Somnath Chatterjee

For a market-driven media, the problems of the rural poor are not matters of serious concern. But the silver lining is that there are committed journalists who work tirelessly to write on issues of rural distress.

Despite making spectacular progress in various fields, India still faces poverty, unemployment, ignorance and socio-economic inequality. New economic forces are bringing with them new opportunities for development and for contributing to nation-building. It is, however, important to ensure that our growth is inclusive and that we do not leave anyone behind, and that the benefits of development reach everyone, particularly the rural masses who have not been effectively touched by the efforts of six decades of freedom. The policies and programmes formulated to augment economic growth should also contribute towards improving the lives of the poor and the vulnerable.

More than 70 per cent of our people live in villages and 80 per cent of our poor also live in rural areas. The benefits of economic growth are not percolating to more than two-thirds of our population. The divide between the rural and urban areas in terms of economic infrastructure is widening by the day. Crop failures due to unpredictable climatic variations, inability to meet the rising cost of cultivation, and the increasing debt burden, are among the factors that lead our farmers to growing frustration that is being expressed in extreme ways. In recent years, agricultural growth in India has fallen. So have investment in, and profitability of, agriculture, the net sown area under crops and the area under irrigation. It is apprehended that the Indian peasantry is facing a serious crisis. According to the Economic Survey 2006-2007, low yield per unit area across almost all crops has become a regular feature.

Agriculture is the backbone of our economy. Though the share of agriculture in the gross domestic product has seen a steady decline from 36.4 per cent in 1982-83 to 18.5 per cent in 2006-07, the sector continues to sustain more than half a billion people, providing employment to 52 per cent of the workforce. It is an important source of raw material and absorbs many industrial products, particularly fertilizers, pesticides, agricultural implements and consumer goods. The very fact that over a period, the growth in agriculture has remained much lower than the growth in the non-agricultural sectors will explain the unpleasant plight of the rural people. Today there is a greater need than ever before to critically analyse and address the problems facing this sector. Initiatives on the part of the media will have a positive impact on policy formulation for the rural economic sector and on their effective implementation.

Poverty, hunger and healthcare represent some of the major challenges before rural India. The unenviable plight of the landless labourers and small and marginalised farmers can be attributed to factors such as natural calamities, crop failures, exploitation by moneylenders, lack of adequate supplementary income and low level of education, besides lack of effective intervention by the state in the form of measures like land reforms. It is a socio-economic phenomenon rooted in structural inequalities and an unjust and inegalitarian social and economic order. Acute poverty, indebtedness and illiteracy are among the factors that have combined to compel many farmers to take their own lives. This is a blot on the nation’s collective conscience.

Addressing unemployment in the rural areas is crucial to improving the economic conditions of the people. Governments, at the Centre and the States, have adopted a multi-pronged approach and several initiatives have been launched in recent years to address the challenges in our rural economy. Some of the developmental programmes launched by the Union government, if implemented sincerely, can mitigate the misery of the rural poor substantially. The political leadership, the bureaucracy and the media have vital roles in this. The honest implementation of such well-meaning programmes and their effective monitoring should be ensured. No one should be permitted to misuse the resources or benefit from the distress of the rural poor.

In order to increase productivity and employment generation in the agricultural sector, structural changes are needed. Land reforms are the primary need; support prices and provision of cheap credit do not help beyond a point. The experience in West Bengal and Kerala has shown that providing the poor with access to land through the honest implementation of land reform legislation always acts as a major catalyst for growth and helps address rural poverty as the peasants get an identity of their own. Such institutional reforms in the ownership of agricultural land can unleash the peasantry’s productive forces, increasing foodgrain production and helping address poverty and distress.

Andhra Pradesh has great potential and is well equipped to move forward on the path of progress. It has bountiful natural resources, fertile land and conducive agro-climatic conditions. Nearly 75 per cent of its area is covered by the river basins of the Godavari and the Krishna and their tributaries. Agriculture is the main occupation of about 62 per cent of the people in Andhra Pradesh, which is the largest producer of rice in India. Yet here too the agricultural sector faces several ills and great distress, and it is a matter of sorrow that many poor farmers have committed suicide. Obviously, much more remains to be done before we can give a new deal to the rural poor.

Everyone involved should treat the farmers’ issue with sincerity and commitment, viewing it as a national challenge and a national responsibility rather than adopting a partisan attitude. Our farmers, and the agrarian sector as a whole, should not be allowed to become a victim of the politics of confrontation and intolerance. The peasants should not be used as pawns in the game of sectarian politics. Matters concerning them should be viewed as vital national issues. Political parties should work together to address them.

As the title of P. Sainath’s book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, puts it, paradoxically in our country, there are situations when competing interests look forward to benefiting from the distress of the people. Confrontational politics and visibly competitive journalism are doing enormous damage to our polity. Only through the efforts of well-meaning individuals and institutions can we hope to correct these aberrations in the culture of politics.

Newspapers and journalists can play the most crucial role in articulating the concerns and problems of the people in our villages and small towns by sensitising the government and the politicians as well as civil society about the problems faced by the rural masses. Journalists, especially those with the regional language media, can not only help broad-base our politics but play a major role in the overall development of the weaker and marginalised sections and in projecting responsibly the problems of rural India. A vibrant and free media have a duty to create awareness among the people by disseminating facts. This is a prerequisite for the smooth working of a democracy and for the cause of good governance. The representatives of the media should contribute effectively and meaningfully in this process through their writings and objective reporting. This is particularly so in the case of the print media, including the regional language newspapers, whose reach is substantially wider.

Journalism, a great mission

The media have to play a key role by highlighting any deficiencies in developmental schemes, and maladministration and corruption, acting as watchdogs. I consider journalism as a great mission, not merely a profession. It is a mission to uphold and promote certain cherished values and lofty ideals, eschewing pessimism and negativism. Such a mission calls for commitment and courage of conviction of the kind demonstrated by those who laid the foundation for a free press in India during the years of our freedom struggle.

Today’s media, especially the mainstream media, are preoccupied with urban issues and the lifestyles of the rich and the affluent. This urban bias manifests itself in varied ways, whether it is in the print or in the electronic media, depending on their owners and managers. For such a market-driven media, the problems of the common man or of the rural poor are not matters of serious concern. It is said that the marketing managers, and not the Editors, decide the policy of many newspapers today. This is a matter of concern.

The silver lining is that there are sensitive and committed journalists who work tirelessly to write on issues of rural distress in the media. As the Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu, Mr. Sainath has been rendering a great service to the nation. It would be desirable that leading newspapers in this country have a Rural Affairs section covering the problems confronted by our underprivileged citizens living in those areas. The several awards conferred on Mr. Sainath for his unwavering articulation of the rural cause, and the award now instituted by Mr. Sainath himself for emerging journalists striving to bring to light the problems of rural Andhra Pradesh, will help the mainstream media realise the urgency of the matter. Mr. Sainath, who has created a niche for himself in the field of journalism, has instituted this award for journalists reporting rural problems, which do not always find adequate media attention. He has done this, inspired by his feeling of social sensitivity and commitment to the welfare of the poor, particularly the rural poor.

(These are edited excerpts from an address by the Lok Sabha Speaker in Hyderabad on May 11 while giving away awards instituted by P. Sainath for Telugu journalists reporting on the problems of rural Andhra Pradesh, to Uma Maheswara Rao, Udaya Lakshmi and G. Srinivas.)