Who is Kailash Satyarthi? That is the question most Indians asked when he won the Nobel Peace prize along with Malala Yousafzai earlier this month. Many of us were ashamed that we did not know who this man was even while we knew about Malala.
To answer the question, Satyarthi is a child-rights activist. His fight is against child labour. But he symbolises more than India’s pathetic record on taking care of its weak. He symbolises the larger media problem of treating issues, stories or people who are not core to middle-class India or its concerns as non-essential. And no, this is not a media bashing piece - this is about both the media’s callousness and that of the audience it serves and the mutual ignorance this breeds.
We did not know about Kailash Satyarthi because we are simply not interested in most issues outside of Delhi and Mumbai. Pic/Getty Images
Think of it, the only child-labour story you would read probably is someone ill-treating their help at home. If a real child labour story came your way - the way an Indian Express or Caravan does it would you bother? The scores of rape in rural India, documented in a horrifying story I read in Outlook recently, don’t upset us as much as the one on Marine Drive or in Gurgaon. This is not to say that one rape is more important than another, it is to say that our priorities as readers are our class of people and neighbourhood. Anything beyond that is something that happens to other people - change the page, switch the channel.
All media does is pander to this behaviour because the middle class is the most important audience from advertisers’ perspective. Remember that 80 per cent of the revenues for newspapers and news channels comes from advertising. There is lots of media which is not under this pressure - Doordarshan, All India Radio, Look Sabha TV, Raja Sabha TV, Al Jazeera, BBC. They do several stories that look at the good, bad and ugly from across the world without the pressure of audiences or revenues. But these interest only a small sliver of people.
You could argue that our hearts can’t bleed for every cause and our attention cannot be riveted by every small story of pain from all over India. That is true. That is why it is important to have a free market - through and through - for ideas, speech, debate, media. Just allow everyone in without too many restrictions and let them look at India from their prisms. Very often outsiders see stories that we are immune to, of poverty, inequality, of courage and hope. On a trip to South Africa many years ago, I remember reading a long feature in a local paper on how India has lots of poor people but no simmering class violence unlike South Africa. That is because the poor in India, in true Indian tradition, are very fatalistic. This always makes them believe that things will soon improve and they will have a better tomorrow. It is a great attitude to have. It showed me a side of India that an Indian paper or channel doing a poverty story could possibly never have.
Sure it showed numbers on India’s poverty and all the muck that goes with it, but it was a different perspective. An open attitude to free discussion and display of our problems then is a wonderful way to start tackling them. And that is the last point this column seeks to make.
We are too easily offended when shown our faults. And most Indian newspapers pander to that too. There have been several negative stories about Satyarthi and how he is a foreign hand, shows all the bad things about India and so on. But there are bad things, just as there are good things about India. So can we grow up and acknowledge them or let others do it for us.
For instance many of the people raving about the ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign are quick to spit out or throw their garbage through the window. Most international flights full of Indians, will have dirty toilets within the first three hours. (And I have checked with friends on airlines). Can we then self reflect on our faults before bashing the media, NGOs, foreigners or anyone else for showing us in poor light, for telling us all the good and bad things we were not aware of?
Time for some cleaning of the conscience too. Satyarthi faced his and won a Nobel for India.
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik