Statehood: Good for the media?
The creation of Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttaranchal spelt hope and a new identity if a person was not irrevocably cynical with the media sensing the excitement and rising to the occasion. Now, in a month's time, the three States will be two years old, and SEVANTI NINAN uses the opportunity to look at how successful the media there has been playing its role. The first of a two-part article.
ON November 1, 2000, the media in the three new States which came into existence were gifted an opportunity a historic chance to be a part of a new beginning in a 53-year-old country weighed down with old problems. True, you had to be a resolute optimist to think a miracle could be achieved by carving a new State out of the more backward parts of Bihar or Madhya Pradesh, or the more remote part of Uttar Pradesh. Still, there was fresh opportunity a new, separate budget, and a new leadership (in some cases wet behind the ears), with a new dream to build. You could help to build hopes and new identity, if you were not irredeemably cynical.
Some of the newspapers sensed the excitement and rose to the occasion. Jharkhand's leading Hindi newspaper Prabhat Khabar harked back to history, sociology and tribal iconography to produce an impressive 76-page edition on the day the State was born. "Jharkhand bana," said the banner headline, simply and eloquently. Inside it profiled Birsa Munda who led the tribal revolt, and traced the history of both the region and the movement. And laid out an agenda for the new State, which it would review in its anniversary pages one year down the line.
In a month's time Chattisgarh, Uttaranchal and Jharkhand will be two years old. The media has prospered here in the interim: who would have thought that new entrants would come to an erstwhile backwater like Raipur? Or to a retired people's city like Dehra Ddun? Post statehood, the Hindustan Times prints from Ranchi and Raipur, the Hindustan, which is the leading newspaper in Bihar, started publication from Ranchi in the months before the State's formation and quickly gained circulation, The Indian Express group's Jansatta has begun an edition from Raipur, Hari Bhoomi, a Rohtak-based newspaper has begun an edition from Bilaspur with another due from Raipur, and in Uttaranchal both Amar Ujala and Dainik Jagran, two of Uttar Pradesh's biggest Hindi dailies, have expanded editions to cover the upper reaches of the new State.
There is the bustle of new business, the inflow of companies and financial institutions opening up branches in the State capitals, and the setting up of new secretariats and legislatures. There is more advertising to be tapped. The Dainik Bhaskar's controller of advertising in Raipur says that his paper has seen a 42 per cent increase in revenue in 2002 over the corresponding period the previous year. In Dehra Dun, the Doon Classified, which exists only to carry advertising and be inserted in the city's broadsheets, now has a circulation of some 30,000 copies a week, sustained by loads of ads for property sales and rentals, and miscellaneous advertising. With a sleepy city transformed into a State capital, all kinds of commercial activity has received a fillip.
Earlier, newspapers in each of these cities had to scramble for what little State advertising they could get, since they were located far away from the capital, but now, voila, the capital has come to where they are, with whole new advertising budgets to disperse. In Dehra Dun where dozens of small papers exist only to avail of government advertising, statehood has meant expanded livelihood, no less. Though Government policy dictates that newspapers should be patronised by rotation, there are some days in the year when everybody gets advertising: Republic Day, Independence Day, Uttaranchal Raising Day, a hundred days of the State Government's existence, and so on.
Political advertising has increased, particularly in Chattisgarh, given the Congress party's penchant for sycophancy. Lakhs of rupees of advertising is generated to greet Chief Minister Ajit Jogi. In Bastar, Pavan Dubey, the editor of the lone evening paper, Highway Channel, says of the flood of Jogi-centric advertising, "If the CM comes 10 times the people have to greet him. Earlier the Chief Minister was far away. He wouldn't have noticed if people had greeted him from here." Both he and bigger newspapers are delighted; the Hindustan Times floated a supplement on Jogi's birthday and solicited advertising for it.
