A fortnightly column from The Wire’s Public Editor
Media coverage of the Budget in an earlier day had a certain ceremony of passage in the country’s news rooms. Editorial teams would sit in front of television sets with notepads and pens to jot down news points as the Union finance minister waxed eloquent. This process would begin at 5 pm sharp and the markets would respond to it only the following day. In 2002, Yashwant Sinha, as finance minister, brought the process forward to 11 am, and the media immediately began to pay significant attention to how the markets responded to the Budget, reflecting of course their new business model and corporate-driven preoccupations. Once the speech ended, Budget papers tied up in bundles would land at the office, hot from the bakers on Parliament Street. No longer, alas. From this year the Government of India, citing environmental reasons, has discontinued the practice of providing hard copies of the Economic Survey and Union Budget to media houses, arguing that they were anyway being uploaded on the PIB website.
But that’s not all that has changed. Apart from the social marketing of the Budget this time, through radio spots and the like – one of which even audaciously used Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech in the context of this, the third Budget under the prime ministership of Narendra Modi – most media platforms now provide real time comment as the Budget presentation plays out through tweets and posts. All this makes for a rather rambunctious time that tends to generate more heat than light on an event that potentially impacts every person in the country. Budgets, as some commentators have argued, are of course severely limited in scope given that prior and pre-determined commitments account for the lion’s share of the outlays. Yet they remain important indicators of the priorities, resources and levels of accountability of the government in power and deserve the closest attention.
Budget 2017 was arguably even more newsworthy in that it came in the wake of the vastly disruptive demonetisation exercise; that it took place before a string of important state elections; and that it had certain design changes including the merging of the Railways Budget with the Union Budget, and ‘plan’ and ‘non-plan’ components. Covering an exercise of this complexity could therefore strain the resources and professional acumen of any media organisation, even the well-heeled ones.
Looking back on this season of number crunching, The Wire needs to be commended for stepping up the economic quotient in its coverage and coming up with content that was topical and relevant during the three phases of this unfolding – pre-Budget commentary; Budget presentation reportage; and post-Budget analyses.
A major talking point in the run-up to the Budget was the universal basic income (UBI) scheme. The Wire carried pieces that both raised doubts about the efficacy of such an measure (‘Universal Basic Income Can Be Hugely Disruptive If Not Handled Properly’, January 20) and argued strongly for a modified form of UBI (‘Precondition and Resources Exist for a basic Income Transfer to the Poor, Not Universal’, January 29). As it turned out, not a word in the Budget speech was devoted to the UBI, the brainchild of chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian. Union finance minister Arun Jaitley in post-Budget interviews termed it as “brilliant” but ahead of its time. Thus did yet another trial balloon put out by the Modi government fizzle out.
The Wire’s attempt to get a bigger bang out of the Budget buck through live updating and commenting, as well through a discussion on Facebook in English and Hindi is certainly a first for the organisation (‘Budget 2017-18: With Focus on Rural Spending and Income Tax Cuts, Jaitley Ends Speech Sans Bombshells’, February 1). I liked the way the comments in this section looped back into some of The Wire’s earlier coverage. For instance, when Jaitley read out his proposal to make MSME companies more viable by cutting their income tax burden, there was an immediate reference to a piece that had made the exact same point (‘Can the Budget Lift India’s Small Industries, Worst Hit By Demonetisation?’, January 30).
This format of running comment is clearly a work in progress and needs refining and expansion. Experts, for instance, could be brought in to provide more depth to the observations being made, so that they graduate from being mere pro forma responses to seriously contributing to deepening public understanding of the issues at stake. Readers too, some of whom came up with pithy, even ironic, comments on the Budget, could also be brought into the frame to provide a vox populi dimension.
It was the post-Budget commentary, however, that best showcased The Wire’s capacity to capture the Budget presentation in a multi-sectoral way that had eluded the bigger news operations. Striking, especially, was the way in which certain moral claims made by the Budget were examined. The rigorous manner in which the Jaitley pledge to bring in “greater transparency and accountability in political funding, while preventing (a) future generation of black money” was put through expert scrutiny and found severely wanting was commendable (‘Why Modi Government’s Political Funding Reforms May Just Be a Smokescreen’; ‘Lowering Cash Limit for Political Donations Farcical, Say RTI Activists’; and ‘Political Funding Reforms in Budget 2017 Will Likely Lead to Greater Opacity’, February 2).
What was also called out was the failure of the Budget to address the severely debilitating impacts of demonetisation on the marginalised Indian (‘A Budget That Fails to Make Amends for the Sins of Demonetisation’, ‘Budget Impresses Markets, But No Relief For the Demonetised Poor’, February 1). While one economist argued that the Modi Government ‘has taken key steps to improve India’s tax structure’ (February 3), another found it a disappointingly ordinary budget for extraordinary times’ (February 1).
One grouse I have, however, is that while gaps in health care, school education and SC/ST spending made were examined seriously, a comprehensive gender accounting was missing. While women do not constitute a homogeneous category, aspects like their falling employment levels are reflective of a political economy that is gender insensitive and this needed to be publicly acknowledged.
Tulika Kumari had written in that photographs used in the piece ‘Women across India go out to reclaim public spaces’, were taken by her, but were credited to Facebook. As she emphatically put it, “I can assure you Facebook didn’t attend the #iwillgoout march.” The Wire, I am happy to note, was prompt in rectifying the omission and duly crediting Tulika Kumari for the images. I couldn’t agree with Tulika more when she says that “artists, photographers and freelancers in general get no recognition by the society, and women more so” and it is therefore incumbent on media platforms to “seek permission from appropriate sources or at least provide the right photograph credits.”
Another reader, Iqbal Niazi, wants to access an interview with Arun Shourie that The Wire had carried in the summer of 2016. Any search engine would have yielded the answer: ‘‘It’s a Decentralised Emergency… A Pyramidal Mafia State’: Arun Shourie on Modi Sarkar’. It appeared on January 14, 2017. But it’s the second question he raises that is more pertinent: “Where I can search articles/interviews etc published by The Wire from time to time? Are these indexed somewhere?” The Wire’s editors say readers can use the search bar on site or via Google. Articles are also indexed by category, accessible through the top menu bar. For example all articles in the science category are indexed here.
Although he is pleased that The Wire covered the drought in Tamil Nadu, Ayyam Perumal Karthik M. finds the headline given to the piece as deflecting from the main issue – i.e., as he puts it, “the monumental mismanagement by both the State and Centre”. I read through the piece and agree that there is some substance to his argument: while demonetisation did figure as one of the triggers for the accentuated agrarian distress, in terms of causality it is the neglect, apathy and misreading of the situation by political actors that resulted in the crisis. However, it needs to be said that headlines do more than merely summarise a story accurately. They also act both as hooks to draw readers to that particular piece, and serve as links to other stories carried on the platform. Taken in this light, the heading does work.