Damned development

BY s r ramanujan| IN Media Practice | 20/04/2006
The media`s role in the Narmada drama was as biased as the conduct of Union Water Resources Minister who almost joined the ranks of protestors

S R Ramanujan

The Narmada discourse that has been conducted  in the public domain, particularly in the media, suggest that dams are nothing but demons out to destroy human civilization, and that development is a dirty word in a democracy.

What is the role of media in the entire drama the curtains on which are yet to be drawn? To my mind it was totally partisan. It was as biased as the Union Water Resources Minister Saifuddin Soz, who almost joined the ranks of protestors at Jantar Mantar. He did not sit in the camp along with Medha Patkar, but made all the anti-dam noises before the television cameras and gave an undertaking that the construction would be stopped. That it had to be withdrawn later reducing the stature and credibility of the State is a different story.

NDTV launched its in-house artiste and the ?one and only? Amir Khan to run the crusade against the dam. For NDTV viewers, Amir Khan is no new face, whenever his film was about to be released, The Rising or Rang De Basanti, their promos are more frequent than the new bulletins on the channel. Why should it be the sole prerogative of Shabana Azmi to play a dual role of actor and activist? So, Khan was in the ?frame?. What Vinod Dua had to do with the dam was not known, but Kuldip Nayar¿s presence is understandable as he is one of those ?candlewallahs? at the Wagah border. All those who wanted to be counted among the pro-poor team were there to the delight of the camera crew and what is more, they gave politically correct sound bytes. What more can the liberal media ask for? 

So far so good. But the moment the most controversial chief minister of the country, Narendra Modi, threw in the gauntlet, the tone and tenor of the media changed. Even while reporting the SC interim order, the bias could be felt. (I am not comenting on the Hindi channels which I did not watch.) The Supreme Court order was a sequel to the petition of the oustees whose principal plea to the apex court was that the construction of the dam should be suspended forthwith. The Court did not accept this plea and on the contrary ?gave green light for raising the dam height? (Times of India). Of course, there was a rider. The States concerned should implement the rehabilitation measures in accordance with the earlier rulings, or else the construction could be stopped. This ruling came at a time when the Union government threw the ball into the court of judiciary unable to take a decision on the stoppage of work for obvious reasons. So, the entire focus was whether the SC would allow the construction or not. When it allowed the construction the headlines should have  reflect this decision. But no, most of the English newspapers highlighted the warning to the States for the simple reason that three of the four states involved in the dispute are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The TOI¿s headline was ?Resettle or dam work stops: SC?. The Hindu too highlighted the same point ?Construction will be stopped dif rehabilitation is inadequate, warns  the three-member Bench?. None highlighted the fact that the SC gave its nod for the construction work to proceed.

A day before the SC ruling on Monday, the Gujarat MPs and MLAs met the Prime Minister and the latter gave enough of a hint that the construction would not be stopped. He had to do this because Modi was raring to cash in on the sentiments of the  Gujaratis. Also, the PM wanted to undo the damage done by his Water Resources Minister---who had overstepped the Review Committee of the Narmada Control Authority---by withdrawing the promise made by the minister. Even for this development, the headline in most of the newspapers was that the Centre was yet to decide. The exceptions were the Indian Express and the Deccan Chronicle. IE¿s headline was ?Narmada dam work to continue: PMO? while DC said: ?Modi fasts, PMO says no move to stop work?. The Hindu report which quoted the PM¿s media advisor said ?Manmohan studying Soz report on dam issue?

What was done by the Hindu on the day of hearing, i.e. Monday, was amazing. It published on page one the full report of the Group of Ministers (exclusive to the Hindu) who made an on-the-spot inspection for a day to come to the conclusion that ?it was all paper work, and there was no rehabilitation at the ground level?. (Would their findings have been different if the states concerned were Congress-ruled?) The Hindu not only published the report, but announced that it was available on its website. This report was to be used by the petitioners in their argument before the Court. If this confidential report was confined to the PM¿s desk, it can¿t be quoted in the Court. With the publication of the report in the Hindu, it became a public document. 

But, it will be interesting to know the composition of the GoM. Saifuddin Soz who promised the protestors that construction would be stopped, Social Welfare minister Meira Kumar, and Prithviraj Chauhan were the three members. It is not difficult to guess how the report landed in the office of the Hindu even as it was reaching the PMO. One cannot take issue with the Hindu for publishing the report, whatever be its motive. But it should have had the honesty to mention on Tuesday that the Supreme Court rubbished the report saying ?this report will not be taken as a gospel of truth?. Interestingly, only the ET included this point in its story.

All this is not to say that there was no merit in anti-dam protestors demand for rehabilitation. Development and rehabilitation have to go hand in hand and one cannot precede the other. The moment the GoM report was published, there was a beeline by the television crew to the command areas to get bytes which would expose the governments which are ?fascist and communal? forgetting the fact that the rehabilitation work did not start after the BJP governments came to power in those states. Further, the issue involves human sentiment. Even if the oustees were to be given equally fertile land, the fact that they were uprooted would weigh heavy in their hearts. That is human psychology. Even after the rehabilitation work is completed under the supervision of the apex court, the channels can still get bytes that would corroborate GoM report.

Therefore, what was lacking in the media coverage of the Narmada controversy was objectivity. The vocal English media, with few exceptions, seemed to be  working  with a one-track mind. Since Medha Patkar was fighting for the poor and under-privileged and against the governments which in her own words were ?fascist and communal?, the media had to position itself on the side of anti-dam activists. There were hardly  any reports as to what the Narmada dam meant to the drought prone areas of four states. The exception was the Deccan Chronicle that highlighted the ?huge potential? of Narmada water. The main points were: 1. The concerned states had already invested Rs 21,000 crore in the last 16 years; 2. If the height of the dam was not raised to 121.92 metres, the country would lose 1450 MW of power and water would not reach 4000 villages of Gujarat and Rajasthan for drinking and irrigation; 3. About 75% of the command area in Gujarat is drought prone while the entire command (75,000 hectares) in Rajasthan is drought-prone. 

And it was left to a columnist of the ET to point a finger against the agitationists. He said: ?..what¿s also to be recognized is the fact that NGOs are prone to misrepresenting facts, exaggerating shortcomings and resorting to tricks aimed at giving the politicos a bad name. Given this, the agenda-driven crowd¿s viewpoint should not be taken as a gospel truth?. How many mainline national dailies or the channels had the guts to say this even assuming that such a generalization is not one hundred percent correct.

What was ironical in the entire Narmada discourse is that there was not much of a difference between the establishment and the media in chasing populist mirages.

Contact: s_ramanujan9@yahoo.co.in

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