Reforms Not Ending Poverty
United States Won't Back
New Marshall Plan
From Food Stamps To
Private Aid Widens
And The Media
'90s, as poverty and distress deepened, the media turned
away. A decade later, only two newspapers bothered to report
that India's so-called reform programs caused another 70
million Indians to fall below the poverty line, bringing
the total to nearly 400 million.
the first time since independence in 1947, India is experiencing
large-scale hunger-related deaths in some of the richest
states of the country. When 37 children died of hunger just
outside of the wealthy city of Bombay, the country's leading
magazine gave it a measly two pages. In the same issue,
nine pages were given to the wedding of cricket superstar
year half a million Indians die of tuberculosis, and more
than 1.5 million Indian infants die of diarrhea. Yet you
will not find two columns on these deaths because those
who die are the wrong sort of people, not deserving of media
may boast of its young chief executives, new jobs, new technologies
and new opportunities. But it is also home to 40 million
registered jobless, the total population of the Republic
of South Africa. No one's done a cover story or a TV program
on that because they're the wrong kind of people.
happens when the media actually covers poverty? Worldwide,
the media tends to succumb to certain stereotypes of the
poor as unending victims or romantic heroes. The coverage
is always completely lacking in humor, belying the fact
that humor is an essential survival mechanism among the
is generally depicted with a tragic drama that focuses on
the shock and agony of witnessing poverty rather than on
the poor themselves. Much of the coverage of poverty in
the Indian press consists of rhetoric and overstatement.
Any journalist visiting a poor village will write: "Here,
time has stood still." Time hasn't stood still anywhere
except in the writer's brain.
importantly, the media treats disparity, distress and poverty
as natural calamities -- the rich/poor divide has always
been there. Poverty is particularly inherent to the Third
World. The poor in the rich countries -- all those guys
-- they're basically slackers and welfare cheats and single
mothers feeding their alcoholism habit on welfare funds.
to the media, poverty is not even remotely related to exploitation.
If exploitation exists, it's somebody else's exploitation,
not ours, because we are the good guys. You see, it's those
feudal landlords in the Third World and a few bad people
who smuggle illegal immigrants, or it's the outcome of unending
tribal conflict in Africa.
in the media is conditional on one's acceptance of the notion
that poverty is in no way the result of free market capitalism.
Insinuate anything else and you don't have space as a journalist.
Take my word for it. If the link between poverty and free
market exists, it's because we aren't free market enough,
or the reforms have not moved fast enough. In short, you
may have some space for poverty, but in no way can you question
the prevailing ethos of market fundamentalism.
coverage is also based on the view that the poor need us,
the elite. They are useless themselves. They cannot do a
damned thing themselves. This myth has mandated 50 years
of project development -- at the end of which there are
more poor people in the world than ever before. Project
development has, however, benefited the rich enormously.
You just have to pick up the United Nations Bulletin that
comes out 26 times a year -- it's called Development Business
-- and count how may billions of dollars worth of contracts
now the World Bank and the World Health Organization are
behind a wonderful anti-malaria program in India: it's making
millions. The program consists of distributing millions
of mosquito nets impregnated with anti-mosquito repellent
to people who don't have beds. But the Bank and the WHO
have said it's a good thing. What do I know?
media, like these development moguls, can't understand the
causal link between extraordinary affluence and miserable
poverty. For instance, India Today reported on a district
in the state of Madhya Pradesh called Tikamgarh, calling
it the "most barren, infertile, hostile, unproductive
land and a whole population has no alternative but to contemplate
suicide." I have visited the same district many times
over the years and it does have extreme poverty, however
it also produces more food than any of the other 44 districts
in Madhya Pradesh.
fantastic productivity levels and immeasurable poverty exist
side by side because of an old-fashioned word that many
of us have forgotten --exploitation. Exploitation is the
basic source of poverty. In consists of inequality and disparity
in both the ownership and control of basic human resources.
The media's fake sensationalism and breathless horror actually
hide the truly sensational degradation that human beings
knowingly impose on other human beings through their policies.
there is some skillful coverage, some stories that vividly
describe the lives of the poor -- exceptions that go on
to win Pulitzer prizes. It's almost as if the papers save
a space for some moving story on inner city Chicago, then
spend the rest of the year expounding policies that drive
the people of inner city Chicago to absolute devastation.
media treats poverty as an event, but poverty is a process.
media also enjoys touting technology as the great solution
to poverty. It is true that that Telugu and Tamil are spoken
more widely than English in IT hubs like the headquarters
of Microsoft in Seattle. But that is not the whole story.
state of Andhra Pradesh has generated so many software engineers
that the capital, Hyderabad, is now facetiously called Cyberabad.
