Friday, August 25, 2006

Has media become subservient to market pressures?

From rescheduling a news item to a religiously conducive day or the weekend to attract maximum audience, this trend in media is persistently eroding the integrity of the fourth estate.

Sahara Mumbai on Thursday 8.00 pm aired a piece where Mr.RKB himself, interviewed people and dignitaries of the famous Shirdi temple located near Nasik. The issue at hand was the proposed replacement of the current silver throne with a golden for idol of the revered saint, Sai Baba.

The interview was done on earlier than or on Tuesday, I presume as teasers were being aired since Wednesday mid-morning. It was most likely picked up as a potential story after Mr. Bal Thackeray objected to such undue expenses when we are living in a state, Maharashtra, where farmers commit suicide on a daily basis because of lack of funds.

The teaser was being aired and to my surprise the full segment was not shown. I figured being a “special” they would have moved it to their regular weekend slot, which in itself would be in contradiction to the ideal of immediate news reporting. But they went a step further and picked a prime-time slot at 8pm on a Thursday, which is widely acknowledged as day attributed to Sai Baba. The teasers leading to this piece were aired almost once every hour on Wednesday and they also did a 10min showcase at 8pm on that day.

The move was obviously to generate maximum TRP for the channel, as many would watch it due to religious inclination and interest which would be heightened by the awareness of the day.

This was unsettling as being journalism student I wondered about the ethical propriety of such a move. Is media trying to create news today instead of purely reporting it?

As a pattern it may be observed that during the last four weekends a news bit has been consequently stretched to provide a sort of “reality TV” alternative for the weekend viewer! It began with the prince saga which was given almost 2 day minute by minute coverage. Then there was the infamous Jaswant Singh mole controversy which was probed mercilessly, more so on weekends. The PM and the Indo-US nuclear deal was vying for eyeballs all across the prominent TV channels.

Last week it was the Mahim creek water that had become sweet and hordes of people went to the beach to drink murky sea-water. This, in my opinion, is an excellent example of media created mass frenzy, as the amount of airtime given to this item ensured that more people would be encouraged to learn about the phenomenon by themselves, which resulted in small children drinking filthy water. This story was given almost 13 to 14 hours of airtime. The report was objective as it warned the people not to drink the water as it may contain toxins but was it responsible in giving it an incubation period via extensive coverage which lead to mass frenzy! I doubt whether this would be the case if the story were to break on a week day.

Although business compulsions of news channels cannot be ignored in today’s reality but it is imperative that they do not forget the very basics of reporting. We have a robust media here in India, which is not afraid to challenge the establishment policies and seldom hesitates to ask the important questions. By such gross violation of journalism ethics it would not only render the fourth estate hollow but also harm the psyche of its audience at large.

I revert to an often used and possibly clichéd quote but whose relevance is by far unquestioned. Mr. Stan Lee said it best when he proclaimed “With great power comes great responsibility”.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Storm in a bottle: The big picture missing!

The recent controversy surrounding an unacceptable level of pesticides in Pepsi and Coca-Cola is grossly misdirected in the general media. By merely focusing on banning the drinks an important opportunity to deliberate on this issue is lost.

It is necessary that MNCs must adhere to a standard especially when the product in question is consumed by a mass populace and they must be held accountable. But the core issue here should be how these findings reflect on the state of our water resources and environmental conditions.

The indiscriminate use of chemical and hazardous pesticides leads to them being leeched into our underground water reserves, soil and the atmosphere. It is not surprising at all that toxins are found in such high amounts in cola drinks which contain about 90% water. Such studies if conducted over a wide spectrum of organic food items and agricultural produce would, without a doubt, generate similar results. A proposed healthier option of milk in schools should also be subjected to equivalent checks but the results may just be damaging to the very fabric of our existence.

The fact that food articles elementary for our daily sustenance are polluted to an objectionable rate is alarming. The wider implication of such a possibility on the general health of people and also in the context of global trade is a matter of concern. India’s credibility in the world market may come under a scanner and jeopardize trade relations or even worse may attract embargoes on import from the country. It is imperative that the government formulate a comprehensive policy to contain pollution and avert such a crisis, even if it may not be an immediate threat. This can be achieved by introducing stringent environmental laws, agricultural policies and ensuring their implementation. Also, people must be educated and encouraged to actively participate in conserving the environment for a long-term holistic solution.

