Big issues are getting lost in the web of small news distractions

In the small village in Kumaon where we live in summer, our house is but one of a few in the area with electricity, while the houses nearby have the dim incandescence of kerosene lanterns. The government’s declaration that no Indian village is now without electricity rings hollow for many of our rural neighbours.

Some time back when The Economist reported that India’s growth rate had declined to 5% and Standard & Poor’s downgraded India’s debt rating, the government spokesman issued a rebuttal and shot out a fresh quarterly rate of 6.6%. A 4.5% correction was recently issued. A few weeks earlier, when the government declared the free school meal programme a resounding success, a UN survey on health and nutrition announced that the largest number of malnutrition cases had shifted from Sub-Saharan Africa to rural India. There’s more. At the time Delhi’s municipal water was tested and found to be at dangerous levels, the Delhi Jal Board not only issued a denial, but claimed that the capital’s supply was better than most European cities. A BBC news story on Kashmir spoke of the desperate clampdown of ordinary life in Srinagar at exactly the moment when the government announced the resumption of normal life in the Kashmir Valley.

For the most part, we are constantly subjected to this split screen of divergent news. Our choice is not to question but to learn to accept public information as a form of mock satire. India is like a large unwieldy prison, in which the warden carefully filters news of the outside world and makes it more palatable for consumption. The idea is to insure that the inmates are not left uninformed or out of touch, but are given incoherent and competing views of the larger national perspective. It is in the government’s interest that real numbers never get out. It helps when annual data banks do not rely on private and non-governmental sources but on government departments themselves. Besides, those who have learnt to stage-manage the press, the media and wider public institutions know that the most effective strategy relies on generating moments of distraction. It helps to keep people constantly bickering among themselves and push their focus onto smaller private realities — the price of onions, children’s school admissions, local electricity rates.

The monitoring of news and views becomes crucial when you see that the India of the last few decades is failing in the most rudimentary of provisions. Three hundred million uneducated people give the country the highest illiteracy rate in the world, and almost a fifth of the population still lives in dire poverty. How do you address issues of ill health and malnutrition when numbers are daunting, and resolution near impossible? Can you resolve a border dispute that has festered for 70 years, or a communal divide that is as intractable as ever? Is it even possible to avoid the scourge of famine, pollution, poisoned rivers and environmental degradation that now puts India on top of all disaster lists? What then of Indian cities, rated now as the most toxic, dense agglomerations on earth, and growing annually in alarming numbers of new migrants, unemployed and homeless. How does a government deflect from such a serious situation?

An administration that effectively plays no role in people’s lives is also in the safe position of shirking no responsibility. In the larger scheme of things, it hardly matters whether India is at 4.5% or 3% on the GDP index; what difference does it make whether 300 children die of malnutrition or three million?

When little is being done about it, the number game becomes just a statistical time pass for politicians. In a landscape of gloom that has remained unchanged for 70 years and has now reached epic proportions, there is no pressure to perform. Human well-being is no longer a worthwhile battle. So, the focus shifts to other self-created situations, with quicker, more visible victories.

Attention is weaned away from reality into areas of feel-good and identity politics: should women be allowed to enter a temple; should the national anthem be played only at sporting events and movie halls, or in malls and private hotels as well; what are the gate receipts for tourists at the Sardar Patel statue; are they more than the Taj Mahal? Would the proposed Parliament House building make India a greater democracy, just as six-lane highways will give the outsider a vivid view of the country’s progress? Heroic pronouncements of India’s importance are best made at international conferences, and to Indians entirely out of touch with the home country. For a government looking to put up the greatest show on earth these become the more relevant questions.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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