interests, by making governments respond to food shortages and crop damage, caused by droughts or floods.

In their paper The political economy of government responsiveness: Theory and evidence from India, Timothy Besley and Robin Burgess argue that the "introduction of representative democracy and the development of a free and independent regional press were key events in terms of ensuring some protection for vulnerable citizens."

By studying state-wide data for the period 1958-92, Besley and Burgess show that governments are more responsive to droughts and floods in states with a stronger media. States with higher newspaper circulation, electoral turnout and literacy rates are also those that tend to have the most responsive governments. These include Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Maharashtra.

In particular, it is local language newspapers rather than the English language press which have forced these state governments to act. "Mass media thus capitalises upon shared vulnerability among poor voters to ensure that they receive greater policy attention," the authors say.

The English language press also has a role – especially in places where local newspapers are less powerful. When in 1985 the English language daily The Indian Express reported on starvation deaths in Kalahandi district in the eastern province of Orissa – a state with "low newspaper circulation, electoral turnout and literacy" – it prompted visits by the prime minister, state ministers, and release of state funds to a remote area that had been suffering from regular spells of drought and food crisis for over two decades.

Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen first highlighted the importance of the Indian press in preventing famines. Delivering a lecture in Delhi in 1982, he noted that terrible famines of the kind experienced during British rule were unlikely to occur in independent India because a free press would ensure that governments took timely action.

But newspaper coverage has changed dramatically. "Till the 80s it considered correcting the imbalances in society to be one of its important tasks and covered issues concerning poverty, inequality and the like," says Prabhash Joshi, editor of the large Hindi language daily Jansatta. "Now, with economic liberalisation, the press has thought it better to go along with the market and concern itself with what can be sold, with the new consumerism."

Local newspapers have been affected the most, says Joshi. "The local Hindi press is much less well off than the national press. Many of them are individually-owned, while their editors are now under more pressure to sell and so less inclined to carry items on endemic hunger or on poverty."

"Media has become much more commercialised in the last decade," agrees Arun Kumar, professor of economics in Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "There is now greater control of the media by the corporate interests, which gets reflected in the predominance given to the consumer culture and entertainment."

Sattaya, a small-scale textile trader from Andhra Pradesh state and a reader of Telugu language papers had the same impression as Kumar in Delhi. "Even leading local newspapers are full of politics and entertainment, but have little about the acute situation in many rural areas," he said.

Jean Dreze, economics professor at the Delhi School of Economics and co-author with Amartya Sen of various books on India's development, believes the economic reforms of the 1990s are at the root of the change. "[The reforms] have consolidated the elitist mindset in economic policy and such elitist biases can also be seen in the orientation of the media, occupied more with concerns of the middle class than of the poor," he told Panos Features.

Another phenomenon that has been associated with the economic reforms of the last decade is that of hunger taking place despite massive food stocks.

An ex-civil servant with top level experience of the government food procurement system explains: "There have been large increases in prices that the government pays to producers. At the same time, for reasons of economy and cutting subsidies, the government has also raised prices in the public distribution system – the result has been fewer sales through the government ration shops and piling up of food stocks.

"The ration shops have been the major instrument of food security in India, through which the poor could purchase at much less than market costs."

A Delhi-based human rights group, Peoples Union of Civil Liberties, has appealed in India's Supreme Court against the government, alleging that starvation deaths are a violation of the citizen's fundamental right to life guaranteed by the constitution. The group argues that people who are starving, or too poor to buy food, are being denied grain free of cost from the surplus stock lying with the government.

In the absence of media action, it may be that other groups will have to fill the void and galvanise the government to act.

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