Sunday, 27 February 2005

Smut in the name of news

The steady erosion of media ethics has been bothering some of us for quite some time. What India TV did on February 27 – airing sexually explicit videoclips about two Bihar politicians – was quite disturbing. The following post was first sent to, a mediawatch website. Am posting it on this as well.

The airing on India TV of some sexually explicit clips of some well-known Bihar politicians indulging in some sexual dalliance once again throws up the question of where our TV channels draw the line. Nowhere, it appears to be right now.

Rajat Sharma’s India TV chose election results day to expose some politicians, one of whom was a candidate for the Bihar legislative assembly. What India TV did crossed all lines of decency. Hardly anything was left to the imagination in spite of some blurring of images and a black board saying Censored blocking off some images. What was even more disgusting and was the repeated airing of the clips, and the anchor prompting all the while, `look carefully, why do we need to censor this visual’. And in the next breath they would say, these visuals are so disgusting, we don’t know what to say! There are so many issues that this raises about media ethics.

One, the question of where to draw the line between public and private. The channel repeatedly said, look at the public face these politicians show and look what they do behind closed doors. Band kamre ke andar. Well, if it was behind closed doors and the politicians were not raping anyone, what business is it of anybody whom they have sex with? Were the women in the visuals under some kind of pressure? Or were the politicians using their clout in some way? The channel was silent on that. If this was not the case, what business is it of the media to intrude into someone’s bedroom or hotel room and violate their privacy?

Two, the India TV anchors kept harping on the morality issue. `In harkaton ko zara dhyan se dekhiye, kya yahi hamare neta hain? (look at these images carefully; are these our politicians?)’ `These are our representatives.’ `This man has three sons and a daughter.’ `This man is fifty-three years old.’ So? Fifty-plus men with grown up children don’t have sexual urges? Since when has having sex inside a closed room between two consenting adults become a crime? Or does getting into public life mean that politicians have to turn celibate?

It was perhaps only former information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad – whom the channel had invited to the India TV studios – who raised the issue of propriety of airing the visual. He roundly ticked off India TV on two counts. He had been invited, he pointed out, to what he thought was a discussion on the Bihar election results, only to have the anchor seek his reaction to the tape and focus the discussion on politicians’ behaviour. Prasad has a point. Can TV channels call someone for one discussion and then take the discussion on to some other issues, even if it was as serious as the sexual escapades of politicians?

Prasad raised a second, more pertinent point. Very bluntly he asked the anchor whether this was being done just to push up TRPs. He wasn’t denying the media the right to expose politicians, he said, but wondered whether not the electronic media should draw a lakshman rekha about what they show, especially on a day when everyone was gathered in front of the television sets.

Far from being chastened, the anchors wondered why the media was being lectured and whether politicians shouldn’t adhere to some lakshman rekha in public life. One even wondered why Prasad was pointing this out when other politicians had roundly condemned the politician caught on camera, hinting that Prasad was being lenient towards the concerned person.

If that wasn’t brazen enough, the channel invited public comments via SMS and displayed all the congratulatory messages it got. The channel will no doubt use this flood of congratulations to justify what it did. But was the public reacting in an informed way. By constantly dubbing the actions `kaale kartoot’ (black deeds) wasn’t the channel influencing public opinion by ignoring the fact that those in the video may have been two consenting adults?

This issue raises far more questions about media ethics than about the behaviour of politicians. `Naitikta ke saari haden paar kar gayi hain’ (all limits of propriety have been crossed) said India TV about these politicians. Looks like it was India TV which crossed all the limits.

But let's not blame India TV alone. It has only gone one step further than others. When the Delhi Public School MMS scam (in which two school students were shot having sex and the MMS clip was sold across the country) was talking up space in the print media and airtime on the electronic media, some channels said they had the clip and showed blurred images of the offensive clip. And when a controversy raged over Mid Day carrying explicit pictures of film stars Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapur kissing in public, TV channels kept showing those visuals, even as they organised sanctimonious debates about the issue of privacy of public personalities.

Does this mean the electronic media should be subjected to some form of censorship? NO WAY. But the media generally needs to debate the extent it will go to in order to improve circulation or TRP ratings as the case may be.

Saturday, 19 February 2005

Another toughie

I’ve got a comment on my piece on The Dilemma of Regulating Education. It raises a very important point and one that I missed out on – the quality of education imparted in these institutions. Particularly worrying is the quality of medical education.

This is another dilemma. Since these institutes will be churning out doctors who will be dealing with people’s lives, can we afford to wait for a purely market-driven correcting mechanism? But, as the author of the comment says, “legislative intervention might be more harmful than market design!”.

