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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 50, November 30, 2013

Authoritative Focus on Concerns of the Poor and Marginalised

Sunday 1 December 2013, by Vijay Kumar


An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen; Allen Lane; 2013; pages: 413.

The book under review is a powerful and authoritative intervention for more vigorous and pervasive state action, at least in the arena of basic education and health care, so that human capabilities and human freedoms could be expanded.

The book rightly starts with the positive achievements in the last sixtysix years by entrenching democracy and making India as perhaps the only functioning democracy outside Western Europe and North America and other developed countries, like Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The authors also commend the record of safeguarding secularism in the country despite some aberrations from time to time. Having noted these positive gains, the authors rightly refuse to rest on the laurels and thereafter catalogue a series of failures like the denial of basic education and basic health care to large numbers of the population and the prevalence of malnourishment and a host of other deprivations.

It is these deprivations which are impeding the transformation of India from a formal to a participatory democracy. The prevalence of humongous corruption as a result of complete absence of accountability coupled with the inability or unwillingness or both to “organise, agitate and deliberate”, an evocative phrase of Dr Ambedkar, quoted by the authors, further compounds the problems of deprivations.

The failure to organise, agitate and deliberate has accentuated the absence of ‘public reason’ and ‘social action’. And this absence of ‘public reason’ and ‘social mobilisation’ could be, in large measure, attributed to the lack of concern shown to these deprivations in the mainstream media, particularly in the elite English media and electronic media. Thus, the role of the media in ensuring the basic entitlements due to the poor and marginalised segments acquires centrality in transforming the successful electoral democracy into a deliberative democracy. Therefore, the role of the media becomes absolutely central to focusing the myriad deprivations of the disadvantaged groups. The concern of the elite and privileged is given disproportionate coverage by the media in general and the English print media and electronic media in particular.

Here again, the learned authors take note of the positive role played by the media in exposing political corruption and highlighting gender discrimination, as was evident during the despicable act of rape witnessed in December 2012 at Delhi. But the media is highly selective. The rampant instances of corporate malfeasance and misfeasance are never interrogated simply because the mainstream elite media have already been co-opted, indeed consumed, by corporate groups and their interests. The issues which are central to the marginalised groups are rarely highlighted. A host of deprivations like denial of basic education, basic health care, malnutrition, attending the call of nature in the open because of the inability to afford toilets etc. never find place in the mainstream media. This results in impeding the human capital which is so essential in enriching our democracy and making it deliberative and participative. The media can play an emancipatory role by highlighting denial of basic services and thereby ensure better service and accountability. Thus, the role of the media is pivotal in better, equitable and human governance aimed at enhancing human capital and capabilities.

One highly relevant aspect of the Indian media does not find any mention in the book under review and this pertains to the proclivity to deliberately raise religious or other trivial issues. For instance, the forecast made by one Sanyasi pertaining to the hidden treasure-trove of gold near Unnao, and the absolutely avoidable public issue raked up by the principal Opposition party, the BJP, centring around Nehru-Patel and their perceived differences was given unduly large coverage. Similarly, the issues of fashion, sports and, particularly cricket, get disproportionately wide attention. The present reviewer has been consistent in diagnosing this as a deliberate attempt on the part of the media to deradicalise the political discourse. The media may or may not be providing opium to the masses, as argued by Justice Katju, the Chairman of the Press Council of India, but its role in deradicalising the political discourse certainly makes it an appendage of the predominant corporate interests. No wonder the celebratory media is always intoxicated with growth and starts acting like Cassandra whenever the growth dips as if growth is an end in itself.

Growth cannot be an end in itself; it is merely a means to generate more revenue and thereby reduce human wants by creating social infrastructure. The book under scrutiny has come at a time when the English media and electronic media are obsessed with growth as if, to borrow the apt metaphor of the authors, “India is an island of California in the midst of the deep sea of Sub-Saharan Africa”.

The book heralds perhaps a new role for the authors, and particularly for Prof Sen, by converting him from a hyper-academic to a grassroots activist. This transformation of Prof Sen from the tallest academic to an activist has succeeded in lending his authoritative voice to the causes and concerns of the poor and deprived segments of the society. One fervently hopes and avidly wishes that the authoritative voice lent by the authors becomes infectious by prodding other intellectuals to follow suit and the media to start focusing on the concerns of disadvantaged groups.

The reviewer is a Supreme Court Advocate and author of the recently released book Supreme Court of India: Policy Formulator or Active Protector?

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