Statehood has been good for the media in other ways as well. Circulation has increased: the Dainik Jagran in Dehra Dun claims a four-fold increase in circulation after the creation of the new State. Both the Jagran and the other big U.P. daily Amar Ujala have moved into high gear where competing with each other for circulation is concerned. And much the same thing is happening between Prabhat Khabar and Hindustan in Jharkhand, and between Navbharat and Dainik Bhaskar in Chattisgarh. New editions are opening up, penetrating the hinterland, hence the increase in circulation. Jagran says it has doubled the number of staff it had in this region, the Navbharat similarly has doubled the staff it had in Bastar.
Competitiveness has also meant launching schemes and dhamakas or contests with a Maruti car as prize. All this has expanded circulation. Newspapers are happy, they think their importance has grown with the coming of statehood. They also point to the response to contests as proof of their popularity and readership. Amar Ujala's "Election Dhamaka", which offered a Maruti Esteem as first prize, drew a staggering response running into more than 10 lakh participants.
Great going, but what about journalism? And agenda setting, that historic opportunity to be part of a new order?
Where media owners are concerned, all expansion is for a combination of clout, business reach, and circulation revenue. The owners of Jansatta in Raipur are local businessmen who have acquired the franchise to publish the paper from here. Like the owners of Hari Bhoomi, they are looking for a source of influence. Hari Bhoomi is owned by Delhi politician Sahib Singh's relatives. In the new State of Chattisgarh, they own land, coal washeries, and a coal transportation business. When you have major economic interests to nurture or safeguard, having a newspaper helps.
Journalism is incidental, as far as the proprietors are concerned. But journalists say that is not so. They feel their own importance has increased. Just two years ago, being a journalist in Raipur was equivalent to being in the moffusil press. Now, they tell you with some satisfaction, they are journalists in a State capital. Lalit Surjan, editor of the Deshbandhu, published from Raipur for many years, says, "All of a sudden we have become newspapers from the capital city. There is more to write about. There is a feeling of involvement in the creation of a new State. We feel we are contributing in a positive manner. We were in the backyard where Madhya Pradesh was concerned. Now when we write, the reaction is immediate."
So immediate that in Ranchi, the Hindustan is regularly visited in its office by cabinet ministers (many of whom have never been ministers before), which is flattering enough to blunt a journalist's pen. The editor here tells you that the press also has to allow for the Government's inexperience, and the amount of time required to just get a basic administrative infrastructure in place.
Some construe the "positive manner" as a softening. Earlier you could write as strongly as you wished about neglect or exploitation, but nothing much happened. Now with the Government quick to react, there has been a reining in of unbridled writing. Not just the Government, even the Naxalites in these areas react to stories and are quick to issue rejoinders!
Apart from rejoinders there are sweeteners. The family of the correspondent of a national news magazine in Chattisgarh has obtained a bauxite-mining lease; the senior manager of a national Hindi daily based in Ranchi has obtained a diamond-mining lease. In Ranchi, newspapers are accused of accepting favours from the Government, of getting electricity dues written off for industries owned by their proprietors. Housing has been given for journalists of some select national publications in Chattisgarh , a Rs. 2 lakh fellowship for scribes instituted, and what's more, last summer, journalists themselves approached the Chief Minister to give pensions to retired journalists.
Journalism is also soft when it is mindlessly busy. Bureaus in far-flung areas like Bastar have been doubled in the case of Navbharat because of increased VIP visits, and more handouts from various sources.
Papers look for small scoops to provide excitement at the local level, and keep a hawk's eye on the new Government, in a narrow rather than broad sense. They only want to write stories such as "officers misusing air conditioners," says an irritated bureaucrat in Dehradun.
Newspapers also strive for conventional journalistic norms, such as closing the edition late to accommodate the latest news, and rushing taxis to the furthest corners of the State, to bring people news at their doorstep.
It is, for instance, a point of pride with Amar Ujala that it was able to carry the news of the two major earthquakes that have occurred in this region though they occurred after midnight. And that its copies regularly reach pilgrims in Rishikesh and all along the pilgrim route before they start their trek at dawn.
But increasingly, conventional journalism in India's new States is proving unequal to the challenge of setting the agenda for the new Governments.
(To be continued)
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