The story of rural Indians being denied the most basic of necessities was reduced to an amusing anecdote about a minister and his government, making it seem like the rural poor do not matter.
Symbols have come to hold an unprecedented centrality in contemporary public discourse. Public discourse circulating around social media in particular is animated by politics of shaming. Every remark or performance is somehow seen to embody either a positive or a negative outlook, to be hailed or shamed. The worth of a concerned netizen is measured by how passionately he defends or how witheringly he rubbishes a perceived outlook as embodied in a brief observation or a photograph. There is no room for detail or analysis in this model animated by violent responses.
Due to the fast and furious mode adopted by the media, the length and detail of news in news reports has reduced greatly. It is no surprise that the need to serve the news to the people first – in a more entertaining form than the competitors – forces modern-day media organisations to publish more and more news capsules. These capsules, or small summaries of large stories, in turn call for erasure of complexity or context. What eventually remains, presents itself as a summary proposition inducing either violent negation or passionate affirmation. The response must be released fast and decisively. Delay here is construed as a lack and a lag.
Take, for instance, the recent coverage of a Union minister forced to make a phone call from atop a tree in a village in Rajasthan.
Last month, social media was flooded with a photo of Union minster Arjun Ram Meghwal climbing a tree with a ladder, phone in hand, looking flustered. People took to Twitter to mock the government’s promise of Digital India and universal digital empowerment. Soon, the media picked up the story. The event made for an entertaining video: a 62-year-old dignitary climbing a ladder in full public view.
Lost in the mirth was the context of the incident. The news the photo actually conveyed did not matter; it became an amusing symbol of a powerful individual forced, for once, to suffer the trouble that ordinary people live with everyday. As such, it became a spectacle to mock the high and the mighty. The photo embodied the figure of a minister in distress.
Meghwal, Union minister of state for finance and corporate affairs, had visited Dholiya, a village in Bikaner that falls within his constituency, in response to complaints from the village that the hospital in the area had been performing below par, particularly because it lacked trained nurses.
Meghwal, who was born in a family of poor Dalits in a village in Bikaner, got married at the age of 13. Despite an unfavourable financial situation, he managed to obtain BA, LLB and LLM degrees. He also cleared the entrance test of the telecom department of the state. He went on to clear the Rajasthan civil services examination and was promoted to the Indian Administrative Services. When he became a minister, he insisted on commuting to parliament and his office on a bicycle.
A leading Hindi daily runs a campaign in which public servants visit remote areas for a firsthand experience of the problems faced by the people. It was as part of one such programme that Meghwal had gone to Dholiya, 12 km from Sri Dungargarh, the nearest town and the tehsil headquarters.
The villagers complained to him about the poor state of the local hospital. The minister decided immediately to call the chief medical officer responsible for appointing nurses in local hospitals. It is then that the penny dropped. He simply could not get through.
Two senior administrative officials in the area confirmed that the public telecom company somehow did not bother to extend mobile telephone connectivity to the village. Dholiya is not a frontline village – it is remote and low profile, the sort that does not make to the headlines but for something dramatic. While investigating why his phone call couldn’t get through, he found, much to his dismay, that the area simply did not have a mobile network connection. A couple of private operators do provide some faint connectivity in the area. The public telecom company does not seem to care at all.
The dominant impression going around on social media is that the much touted Digital India drive is a joke and that villages still remain disconnected to the rest of the country. That may well be true but the problem arises when a local crisis, thanks to the media, becomes a source of amusement for the digitally empowered.
No laughing matter
The Digital India drive has not been able to empower every individual. It probably cannot. But it is no laughing matter. It is not for the digitally empowered to laugh at the failure of the digital dream for everyone. When we laugh at the minister, it seems that the rural poor do not matter. We do not deny the problems of the rural poor. But the cynic within us is resigned to the assumption that their problems are so challenging that they cannot be solved, and that ministers go to villages only to boost their image as public servants. The minister or the politician is, in this assumption, a devil anyway, almost without exception. The point is not that politicians are angels. It is, simply, that an incident of this kind is so easily held up as sufficient premise for such a massive generalisation.
It is necessary to seek out the detail. Details ground an event within its context. Or else a piece of information, or a photo, is easily unhinged from its context and quickly turned into a grand symbol. A grand symbol, in this instance, of everything that is wrong and cannot be set right. Unfortunately, that is not the whole story here, or even a key part of the story. We do not know yet if, or when, mobile connectivity will get better in Dholiya. We do know, however, that a trained nurse has been assigned to the hospital, if an unconfirmed report is to be believed. The real story is not that Digital India is a pipe-dream, or that a minister was forced to suffer like an ordinary citizen. The real story is that the lack of healthcare and mobile connectivity is crippling Dholiya. A news item about how the life opportunities of fellow citizens are being cut short should not be reduced to an amusing anecdote about a minister and his government.
Anirban Bandyopadhyay has PhD in modern South Asian history and works for the Educational Multimedia Research Centre, St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Kolkata.