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Rural journalism in a shambles

Media, the fourth pillar of Indian democracy, has the social responsibility for national development. Ignoring rural development cannot achieve the real national development.

Santosh Kumar Biswal | Pune |

After Mumbai, now farmers’ protest at Ramlila Maidan ground in New Delhi has brought agrarian distress to the fore. Sadly, certain rural issues have been aggravated and have gone unnoticed. Serious and unaddressed issues have forced over 400 famers to commit suicide in Telangana since its formation, questioning the status of Bangaru Telangana(Golden Telangana).

Farmer suicides have increased in Karnataka’s sugar belts. Farmers continue to burn stubble in Punjab and Haryana despite the promotion of farm machinery backed by financial assistance by government and awareness programmes. Low price for farming labour and produce have been major issues in the Madhya Pradesh polls.

The issues of farming communities in Rajasthan have been at centre stage in the current assembly elections. The list is never ending. The reportage that romanticises farmers’ suicides has now become passé in India. The role of media as the harbinger of new ideas for rural development is yet to be pragmatically explored and sensed. Unfortunately, the empowering role of journalism has been weakened as priority is being given to making profits.

Often news is commoditized and manufactured. Bad practices of journalism are driving away the good. Growing skewed proportion in terms of production, distribution and consumption of news between rural news consumers and urban consumers is widening. Who is to be blamed for the precarious condition of rural journalism in India?

Suffice to say, today 70 per cent of the country’s population lives in villages. If one seeks the opinion of famous Indian statesmen on Indian villages, it leaves us with a sense of ambivalence. To Mahatma Gandhi, the soul of India lives in its villages. Jawaharlal Nehru said a village was the centre of backwardness.

However, of late, the rural market and economy is recognised as one of the biggest slices of the Indian economy, but without proper planning and execution to exploit the same. Rural population is subjected to exploitation in terms of skewed proportion of production, distribution and consumption of various means. It is thus grappling with numerous social, political and economic issues even in the age of post-modernism.

In this context, the role of media in general and rural journalism in particular is of paramount importance. Media, the fourth pillar of Indian democracy, has the social responsibility for national development. Ignoring rural development cannot achieve the real national development.

Numerous perennial issues are plaguing rural India. It is an astounding fact that the Indian media is keen to report on farmers’ suicides, but not on the issues pertaining to agriculture on regular intervals. The maladies relating to agriculture; education; healthcare; livestock; credit facilities including banks, co-operative societies, village money lenders; self-help groups; panchayat or mandal and governance grip rural India.

For instance, the issue of marketing of agriculture products is a less discussed topic in media. There is a growing discontent among the farmers’ fraternity on the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP). MSP is a type of market intervention by the Government of India to insure agricultural producers against any sharp decline in farm prices.

It is announced by the Government of India at the beginning of the sowing season for certain crops on the basis of the recommendations of the CACP. However, several farming communities do not have information on the MSP and many times it is alleged that there has been delay in executing such price intervention from the side of government. The media coverage remains scanty when it comes to these issues.

Rural issues are quite prevalent all over India. However, states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Maharashtra and Telangana have more problems which remain unaddressed and not covered by the media. Discussing the rural issues in Maharashtra, India’s second-most populous state is of significance since the issues of farmers have been much highlighted in terms of farmers’ suicide in the Vidarbha regions.

The impact of demonetisation last year had thrown agricultural produce market committee (APMC) out of gear and paralysed the district cooperative banks and credit societies in the state. Issues like loan waiver, oversupply of produce and poor marketing facilities, absence of a cold chain to store perishable commodities, MSP and crop insurance are gripping the agrarian economy. Such issues are grave in the districts of Vidarbha and Marathwada which have been reeling under the worst rural situations ever in the state.

In addition, it is often alleged that the government’s inability to address the vagaries of the agrarian economy result in unprecedented farmers’ agitations. However, media is unconcerned about the peasant unrest; coverage has been sporadic and largely unfocused.

It is quite apparent that rural journalism remains a grey area in Indian journalism. Journalists working in urban areas are not nuanced enough to understand and report rural problems. The paucity of reporters at grassroots level, less space or time allocation, and shoddy newsroom management have further damaged rural journalism.

When the coverage of rural issues in the mainstream media is so spotty, few alternative media have paid judicious heed to this concern. It is a good sign that certain alternative media like Khabara Lahariya, Janavani, Gaon Connection, PARI are striving to serve the purpose of rural journalism in India. Khabar Lahariya, the popular vernacular weekly has enabled rural women to intensify a massive media movement at the grassroots level.

Here, communities become the content producer and content consumer as well. Started in the form of a weekly newspaper, Gaon Connection has expanded to digital shape to serve the needs of rural communities in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. Moreover, with the massive proliferation of digital media, often dubbed as competitors of mainstream media, certain websites have covered rural issues unlike the mainstream media.

Combined efforts of concerned citizens and journalists are the need of the hour to save rural journalism in India. Newsrooms irrespective of medium – print, electronic and digital – should treat issues of rural India as ‘newsworthy’. This can improve coverage with impact on society. The regional media along with national media should work hand in hand to make the coverage well-intentioned. The regional media have a larger role to disseminate rural communication since the future of such media is immense and hugely connected to the rural masses.

The writer is an assistant professor with Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Symbiosis International (Deemed University), Pune.