An alternative course of action must be considered which would help in curtailing the use of harmful pesticides in agriculture. Bio-fertilizers, vermiculture, sporadic growth of crops with varied nutritional requirements can be supplemented along with the conventional fertilizers.

Genetically engineered plants with inherent resistance to common pests and diseases can be a resourceful means by which chemical usage can be curbed. This requires government support in terms of initiative, financial aid and devising new policies to pave the way for research in this field. India already has a comprehensive policy on biotechnology and its application in agriculture and regulation but it is still in its nascent stage. Liberalising this sector can provide viable solutions to the widely observed environmental degeneration that is prevalent today. A proper understanding of the technology and its implementation in a prescribed regulated method is of importance while considering this option.

We must cease to take the earth for granted lest it returns the gesture, as it already has begun, for us to be consumed by our perennial struggle to exist.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Tryst with destiny

For those who always wondered about India's first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's famous 'Tryst with destiny' speech made at the Indian constituent assembly on the eve of independance, towards midnight on 14th Aug 1947, but are too damn lazy to google or wiki it (like I was) here's the speech.

Also an article by Shashi Tharoor on an account of the day as witnessed by Mildred Talbot, who had the rare privilege of being present at the independence ceremonies of both India and Pakistan. (see link)

"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.It is fitting that at this solemn moment, we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.'

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her successes, and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?

Freedom and power bring responsibility. The responsibility rests upon this Assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India. Before the birth of freedom, we have endured all the pains of labour and our hearts are heavy with the memory of this sorrow. Some of those pains continue even now. Nevertheless, the past is over and it is the future that beckons to us now. That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we might fulfill the pledges we have so often taken and the One we shall take today. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us. But as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over. And so we have to labour and to work and work hard to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for anyone of them to imagine that it can live apart. Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments. To the people of India, whose representatives we are, we appeal to join us' with faith and confidence in this great adventure. This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill-will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.

I beg to move, sir, that it be resolved that: After the last stroke of midnight, all members of the Constituent Assembly present on this occasion do take the following pledge: (1)At this solemn moment, when the people of India, through suffering and sacrifice, have secured freedom, I a member of the Constituent Assembly of India, do dedicate myself in all humility to the service of India and her people to the end that this ancient land attain her rightful place in the world and make her full and willing contribution to the promotion of world peace and the welfare of mankind. (2)Members who are not present on this occasion do take the pledge (with such verbal changes as the president may prescribe) at the time they next attend a session of the Assembly."

  • The Hindu - 1947 first hand
  • Monday, August 14, 2006

    Inside: Face the music

    I sat there precariously in the first row, not sure why I was here and that too on a Sunday. The stage was all set but the players missing. I squinted as strobe lights shone at their beaming best, making it unbearably hot and difficult to see, only for a while though. At this point I heard some strains of soothing rhythm strings accentuated by a lucid drum roll. Now I was at ease.

    I was at the taping of an episode of ‘Face the music’, a politically correct talk show which is aired on NDTV on Saturday nights, hosted by the prolific and very talented editor of Hindustan Times Mr. Veer Sanghvi. The band featured on the show was ‘Zero’, a Bombay band (PSP 12” baby!!), with one of the finest lead guitarist. Much of my enthusiasm was dulled down because of the rising heat and an almost endless wait to start rolling.

    The guests on the show, sitting MP from the Mumbai north-west parliamentary seat Priya Dutt, the very exuberant and lively Farah Khan and the king of rehashing classic oldies with a modern twist, Neeraj from the Bombay Vikings are not exactly known for their vibrant antics on any platform. So the show was going to be docile, no mercury rising here!

    The man himself was atypically dressed casually and sat comfortably in a chair. There was one of my icons, youngest editor in the history of Indian media, author of many critically acclaimed books sitting just paces away, aptly on a pedestal. He looked a bit older in person and also nervous but the characteristic charm and affable smile were self-assuredly in place.

