Why the drought is not The Big Story

BY JYOTI PUNWANI| IN Opinion | 23/05/2016
If the media’s drought coverage had been relentless, it would have forced governments to act. By being sporadic, it failed to impact.
JYOTI PUNWANI scans the coverage


Jyoti  Punwani


Thanks to the media, Latur is today a household word in the country. But the drought in Marathwada, of which Latur is only an extreme symbol, has been there since the last four years. It only reached its inevitable nadir this year.

It may not have, had the media focused on it relentlessly. 

When Rahul Gandhi announced his decision to visit Bundelkhand in January, many stories were done on that drought-struck region. But does it need a celebrity politician to draw our attention to calamities in regions far away from our metros?

Political analyst Yogendra Yadav has been crying hoarse about impending famine caused by years of drought and neglect in Bundelkhand since last October. Members of his new political organisation, Swaraj Abhiyan, made three trips at the end of 2015 to the region that straddles UP and MP and brought out a report on the terrible situation there in November.

Swaraj Abhiyan’s report was written about in every English newspaper, as soon as it was out. But none of the newspapers thought it worth their while to follow up on it.Yadav himself wrote about what he had seen in many publications, starting with The Hindu in November.

But even without Yadav’s contribution, editors and reporters surely knew about the alarming situation in Bundelkhand and Marathwada. There were enough indicators of it and the press itself was reporting them as and when they happened. What were these indicators?

"There was enough news coming out for journalists to know that the situation in Bundelkhand and Marathwada was critical. "


A Bundelkhand package worth over Rs 7000 crores granted in 2009 was extended for three years in 2012. How these crores were used was exposed by a Cobrapost sting carried by many papers in November. In May 2015, The Times of India carried a report that 300 farmers had committed suicide in Marathwada since January 2015.

In August, Mumbai’s newspapers reported on the Maharashtra Water Resources Department’s survey, suggesting measures to counter Marathwada’s drought. Soon after, a cabinet sub-committee was formed to tackle Marathwada’s crisis. In September, it was reported that the government might declare the state drought-hit.

Then there were the petitions that had been filed on the subject of drought, which were being covered by law reporters. All through 2015, the hearings of a PIL filed in  October 2014, urging changes in water policies in Maharashtra and another PIL filed in September 2015 against the release of water to the Kumbh Mela at Nashik, were reported. 

In December, Yadav and his colleague Prashant Bhushan, on behalf of Swaraj Abhiyan, approached the Supreme Court to force the Centre and 11 state governments to provide relief to the drought-hit. The progress of this petition too was reported in the national press.

In short, there was enough news coming out for journalists to know that the situation in Bundelkhand and Marathwada was critical. 

In addition, magazines such as Down to Earth were consistently covering the drought situation in the country. The South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People also released a report in August on Marathwada. Reporters on the environment beat must be reading these publications and websites regularly. 


Sporadic coverage

But despite all this, there has been only sporadic coverage in the mainstream media of the current drought. The 2015 monsoons failed, making an already dire situation in areas such as Bundelkand and Marathwada, even worse. But it’s only in March this year that a news item about Section 144 being applied in Latur drew the world’s media to the city and the region.

Bundelkhand still hasn’t received that kind of media blitz.

However, it’s not as if the media blanked out coverage of the drought in these regions till March. There were some early reports last year. Among the earliest was Rana Yashwant’s Ardh Satya programme on the TV channel India News. His slow-paced, low-pitched but empathetic tracing of the family of one farmer who committed suicide in Bundelkhand was aired in April 2015, before the 2015 monsoons. It won the first prize in the TV entries in the human rights category of the 2015-16 Red Ink awards given by the Mumbai Press Club.

Senior reporter Priyanka Kakodkar wrote as many as 16 reports between January and May 2015 in The Times of India on the crisis affecting Maharashtra’s farmers. They won her the Chameli Devi award for 2015-16. (She was a co-winner with Raksha Kumar who focused in Scroll.in on the havoc of land acquisition.)

