Backstory: The Media’s Missing People – Farmers

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

In 1993, a journalist from Mumbai (of all places, you would say) set out to visit rural India with some questions in his head: What do the poor do in the 200-240 days during which there is no agriculture in their areas? How do they survive? What are their coping mechanisms? What kind of jobs do they find? Then he started filing 800-word reports for the Times of India, which later got collated into a book. The people who figured in that book, he recalled, represented “a huge section of Indian society… But a section that is beyond the margin of elite vision. And beyond the margins of a press and media that fail to connect with them.”

The reason I quote these lines from P. Sainath’s introduction to his now famous book, Everybody Loves A Good Drought, was because I was looking for an answer to a question in my head: When did the mainstream media banish rural India from their attention? Going by Sainath’s introduction, by the early 1990s farmers were already being consigned to the “margins of the press”, but at what point did they almost totally disappear? Today, when we berate the government of the day – and rightly so – for ignoring this category of citizens, did such a norm precede or follow the media’s own conscious act of erasure? Perhaps, seeing how both media and state are deeply implicated in building networks of power, the obliteration may have happened simultaneously.

Some 16 years after Sainath’s observations, we received some concrete data on the rural coverage thanks to survey conducted by Vipul Mudgal and a small team – the Inclusive Media for Change – based at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. It was found that India’s highest circulating Hindi and English newspapers devoted just 2% of their coverage to “rural issues”. Wait, there’s more – 36% of this 2% was on “non-agrarian issues,” crime, violence and the like, with only 28% focusing on agrarian themes. The survey also punctured the impression that Hindi language newspapers had more of an ear to the ground than English language ones. In fact, the survey found that there was “very little difference in the choice of the most preferred themes”.

So what is one to make of the information overload on agriculture that the media have served up lately? Is it the case that the building up of circumstances and the generation of new information are creating a sort of magnetic field to attract even more information of this kind? Is governmental indifference at its most cynical and obvious, leading to suicides and firings, prompting a change? Could it be that those striking spectacles of protest from the innovative activism of Tamil Nadu farmers in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar; the purposeful discarding of fresh farm produce before television cameras; or the truly brilliant shavasanas that ordinary peasants staged to shame the big, fat, government-directed commemorations being held of ‘Yoga Day’, serve as impetus? Is it just an attempt to make amends for decades of looking the other way?

Perhaps there is something of all of this in the enhanced coverage accorded of late to the broad trope of agriculture/rural India/peasantry. It is cause for both satisfaction and its opposite. Good to know, of course, that the media – and I include the much maligned mainstream media here – can, if required, summon up an impressive bank of knowledge and understanding on a subject that does not majorly excite the stock market. The problem is that this could just be a flash in the pan before everything reverts to business as usual. I would rather have had the media visiting and revisiting the subject over time with interest and investment, rather than be flooded for a brief while with wall-to-wall coverage. To use a horse racing metaphor, these are subjects that should stay the course – even when governments don’t shoot their farmers. It needs continuous coverage to ensure the sustained attention of the public and policy makers to these issues.

The Wire’s coverage too, more or less, conformed to the general pattern. This could be confirmed quite easily by counting the number of stories on agriculture put out in the months of May and June in comparison to those put out, say, in March and April. Nonetheless, some sterling narratives emerged from the compendium of stories that was on offer, stories that walked through the fields in a way that saw the dust rising, stories that touched the heart and the mind.

If journalism is history in a hurry, ‘Farmers’ Agitations in Maharashtra and MP Are a Product of Rural India’s Identity Crisis’ (June 8), could be seen as ethnography in a hurry, bringing into view through skillful questioning the angst of a disillusioned demographic in Vidarbha’s Donoda village: “Sir, take a picture of this person,” said one young man pointing to another standing next to him. “He is going to commit suicide soon… and one by one in the next few years we all will.” In one of India’s prosperous states, suicide relayists limbering up for death in the despairing wilderness – what kind of future are we careening towards?

In ‘With No Water and Many Loans, Farmers’ Deaths Are Rising in Tamil Nadu’ (June 21), we met Karti, another young man from the Kaveri delta, staring out of the frame and within it another frame enclosing the face of his father who has just committed suicide.

The wells have run dry, so too has governmental concern. If the government of the day can keep winning elections despite policymaking that leaves behind a trail of ruination, then the singular challenge for journalism is to make the experiences on the ground visible enough to check such impunity. That is where stories like the one from the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) on the mood in Marathwada’s cattle markets, which The Wire carried (‘The Beef Ban has Killed Cattle Markets, Deepening Marathwada’s Agrarian Crisis’), become so valuable, as indeed ‘Ground Report: How Demonetisation Intensified Farmers’ Distress and Triggered Protests’ (June 22), translated from Hindi, and ‘Modi Government’s Skewed Farm Sector Priorities Continue to Cause Farmer Distress’ (June 15).

Readers’ responses to these pieces thankfully kept away from mutual vituperation in order to engage with some of the core issues. One commented that farmers’ agitations never “challenge the India state’s capitalist model of development” and if the current model of development remains, agricultural output will inevitably continue to decline. Another reader wanted to know whether “socialisation…of land and technology inputs required for farming with dignity as an alternative to the current capitalist methods of production” should be the way to go.

I, for one, would have welcomed a piece on the impact of the current crisis on woman farmers, who, as development economist Bina Agrawal recently reminded us, make up at least 35% of our agricultural work force, with 75% of rural women workers dependent on agriculture for a living.

The issue figured only tangentially in The Wire, with one alert reader commenting that the images carried on agriculture only showed male Indian farmers “as if the other half don’t exist. A hell of a lot is wrong with Indian agriculture and the invisibility of women is one of those.” The image problem was subsequently fixed, but reportage and commentary that focused on women in farming still, alas, continue to elude the frame.


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  • Sumanta Banerjee

    Thanks, Pamela, for a wonderful piece – for waking us up from our urban myopia.

    As for contribution, I’ve been trying to donate to The Wire through my debit card…But even after going through all the cumbersome process of typing out repeatedly the replies that are required, I’m told that the information is “Not valid” ! May be, now that I’m an octogenarian, I’m considered an `invalid’ according to the norms of modern information technology !