    The first guest was on stage now, Priya Dutt, wearing a motley print which was in complete contradiction to her “title”, was greeted with a polite handshake. Amidst the pseudo-fog it was time to begin and stop again as Veer bungled his opener. Ah, he too is fallible!

    One of the pre-requisites for a good interviewer is his ability to engage a person in an honest conversation, which can be difficult with a live audience, and Mr. Sanghvi possesses this quality in abandon. The chat begins with the most expected and clichéd questions, not exactly hard-talk this. Yes, she wasn’t interested in movies, helped her Mum’s project at the Spastics Society of India in the 80’s and misses her loving father dearly.

    It is indeed impressive that within six days of having a baby Priya was back to her political campaign and won with a thumping majority. When asked if she was impressed with the “noises of regret” made by Sanjay Nirupam, she answered with en emphatic “NO!” “case is going to be pursued”. On the current parliamentary trend to rush to the well she replied, “…motivates people to play to the cameras…many times I do feel let down”, point taken Ma’am, as she seems to be blissfully unaware of the audience in front of her, not the one to play to the gallery. She admitted that her brother’s case was an “axe hanging over our heads” and hoped for a rapid and permanent respite.

    The second guest Farah Khan was quick to acknowledge the people in the small hall with a filmi wave. After a jocular interlude about getting married, living with her brother and gaining or rather trying to lose weight the conversation veered towards her first break in ‘Jo jeeta woh sikander’ when Saroj Khan didn’t turn up for the shoot. Since then there has been no looking back for this exuberant choreographer who was involved with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Westend hit ‘Bombay Dreams’ and now is slated to work with the effervescent Shakira. The rest of the talk was predictable, with an expected mention of ‘Shahrukh and Gauri’ being the perfect couple and Hrithik being the “next Michael Jackson.” A connection was made with Priya when she talked about how Sanjay froze at the IIFA awards last year. She proclaimed Shahid kapoor and Deepika Padukone, the newcomer in her next ‘fun period film set in the 70’s (shades of Main hoon na do we suspect), as the most promising youngsters in the industry.

    The last guest Neeraj, after about three takes of his opening song after the ‘break’ got it right, but have to admit the man can sing! Tracing the roots of the title of his band which was formerly ‘Vikings’ as the rest of his mates were Swedish where he grew up, which explains the misplaced accent, they added the ‘Bombay’ in 1999 to give it a local flavour. “You need to have lots of respect for the songs… don’t want to be closer to the original”, he replied when questioned about his intent of remaking. It certainly introduces an entirely new generation to classic tunes which they wouldn’t come across otherwise and in a language that is urban, current. Also the song ‘woh chali’ featured Priya’s father, Sunil Dutt, a pleasant coincidence. He belted his own rendition and the original as well, on request of course.

    The last segment was a routine chat amongst all, as decided with prior consensus. Here Mr. Neeraj feeling a bit thirsty and maybe out of place was furiously gesturing for some water, fidgeting with his throat, which was given promptly. The show ended with a Zero tune probably the high point of the show where the audience felt alive.

    Although I did not have any delusions of a vital debate on core issues taking place on the show, it was a bit of a let down. The conversations felt generic and routine and did nothing to inspire curiosity or excitement. Also towards the end we couldn’t hear what was being said on the stage, an explanation finally for every time I try and adjust the volume of my TV set during the show, low production values. It is a talk show with an English-speaking urban audience in mind and its strength lies in an assorted list of guests who usually have nothing in common, meant purely for easy viewing. It does not pretend to take a stand per se which most shows in the guise of informal discussion aspire to do. The next episode was to be taped at 4.30, with Narayan Rane and Shaimak Davar slated to make an appearance. I decided not to stay and left in search of the 3 hours on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, which I would never get back.

    Alegd Wit proclaims:
    How many Arjun Singhs does it take to change a light bulb?
    None. Because he passes a bill to make darkness a norm, inorder to "protect" minority interests!

