The price of seven billion

BY SHYAM G. MENON| IN Media Practice | 15/11/2011
TV channels erupted to news that the seven billionth-human being was imminent, but the subject faded as quickly as it arrived.
Why scream that children are dying from encephalitis when similar willingness to examine overpopulation is not there, asks SHYAM G MENON Pix:
Towards end-October, television channels erupted to news that the seven billionth-human being was imminent. The anchors smiled; some of the visuals from site showed sweets being distributed, the subject faded as quickly as it arrived.
Like inflation which had to exceed 10 per cent to bite GDP-lovers, population too will have to genuinely crush us before India questions its mindset. Health ministers dodge the subject. As for the media, ever since the advertisements of growing GDP began fuelling media earnings and journalists’ salaries, it prefers to launder population to market. As the latter, population is benign; toothless. It is captive market and protection at times of global slowdown. But from where would food for the rising numbers come; from where would the education come, where would the space to live come?
There was a time when the media built such concerns into the tenor of reporting. Now its heart is India’s 1.2 billion-strong market, soon to be the world’s biggest population with per capita consumption levels still low. What would life in India be at still higher population and higher per capita consumption? The majority wedded to household, finds introspection uncomfortable. The refusal to notice world thanks to personal predicament, corrodes inquiry in life and media. Tracking what such a media has to say is meaningless. It sees the world through the tinted glasses of its own household compulsions and aspirations. What is the point in screaming that children are dying from encephalitis when similar willingness to examine overpopulation is not there?
When the numbers in a group increase, the value of the individual diminishes. The Indian rat race is a manifestation of this. Outbreak of encephalitis is another. Under stretched conditions, things escape attention at the fringes just as thick newspapers deliver tonnes of pages to low retention or 24x7 news channels succumb to yapping that only they can explain. Since the collective is humungous and still growing tyranny, human life shrinks to smaller verticals within. This has been the inspiration for specialization and focused marketing. Media campaigns that blow up incidents and engineer whole worlds of them were born from this model. Encephalitis gets addressed but with the larger context overlooked, its merely time bought till another outbreak. We have reached a situation where having the media along, is a must to merit attention. Murders spawn media campaigns, crusader swamis join reality TV. That’s good business for the media. But when they move with media in hand, aren’t citizens endorsing their personal worthlessness in the collective? And if so, isn’t the collective, rendered ineffective and dysfunctional by its own numbers, the real story?
According to Wikipedia, the one billionth-human is estimated to have arrived in 1804; the second billion was ready by 1927. End-October 2011, we were seven billion and scenarios ahead project nine and ten billion. Sure, this is also due to medical advancements and improved human lifespan. But it does not dilute the importance of self regulation. What is difficult for market to handle, is blaming customers. That isn’t good business. The customer has to be always right. Let’s pursue the market angle. India’s 2010 GDP is pegged at $ 1.6 trillion (source: Wikipedia); the world’s ninth biggest economy. In per capita GDP, it drops to 129th position at $ 3408. To illustrate, if the ninth biggest economy craves the ninth best per capita GDP, then our GDP would have to be fifty times bigger at current population levels. Global GDP in 2010 was $ 69 trillion.
Now forget the fifty fold growth cited for mere illustration. We have a young population that can contribute to GDP. But won’t they also add to population? Not to mention – the sheer economic growth required. And doesn’t economic growth have its negatives too, like environmental damage? Besides, can predictions around the 1.2 billion and its growth, within growing seven billion-world, be seamless extension of present day reality? Will there be upheavals? Human beings are dynamic. That’s what makes population potent. Merchant bankers writing fancy reports know this. Journalists quoting these reports know it. Question is – why do they avoid the full picture? Perhaps there are too many journalists as well and it’s our competitive rat race on display in the media? Whatever the reason, a critical sensibility to shape reportage is absent.
Not only did the media skim the seven billion-subject but it also lacks the idiom to analyse / convey such developments. A fine example is Manipur. If the media shouts `Manipur!’ every day, then it falls in the same category as a hit-and-run traffic accident that became media campaign for justice. But Manipur, we know, is far more serious. A hundred day-blockade from the edge of India, makes you wonder – what is India? There is something in that story, which reveals majority consciousness of far flung places it claims as its own. Is there an idiom with the Indian media to articulate that? What can help Manipur be heard - our 1.2 billion as market (by which logic, Manipur is nothing) or the same as people ignored by population that clusters to mainstream? The Manipur story has yet been about reporting FROM Manipur, not ON Manipur. The former – the marketable image of journalist there despite blockade - is saleable; the latter is not because it questions us. As we grow in numbers and wealth, the India in the mind shrinks to immediate household.
The seven billion-moment sank quicker than encephalitis; Mumbai’s murders, inflation, Formula 1, Advani’s rathyatra, team Anna and even Digvijay Singh – all of which (including the associated breaking story-syndrome) are glimpses of conditions within the seven billion-churn. Insecurity seeks money; money supports what sells - from potato chips to parochialism and paparazzi. Just think how everything is related to the mother number. A range of issues spanning conflicts to migration lay in its domain. We know it; that’s why we are insecure despite GDP. Yet, it doesn’t interest the Indian media although unlike global warming, which India can squeal its way out from, here our onus currently exceeds seventeen per cent. There is more money in reporting distractions within the insecure seven billion than exploring the number itself. It’s another climate change story in the making. We will wake up late.

That’s the price of seven billion.

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