The argument will be made that there are stories that win awards and there are stories that make it to Page One. That distinction need not exist. In fact, as a curator for the entries in the human rights category for this year’s Red Ink awards, I know that distinction is false.

`Dead man standing: Why are 23-year-old farmers killing themselves in Marathwada?’ by Scroll.in’s Mridula Chari, dated April 2, 2015, was an outstanding report on Marathwada replacing Vidarbha as the epicentre of farmer suicides. So was Sayantan Bera’s report in Livemint: `Bundelkhand: The worst place in India to be a farmer’, also written in April 2015. Both these reports kept you engaged all the way despite being long. 

`Dead man standing…’ was one of four reports written by Chari in April. These were written before the 2015 monsoons failed, when the situation was already looking desperate. Post-monsoon, Scroll.in and Chari did a follow-up with another four stories in October. Of these eight stories from Marathwada, six made it to the shortlist in the print section of the Red Ink awards human rights category, thanks to their readability, diversity and compassion.

Scroll.in was one of the few which started its focus on drought early, or, actually, didn’t drop its focus at all. Some other news websites and newspapers also did care to sit up and take notice soon after last year’s monsoons failed. Catch News had written a strong piece on Marathwada: ``Drought, death and destroyed crops, Just how much more can Marathwada take?” by Parth M.N. in September and followed it up in November with four stories by Nihar Gokhale and Sourjya Bhowmick.

The Hindustan Times got off the mark in September, with four stories from Marathwada by Ketaki Ghoghe, while Kavitha Iyer wrote two for The Indian Express around the same time.   

But while individual mainstream newspapers were taking note of farmers’ distress, each of their efforts didn’t create the kind of impact that continuous coverage in all mainstream newspapers would have.

"Bundelkhand still hasn’t received that kind of media blitz that Marathwada has."


Among TV channels, it was NDTV alone that never lifted its gaze from the drought in Marathwada, carrying reports from August 2015 onwards. Tejas Mehta’s reports were marked by depth and understanding. In December, Sreenivasan Jain and Manas Roshan visited Bundelkhand and carried three reports. These provoked the UP government into doing some damage control.

Given the immediate response by the UP government, it’s clear that had the media carried out a sustained campaign on the conditions in Bundelkhand and Marathwada, the pressure would have forced governments to act.

To take Marathwada, with which this columnist is more familiar than with Bundelkhand, a sustained media focus by all leading papers and TV channels on the Marathwada drought – as has been happening now since March - would have highlighted all the causes. It would have exposed the fact that Maharashtra’s leading politicians who own water-guzzling sugar factories in Marathwada, care a damn about people’s needs. 

If the people’s thirst had been conveyed to the world, the Maharashtra government might have felt obliged last year to start sending more tankers to supply water free of cost, to start building minor water works, and planting trees on a massive scale. Maybe, if villagers’ desperate voices asking for ``paani, aur kaam’’ had been voiced, jobs under MNREGA would have been given so that villagers wouldn’t have been forced to withdraw their children from coaching classes, treat their sick at home instead of taking them to the hospital, and finally, to migrate.

One scene in a 2-minute NDTV report (August 18, 2015), by Tejas Mehta remains in the mind long after being watched: it shows an 11 year old left in the village with his 15-year-old brother. The camera follows the child as he unlocks the door to his home, checks his uniform, which he himself has washed, and makes his school bag. ``My parents have gone to the city for work. I feel bad, I don’t enjoy living like this,’’ he tells Mehta with a stony expression.

Imagine the impact of such scenes played into homes every night.


Not enough focus on Bundlekhand drought

Is that what viewers want, editors will ask? Who knows? Twenty two per cent of Mumbai is Marathi-speaking. Most of them still regard their village as their second home. Drought there affects them. And as the regional chauvinist Raj Thackeray never tires of pointing out, North Indians occupy a large space in Mumbai, literally and economically. Bundelkhand’s drought is not a remote topic for them. For metros such as Delhi and Gurgaon, Bundelkhand matters even more.

