Farm laws repeal: The big media needs to realize reform doesn't mean privatisation
Soon after the Prime Minister announced the withdrawal of the three contentious farm laws, a sustained campaigned kicked-off in the media criticising the decision as a setback to the 'reforms'. The repeal of the farm laws came as a surprise, with most TV anchors who had lobbied hard over the year for the big business, suddenly were caught off guard. After overcoming the initial shock, began a tirade against protesting farmers. In many of the TV shows that I was invited to it was appalling to see how some TV anchors persisted with questions that were no longer relevant and only ended up showing their frustration. Blaming farmers for derailing the reform process, a lot of insinuations were fired at. The questions that were repeatedly asked not only reflected the bias that the mainline media carries against the farmers, but also showed the huge disconnect it has with the ground realities.
So much so that a senior journalist travelling in eastern Uttar Pradesh actually asked a couple of farmers whether they had worked out the financial loss they would have to incur once these laws were repealed. The journalist perhaps didn't realise in his enthusiasm that there is no way to estimate the income gains, even if he thinks so, once the laws were implemented. But I guess the underlying idea behind this question was to put a message through to the ignorant farmers that with the repealing of the laws they are going to lose out economically. On one of the TV Channels, I finally asked the anchor to now stop listing the merits of the three laws knowing that these laws have been finally withdrawn. At least, spare us the mercy of listening to all this propaganda that had been spewed on to us for over a year now. But he still persisted, telling me that it was his job as a journalist to ask questions. Instead of getting into a 'tu tu main main' I finally asked him to behave at least for once like a journalist and not as a company spokesperson. This was not an isolated incident. In many TV channels, you must have seen similar kind of exchanges, sometimes heated, with panellists who did not agree with the corporate viewpoint that the TV anchors were aggressively pushing for.
Even during the year when farmers were braving the weather extremes and protesting at the border of New Delhi, the big media houses had pointed fingers at the protesting farmers branding it as a protest of rich farmers aided and abetted by traders. Instead of trying to understand the economic reasons that led farmers to take to the streets, the media did repeatedly called them names, some going to the extent of insulting and abusing them by linking the movement with separatist elements. Nevertheless, the peaceful and prolonged protests with farmers refusing to give up till their demands had been met had finally made the government realise the need to listen to them.
"Yet, let us consider briefly, the consistently negative, even vituperative, campaign that big media had conducted on this agitation," writes journalist Pamela Philopose in The Wire. Ever since the laws were introduced, the big media had tried to drum up the narrative that market reforms being introduced would be the saviour of Indian agriculture. Accusing farmers of being misled by vested interests, media had consistently harped on the premise that free markets would bring prosperity on the farm and thereby pull agriculture out of the severe distress that prevails. There was hardly a day when it would not bring together a team of corporate executives, market analysts and commentators known for espousing neoliberal thinking as experts on the TV panels. The objective was to convince the nation that not only the proposed reforms were what the country was looking forward to, but it was the misguided protesting farmers who were throwing a spanner in the growth story.
At no stage had the big media got any inkling that the government might repeal the laws. Newspaper editorials the next day (after the PM's announcement) did acknowledge the political necessity that some believe led to withdrawal of the laws, but still argued that reforms were necessary for bringing competition and efficiency in agriculture. At some stage, they argued, the government would still like to usher in reforms, which was a crying need to bolster economic growth. Along with labour reforms, opening up of agriculture to market forces were talked about as the twin reforms the country needed for achieving a high growth trajectory. Some newspapers had even gone to the extent of asking protesting farmers to move back from New Delhi borders, and return to their villages since their major demand of repealing the farm laws had been conceded. But when farmers said they welcomed Prime Minister's decision to repeal the three laws but would stay put to seek a legal right for Minimum Support Price (MSP) they have been demanding, the big media once again went into an over spin. For the past few days, MSP has suddenly emerged on the top of the media agenda with TV Channels decrying the farmers demand not only as illegitimate but also something that would not be economically possible to deliver. If everything that farmers produce has to be procured by the government, big media warns that it would entail an additional expenditure of Rs 17 lakh crore, which the country cannot afford. At no stage is it being clarified that farmers are not demanding the entire produce to be procured but are only asking that no trading be allowed below the MSP that is announced for 23 crops every year. This is certainly feasible, and even the Commission for Agricultural Cost and Prices (CACP) had suggested it in one of its reports.
A lot of similar doubts that the big media has created needs to be dispelled. Just hankering at the immense business opportunity that free markets create for the big business is not what reforms essentially mean. What the big media needs to understand is that the word reform does not translate into privatisation. Going by the dictionary meaning, reform means 'to make something better.' Providing an assured and guaranteed price by way of legalising MSP too is a reform, and is the real reform that agriculture globally is crying for.
In such difficult times when big media is unable to emerge out of the clutches of big business and return back to follow the journalistic ethos of objectivity and independence, I am reminded of what a farmer leader once said: "During such times you should become your own media. The word of mouth is your media. Use it to communicate at the village chaupals, at social gatherings and in group meetings."
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)