No wheat, all chaff

BY MAANVENDER SINGH| IN Media Practice | 27/10/2015
No one cares about the profound farming crisis in Punjab. Look at how the media have covered the prolonged agitation and all you find is chaff,


Battered by an unseasonal monsoon, an indifferent state and an exploitative market, Punjab seems to be going through its worst agrarian crisis in years. It started with the unseasonal rain and hailstorm damaging the standing wheat crop. This was followed by a collapse in potato prices to one rupee per kilo. Then the price of post-harvest Basmati rice fell – it is still trading at below half of last year’s price. And finally the cotton crops were damaged by an attack of whitefly because farmers had been using fake pesticides distributed by the government authorities.

These crises have made farmer organizations and labourers’ unions join hands against the state’s lack of response to their demands. A massive seven day protest, starting on October 7 was organized under the leadership of eight Bhartiya Kisan Union factions and seven different mazdoor unions.

Their demands: fair compensation for cotton crop damage, remunerative rates for Basmati rice, payment of sugarcane dues from private mill owners, curbs on the exploitation of farmers by ‘arthiyas’ (commission agents), and debt relief for farmers and agricultural workers. However, nothing concrete was achieved, prompting farmer unions to change their mode of protest by opposing the entry of leaders to their constituencies and staging dharnas outside their residence.

The protest and the issues were scantly reported in the media. Barring Caravan and the Hindustan Times, which carried detailed reports, other media houses buried the news. What little reporting took place happened only after the agitation entered its third day and ended the moment the protest was called off. There was no follow up, no analysis of Punjab’s agrarian crisis, no comments on the fact that it is this kind of state indifference than can push a farmer to suicide. Compared to this crisis, Shah Rukh Khan’s speech at Edinburgh University a few days later got much more space and time.

The media prefers tangential reporting

This is not the first time that farmer protests have been ignored. They have been agitating for the last two months but not much has been heard about it. For instance, in Nawanshahr, Jalandhar and Hoshairpur, cane farmers are demanding the money owed them by mill owners. In Moga and Amristar there are demands for better rates of Basmati rice. In the Malwa region - the cotton belts of Punjab - farmers are up in the arm over the issue of fake pesticides. All over Punjab, there are hundreds of families demanding better compensation for relatives who have committed suicide. Last month, they staged an 18 day dharna in front of the district administration office in Bhatinda. It came to be reported only after a farmer committed suicide at the site. That, it seems, is what it takes to get the media’s attention. For many papers, oddly enough, the disruption caused by the protests to rail services seemed more important than the agrarian crisis itself:

Punjab farmer stir hits rail services, Farmers’ rail roko hits over 850  trains in Punjab - The Hindu

Punjab rail rook agitation: 33 trains cancelled services paralyzed, Over 1200 train hit by Punjab farmers stir - The Indian Express

New day more trains delayed, Rail services remain disrupted in Pb as farmers protest enters 5th day - Times of India

Television also ignored the news or covered the agitation in the context of train line disruptions and the losses incurred to the railways. This is the same media which keenly reported the visit of Rahul Gandhi to Punjab but ignores an agitation that affects more than half of the Punjab’s population.

Veering off the subject

Finally, as the rail roko agitation was called off by farmers on 13 October, most of the news channels and newspapers carried the news but without any analysis of their demands. What appeared in the media instead was series of reactionary articles on genetically modified (GM) crops. The New Indian Express carried an opinion piece by Vandana Shiva , where she has connected the crisis in Punjab with the failure of GM crops. A similar story appeared in The Statesman and The Pioneer, criticizing government policy on GM crops. While the Indian Express seems to be supporting BT technology, the highly opinionated debate hardly reflect the concerns of protesting farmers and the urgency of granting much-needed compensation.

Why the media has ignored the crisis

One reason for this neglect lies in the political economy of the media which only address the concerns of an urban audience. Further, when news is produced as a commodity, the complexity of the farmer protest is hardly of interest to the producer (media and advertisers) or the consumer (urban audiences).

More importantly the news of agitating farmers clashes with the dominant narrative of Punjab as a prosperous state with people singing and dancing to bhangra and is bound to be rejected as ‘non- news’. No attempt is made to deconstruct the healthy-and-wealthy narrative of Punjab because it is so easy to package and sell.

The other reason for neglecting the farmer crisis is the media’s obsession with linking every story to electoral politics. This leads them to follow the logic of politicians with the result that it is the political parties who dictate to the media what to debate and what not to. This alignment with the dominant political discourse prevents the media from reporting an agrarian crisis.

More importantly reportage on agrarian crises is post facto. News is reported only when either some statistics on farmer suicide come up or when an important personality makes a comment. Last month, actor Nana Patekar mentioned government inaction on the farming crisis, saying that neglecting farmer’s demands could lead to a bloody revolution. All of sudden, it struck the media that, yes, gosh, there is indeed a crisis in the farming sector. For a while, the channels were flooded with data on farmer suicides. But as the Bihar elections came closer, the interest waned.

Roots of the agrarian crisis in Punjab

The tragedy is that every year there is crop failure and farmers are on the streets demanding fair compensation and every year, after months of protests, the government declares a paltry compensation package. Things do not stop there; the farmer has to do the rounds of the patwari who decides how much compensation needs to be given. By the time the compensation reaches the farmer, in most cases it has either been eaten up the landlord, who owns the land on which compensation is provided, or it has gone directly into the pockets of the moneylenders from whom the farmer has taken loans. Consequently, next season, the farmer has to take a fresh loan and once again the same cycle is repeated.

The stagnation of green revolution technology is a problem. It has created a destructive monocrop culture which has further resulted in the overuse of soil and water, jeopardizing the sustainability of agriculture. Equally important are the issues of landlessness among lower castes and the exploitation faced by tenants. Add to this the custom of borrowing money to marry off daughters or sisters, the problem of drug addiction and a general lack of interest in young people which keeps them migrating for better jobs to the city and abroad and you have a complex picture that warrants serious and sustained reporting, not a seasonal mention here and there.

As the Punjab simmers and farmers suffer, both the media and the government maintain the same silence. One will have wait for the next year’s election in Punjab for the media, like the politicians, to evince their usual seasonal interest in farmers. Only to dump them no doubt once the votes have been cast.


The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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