Gone are the days when intellectuals used to debate issues of social interest on mainstream national media. This used to be the DoorDarshan (DD) news channel. Now it has been relegated to the sideline of the commercial TV channels which have occupied the center – stage. If you want some intellectually stimulating stuff now you have to hunt for the DD News and Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha Channels. There are debates on different social topics which rarely grab attention of the commercial media channels. It is pleasant to see experts talking at length without interruption of commercials and the anchor is not hard-pressed for time. In contrast, if for some strange reasons the media channels pick up some serious topic the invited guests have hardly enough time to make their point. I find it really offending and a mockery of the social issues which concerns ordinary people’s life – much more than toilet soaps and beauty creams commercials.
In the liberalization regime ushered in by Mr Manmohan Singh in the 1990s, media is no longer a place for serious discussions. It is more like a bazaar where you make noise and grab attention, in the narrow time-space unfilled by advertisements. Except for the three state owned channels mentioned above, you open any other channel and expect the same 1 or 2 news items repeated endlessly the whole day, as if nothing else is happening anywhere in the city, country or the world.
A journalist friend of mine openly admitted that serious issues like plight of the poor, dalits, or tribals and vital issues like police, judicial or electoral reforms etc are not as “sellable” as rapes, gang-rapes, murder, kidnapping of high profile people, terror attacks, celebrity gimmicks, politicians’ silly remarks and so on. Media people have the “right” to decide what they want to air or discuss on their channels and what they would ignore. Sure, sometimes our reporters do run to cover the incidences of rape and atrocities on backward caste women, not for any sense of justice or concern for the poor but because that’s perfectly “sellable” news!
Certainly, we need to fight with the media if wants to get confined in the prison of TRP and strange self-serving interpretations of what media should be and do. Here is the snapshot of reality our poor brothers and sisters face everyday which the media finds uninteresting.
The Super Poor India!
India, the largest democracy of 1.25 billion people, occupies 2.4% of world’s land area but supports about 18% global population. It is also the biggest center of poverty in the world – it is both widespread and intense. As per the latest claim of India’s Planning Commission in July 2013, there are about 269 million (or 22 percent) people under the poverty line, as against 407 million in 2004-05.
The more comprehensive Multidimensional Poverty Index 2013 report of UK based Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates poverty at 53.7 percent (or 650 million poor people) in India. This is more realistic. While no one believes the official poverty data of the Indian government, it is fair to say that about 400 – 600 million people are poor in India. While there can never be agreement on poverty numbers, compare these numbers with the European Union and US populations of 500 million and 310 million, respectively. These are huge numbers, by any standard.
India holds the distinction of having the most number of poor of the world – a super poor nation! Consequently, South Asia has become the world’s biggest center of extreme poverty. On the World Bank’s extreme poverty line of 1.25 dollars a day, there are roughly 500 million extreme poor in South Asia – most of it in India. The only other comparable pocket of poverty is the sub Saharan Africa, with 400 million people in extreme poverty.
Nature of Indian Poverty
The Global Hunger Index (GHI) of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in association with an Irish group, Concern Worldwide and a German group, Welthungerhilfe is a good tool to analyze the nature of Indian poverty. It is published since 2006 and it ranks countries based on three equally weighted indicators: (1) proportion of undernourished population, (2) proportion of underweight children under five, and (3) mortality rate of children under the age of five.
The index number varies between 0 and 100. The higher the score, the worst the food/nourishment related poverty of the country. The GHI puts countries in the 5 categories based on their index score: Low hunger (score below 5), moderate hunger (5 – 10), serious hunger (10 – 20), alarming hunger (20 – 30) and extremely alarming hunger (above 30). India’s hunger index value was 22.9 in 2012, placing it in the “alarming hunger” category. Even the best performing state, Punjab, falls in the “serious hunger” category with a GHI score of 13.6 and the tail end is occupied by MP with GHI of 30.9.
An analysis of past data reveals that the situation has been more or less same for last 20 years. Therefore, the economic reforms and liberalization which started since 1990 did practically nothing for the poor. Clearly, it has been mere corporate-led GDP growth unaccompanied by development for the masses.
High Prevalence of Child Under-Nutrition
The major reason of India’s bad performance on GHI is high prevalence of underweight children. Since 1990 the proportion of underweight children has only fallen from 60% to 43% and the under-five mortality rate from 12% to 7%. Acknowledging the level of high food insecurity, the Indian parliament has recently enacted the National Food Security Act covering two-third of the population, about 800 people. This should make a significant difference in the levels of hunger and under-nutrition in the coming years, if implemented sincerely and politics doesn’t come in the way.
Despite improvements since 1990, because of large population India is still home to over 40% of the world’s underweight children (Pakistan 5 percent) and about a third stunted children (whose height is low for their age). Even the neighboring Nepal and Sri Lanka as well as Sudan and North Korea did better than India. In the neighboring region, only Bangladesh (ranked 68th) has comparable high levels of underweight children. No wonder, South Asia has the highest level of hunger comparable only with the sub-Saharan Africa.
The under-nutrition among children is a serious issue, particularly in infants before 2 years of age, because it has long term consequences as they grow up. Children under 2 who do not receive adequate nutrition have increased risks to experiencing lifelong damage, including poor physical and cognitive development, poor health, and even early death. However, the under nourishment or malnutrition after 2 is reversible.
The bad nutrition situation in India is a sign of many things wrong with the Indian society – high social inequality, high population, weak gender status of women’s, low female literacy, poor healthcare awareness, poor sanitation, etc. Ultimately, all these factors are reflected in poor child nutrition. India ranks even poorer than several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan, even though their per capita incomes are much lower. This clearly reveals the irrationality of using income or per capita GDP as a measure of progress.
I am really saddened that mainstream commercial media feels no sense of responsibility to take proactive steps and turn poverty into a hot national issue. It may mention GDP but not GHI or MPI that directly concern the poor.