    Monday, August 07, 2006

    Dirty old men

    Santa Singh and Banta Singh sat brooding about their future, it looked gloomy. After a long spell of silence, the gentlemen, both in the twilight of their life and career began to discuss the events that had changed the course of their lives.

    “The entire country wants to see my mole. It was in the PMO (perceived mildly offensive) area of my body, now it is in a very secret place. The media, public, parliament, all of them want to know where the mole is. I offered to whisper it into the wise-guy’s ear, but he didn’t comply. How can I just say it on national television with all the saas-bahus watching? It is my call to honour, after all!” Santa said in his acquired diplomatic tone.

    “But Sirjee, why did you bring it up now after 10 years, wasn't it your duty to deal with it earlier? And that too in your book?” asked a puzzled Banta.

    “I was protecting the sanctity of its beholder, I have some sense and decency. Besides it would not boost my book sales like it is now. After reading my book ‘A call of horror’ everyone is scared and crying. They are angry at me now for telling the truth.”

    “Yes, it wasn’t like you were under any oath or anything. No one appreciates talent here in India!” Banta exclaimed.

    “Even the American’s deny knowledge of any mole, which is a complete lie. They have the most famous and sexiest mole, Cindy Crawford’s upper-lip aberration, how can they forget that.” thundered Santa while trying to picture the beautiful mole.

    Banta got up urgently, dhoti firmly grasped in one hand and soothing his throat with the other.
    “Santa do you have some oil, my throat has gone dry.”

    Santa obliged, he empathized with Banta as they were both caught in a curious predicament. Both felt lonely, at this point. Santa’s parivar refused to talk to him and Banta was about to be thrown out of his familia. It was unfortunate, as they both were extremely loyal to their bosses.

    “Only if I had waited till retirement”, murmured Santa, quietly to himself. He thought of calling up his doctor to have his mole surgically removed, but he was too embarrassed.

    “My son Jaggu wanted some oil to play with his friends. I could not hurt his feelings, could I? I was only being a good father, and they say that I did something wrong. Such insensitive jerks I work with.” Banta said giving vent to his grief.
    “Look at Arjun; he has no reservations about sleeping in the parliament. At least I did some work!”

    “They made a report about it too.” interjected Santa thoughtfully.

    “Yes, what could I do? He made me an offer I could not refuse! Now the Italian Mafia won’t protect me” said Banta with a sigh.

    “Most unfortunate, I must say. It happens to the best of us. It is our Karma, destiny. ” comforted Santa.

    “Now I can not stand it anymore. I will reveal everything. I will break my omerta, the ‘consigliere’ must fall.” An angered Banta proclaimed, with his fist in the air. He thought of his sweet son who twiddled his thumb and was always playing with the atypical cleft in his chin.

    “Don’t act in such haste.” cautioned Santa. “We should join forces and write a book. Think of all the publishing deals and multi-million dollar movie contracts. Wah! What do you think my Stephanian brother; we are the same at a mole-cular level!”

    “And we can oust all the skeletons in everyone’s expensive closets which are paid for by the taxpayer’s money. But what will we call the book?”

    “We can call it ‘A foreign affair to remember’” said Santa excitedly. His mouth was now salivating at the thought of all the money he would make.

    “We will be a hit jodi, like Munnabhai and Circuit. Who needs a party, we’ll have a ball together. Bole to ekdum jhakass!”

    Sahi hai Maamu. Yeh leh ek jaadu ki jhappi!”

    P.S. At the time of publishing, Banta and his son Jaggu were indicted in the oil-for-food scam. Santa was relieved that all the attention was now on Banta, so he could now breathe a bit easy.

    Friday, August 04, 2006

    Conversations: After the blasts

    Saala, atom bomb daal deneka. Mach-mach hi khatam!” thundered the gentleman sitting opposite to me, in a crowded churchgate local, with his fist raised in fury and rebellion. A permanent solution to India’s terrorist problems, bomb the neighbouring country.

    Kya Paresh biwi ne khane ko nahi diya kya?” countered Rasikbhai, with an impish grin. The grandfather of three and also a father-figure for many who travel by this route everyday, in the same compartment, had found a way to ease the tension.