Even if some urban readers/viewers have no direct relationship with these regions, the drought there touches them. In Mumbai at least, the presence of destitutes on the streets has been noticeably increasing over the last couple of years. If viewers were told why they keep coming, there might just be a change in the attitude that sees them as ``outsiders who eat up our scarce resources’’. For a change, instead of providing oxygen to the sinking fortunes of Raj Thackeray, the media could help deflate his only ideological plank. 

But readers’/viewers’ choices cannot be the only reason why one does a story - and sticks with it.  Ask any reporter who visits Marathwada and Bundelkhand, and she will tell you the continuous droughts there are a result of government policy. Isn’t exposing government policy, especially when it damages both people and the environment, the media’s main job?

When film star Nana Patekar started providing relief to the drought-hit in Marathwada in October, all the TV channels interviewed him. Without sounding pompous, he spoke of  how he would have felt diminished as a human being had he not done something. Didn’t editors listening to him feel diminished, knowing they were not giving the region the attention it deserved?

True, both Bundelkhand and Marathwada are notoriously backward regions. Nine out of Bundelkhand’s13 districts and three out of Marathwada’s eight districts feature in the list of those eligible for the Centre’s Backward Regions Grant Fund. They are not easy regions to travel through, even for reporters.

Yet, Bundelkhand’s backwardness did not hamper the region’s Gulabi Gang from getting a lot of coverage, even inspiring a film. So why the indifference to covering drought as a consistent story? This New Year column by one of our seniormost journalists may give a clue. Here’s how Shekhar Gupta’s column in Business Standard dated January 1, 2016, titled `Beyond bijli, sadak, paani’ begins:

``Let's begin with our newspaper pages and prime time debates as we step into 2016...

…Is India going nuts? Can air-quality and internet democracy be among our foremost concerns as we step into what is, after all, just another year? Have the issues of roti, kapda or makaan; caste, religion or language; bijli, sadak or padhayi; corruption and misgovernance, all receded?

“They haven't. But as we break out of a past weighed down by concerns of survival into a future of opportunity, our political concerns are also moving up the value chain.

“An assertion like this can always be countered with reports of the drought-hit in Bundelkhand eating rotis made of grass, or farmers' suicides. But similar arguments confronted my reckless belief in the summer of 2009 that India was moving from a politics of grievance to aspiration. Better air quality and internet democracy are only a logical step in that new urge - better health care and quality of food may be next.''

Whatever rosy illusions Mr Gupta may want to project, those villagers eating grass, or even that clichéd image of a muddy dhoti-kurta-clad farmer gazing at the blazing sun from his cracked field, is really what India is all about.

Reading even the sporadic reports on farmers’ suicides, you understand that government policies over the last two decades have been steadily making farming uneconomical, driving farmers to the wall, forcing them to give up on their most beloved possessions: land and cattle. As Atul Deulgaonkar, Latur’s expert on water usage, told me: ``The government’s policy is: `Get lost farmer, die. We don’t need you.’

The resultant consequences - declining production of food grains and reliance on imports; reducing the purchasing powers of farmers and migration to the cities; and sometimes, irreversible damage to our water resources - will be frightening for all of us, whether we live in a village or not.

In bits and pieces, this story has been told by the media.  It is in our own interests to tell it all the time, so that it becomes the Big Story of the year, and forces governments to act.

On his prime ministerial campaign, Narendra Modi promised to wipe the tears of the people of Bundelkhand. He promised the world to farmers. In an NDTV report by Tejas Mehta, aired on August 21, 2015, a tearful, old-before-his-time Marathwada famer said into the camera: ``Modiji, please come here, see what we are going through.’’

If this message had been relayed through the media continuously, either Modi would have had to listen, or his and his party’s concern for farmers would have been exposed as just another jumla.  At least we would have all known not to expect anything, and maybe, we would have joined those already doing something.


Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based senior journalist.


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