Yet it continues to have the lowest human development indicators
and the highest infant mortality rates in southern India.
The chief minister of the area, who is known as a visionary,
has installed computers at various block headquarters so
that villagers now have access to email. The joke I heard
when I went round the villages was "It's absolutely
wonderful, now we can email our chief minister that there's
no water, no housing and no food, but we can only do it
when there's electricity!"
a Net buff myself but let's not get into this romantic bullshit
about the Internet. It's a very traditional medium in many
ways, just look at the ratio and gender profiles of net
users. It may be the fastest growing medium among the young
people of the world, but two-thirds of the world's children
have never even had access to a telephone line, let alone
computers and the net. Tokyo and Osaka have more telephone
lines than the entire continent of Africa. The Internet
is subject to the same built-in inequality evident in every
other sphere of human activity.
I think India's achievements in computers are fantastic
in many respects, let me balance that by pointing out that
there are more PCs in New York than there are in all of
India. The IT race is actually deepening an already existing
divide. Why? In India, 100 million children don't get to
go to school.
newspapers and magazines write stories about the top ten
schools in India -- the schools where Microsoft and Oracle
do their "body-shopping" --there is no mention
of the 30 out of 100 children that never receive any schooling
at all. Out of the 70 who enter first grade, another 35
drop out by the fifth because of economic pressures. Of
the remaining 35, only 10 make it through junior high, and
a mere five actually graduate from high school. The system
manages to get rid of all the undesirables before they come
to college and lead demonstrations.
although new technologies offer tremendous possibilities
in the fight against poverty, it's not going to happen without
addressing inequality in resources and decision-making.
If we just keep chanting the mantra of new technology without
addressing human inequality, we're going to make things
a lot worse than they already are.
now living in a political era of market fundamentalism.
It is the most vicious fundamentalism of our times because
it cuts across all religions, cultures and geographical
barriers. It can be compared to any other religious fundamentalism
in that it has its temples and churches, its popes and pundits,
its higher and lower clergy, its conflicting denominations
in IMF and the World Bank. It even has its televangelists;
just turn on the TV to any channel to hear them preach their
gospel of growth and greed. It is fundamentalism of the
most devastating kind and it has done more damage to human
life than any other fundamentalism in the preceding decade.
is space in the media for another viewpoint, but we must
fight for it. The media must become public property, a public
forum for ordinary people and people's movements. Civil
rights include media rights and a right to the public forums
that influence opinion and policy in the world.
going to have to challenge and confront the mindset of market
fundamentalism: the idea that market is God and growth is
gospel. I read a very beautiful saying by an American environmentalist
which sums up my feeling on this: "Growth for growth's
sake is the ideology of the cancer cell."
going to have to fight against monopoly. We're going to
have to fight for more diversity in the media and fight
for the small voices to be heard in the press. A whole slew
of legislation goes through every year in more and more
countries allowing the media to become increasingly concentrated.
You can't fight poverty without fighting monopoly or change
the media without fighting concentration of ownership.
poverty in the media also means redefining human rights.
I find that a lot of human rights groups are much more comfortable
with prisons, barbed wire, jails and disappearances, all
of which are very important issues that we must support.
However, I think the biggest violation of human rights is
poverty. We must redefine human rights to include poverty
as a violation of human life and dignity. There are four
clauses in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights
that have remained invisible because the media never mention
them. Articles 23-26 describe economic and social human
rights. These articles, if enforced, would help billions
system itself is being challenged, and different kinds of
people are protesting everywhere. From Seattle to the French
truckers and farmers' strikes, people are protesting. Wherever
I go I see people resisting. Let's draw inspiration from
the ordinary people who want to change their lives.
intervene in the policy debates of our societies to fight
monopoly in the media and in general, particularly in the
realm of ideas. It's never been easy, it won't be easy,
but it can be done.
Sainath has received the European Commission's Lorenzo Natali
Prize and a Times of India scholarship for his coverage
of rural poverty. He is the author of Everybody Loves a
Good Drought: Stories from India's Poorest Districts.