    I had mistimed my entry into the train and was now in the midst of a predominantly Gujrati group, robust and loud, with a strong sense of companionship and bonhomie. I generally keep to myself, trying to avoid all at best ensuring my peace of mind in the grimy enclosure, but today I wanted to know what these ordinary but opinionated individuals felt about their community being the prime target in the recent Mumbai blasts, which evoked the above reaction.

    Ravi who sat next to me, balancing his left cheek on the “fourth seat” assured me that this wasn’t what most of them felt should be done. People across the border also have families, maa-bhen, just like us, a thought which was reflected in the dismissive reaction to the ‘final solution’. But I suspected that it was only a lack of opportunity than compassion.

    “What do you know, you are a kid. You would wet your pants in Godhra. I was there I have seen it all happen, people being burnt and robbed. They burnt the train full of kar sevaks. It was brutal.” said Ashokbhai, trying to control his anger from spilling on to the proving ground, karmabhoomi, of cosmopolitan Mumbai, the suburban train. He addressed me directly this time. “Have you seen a person being burnt alive, it is a sight that remains etched in ones memory. My childhood friend’s only daughter was to be married the next day when they ransacked his shop and stole his money.” The term ‘they’ is more apt here, as it confers a certain alienation from his own person, not fit to be recognized. I looked around; the faces were tense and sympathetic.

    “Do you have any Muslim friends?” I asked aloud. By now, the people standing around the seats in the compartment had turned to face us, purely out of morbid curiosity as to what was going on.

    Not sure to whom the questioned was directed to Rasikbhai, the jovial elder volunteered. “It is not that we hate the Muslims or want to kill all of them but there is resentment. We all do business with them everyday, share jokes and laugh. But some of us are affected deeply by what has happened here in Mumbai. Everyone knows the Gujratis were the target, then and now. We want the good Muslims to stay in India, they are a part of this land, but the bad ones must be apprehended. Why is it that this community has most of the criminals and terrorists? They bear allegiance to Pakistan and jihad. It is in their blood.” He spoke in a calm voice as if stating the obvious.

    This predilection of being victimised singularly in a wave of mass destruction was startling. The secular credentials of the bomb-blasts were blown to bits.

    Sensing unwarranted tension in a packed train, some one begins to sing an old Hindi film song and everyone bursts out laughing. Amid the smiles there is a sense of relief, the balance is restored and all can go back discussing the mundane, teasing, and laughing. My conversation ends here.

    I remembered my exchange with about ten young and educated individuals from different parts of Gujarat post-Godhra. There was a strong undercurrent of hate and suspicion towards any Muslim they would encounter. They all said that they don’t mind being around or even eating with one but they would never go to their homes. A girl confessed that it is forbidden that she marries a Muslim; even the thought is not allowed, any other caste will do and she is more than glad to comply. A fact that is prevalent even here in Mumbai. Modi’s seeds of venom have come to fruitition, the tactful master of communal polarization has succeeded and its consequences are disturbing.

    I am invited to dinner by Ashfaq Patel, a friend and also a distinct confluence of the seemingly immiscible Gujrati and Muslim heritage. Being part Gujrati and part Muslim he is the collateral in this perceived civilizational battle.

    “I feel blessed as I am safe from this hindutva political rhetoric that is alarmingly accepted these days. Born in a multi-religious environment is liberating, it helps in moving beyond this fanatic affliction to ones identity. I relate to a person based on his individuality and not his caste or religion, it doesn’t concern me. My cousins are Hindu’s and I care for them dearly. My uncles may not see eye-to-eye on certain issues, but there is no animosity as such. We all are a part of a big family, connected to each other.” He said while admonishing any such notion of contempt there may be towards other religions. In his case both were his own and yet neither of them influenced his thinking.

    This feeling of belonging to a ‘big family’ is a necessity to overcome barriers and prejudices borne in our minds, to set ourselves free. As I reach for my second dhokla he asks me to go easy on it, as there’s biryani later. He truly is blessed.