Is there an in between path relating to this aspect of education?

I guess accreditation by organizations like the Medical Council of India (MCI) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) is the answer. These two are already in place, though reports about the quality of monitoring by the AICTE are not very good. One hasn’t heard negative reports about accreditation by the MCI, but I am willing to be corrected on this.

Yes, this is another toughie.

Sunday, 13 February 2005

The Dilemma of Regulating Education

On February 11, the Supreme Court struck down the Chhattisgarh Private Sector Universities Act, 2002, specifically Section 5 of the Act which does away with the role of the University Grants Commission in the setting up of universities, and cancelled the registration of over 100 private universities which had come up in the state. It was acting on a public interest litigation filed by a former UGC chairman, Prof. Yashpal.

My immediate reaction to the order was one of dismay. Then as I started to ponder over the various facets of the issue, I realised that this order will pose a dilemma for all those believing in a free market in education. Well, maybe not all, because there will be a group who will be very clear in their opposition to the judgement and see it as an unpardonable restriction on the free market. I don’t think it is as simple as that.

Prof Yashpal and the Court were both acting with very honourable motives, no doubt. The Act had been passed by the then Congress government in Chhattisgarh, headed by Ajit Jogi and had led to the mushrooming of private universities in the state, some run on sound business principles (there’s nothing wrong with managing educational institutions on such principles) but many of them hole-in-the-wall kind of establishments and fly-by-night operators taking gullible students and their parents for a ride. Things were bound to come to a head sooner or later.

What I find disturbing with the Supreme Court order is the fact that it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And like another judgement two years back banning capitation fees, only treats the symptoms of the disease and not the root cause – the fact that demand outstrips supply of education.

There is no denying that there is an `education market` where the forces of demand and supply work just as they do in other markets. Right now, it is a seller’s market because of the restrictions on setting up of educational institutions by private parties.

The number of students in the higher education system (estimated at 8.8 million) is only 6.7 per cent of the population in the eligible age group. Raising this to even 10 per cent will mean bringing 14 million students into a State-domnated education system which is barely able to cope with the current burden. In such a situation is it right to restrict choices available to students by creating entry barriers for private players? Or by making higher education a State monopoly? Clearly not. The State has no business running educational institutions or creating conditions where the market gets restricted.

But how is one to deal with the phenomenon of unscrupulous operators? Sure, market forces will deal with them and will weed out the genuine from the fakes. But that’s little comfort to those whose hard-earned money the crooks have run away with. Yes, there are laws against cheating and fraud and not honouring contracts and commitments which these people can take recourse to, but we all know the way the law and order and justice system works – or doesn’t work – in India. Sure, this is something that India needs to work on since a sound law and order and legal system is the bedrock of a free market. There’s also immense weight in the argument that the lack of a sound system of justice shouldn’t be an excuse for government intervention in various activities.

But even if a sound legal system were in place, would it be absolutely wrong to have some minimum norms for setting up educational institutions? The libertarians would say, yes, it would be. They also have some case when they say that prescribing such norms and having some organisation to enforce them only results in corruption and doesn’t ensure that the norms are met. The regulatory capture argument cannot be ignored. But I’m not entirely sure that a scenario of not having any norms at all at all is necessarily desirable.

In 1995, the then Congress government at the Centre introduced a Private Universities Bill, which enables the establishment of self-financing universities with their own curriculum, fee structure and degrees to supplement the efforts of the state-run universities. The Bill allowed registered societies, public trusts and companies to set up universities and design the curriculum. The UGC was to vet the proposals and monitor the functioning of the universities. The Bill got put on the backburner thanks to misplaced outrage – from the Left, obviously – that the state was withdrawing from the education sector. Nothing came of the Bill, eventually.

That Bill, I think, struck the right balance on regulating education. Where the Chhattisgarh Act erred was in doing away with the role of the UGC in the setting up of universities. The latest Supreme Court order tries to correct that, but it has ended up tarring all the private universities with the same brush. It will also result in any new initiatives to involve the private sector in education and get the State out being put on hold.

The trick will be to find a way of weeding out the bad eggs (some will still slip in, but the scope will be reduced significantly) without heavy-handed government regulation.

Like I said, this is a real tough one.

Saturday, 5 February 2005

Why doesn’t the urban middle class vote?

On 3 February, Haryana went to polls. What was interesting this time was that the residents of the new housing colonies in the glitzy part of Gurgaon formed their own party – Gurgaon Residents’ Party (GRP) – and fielded a candidate. A majority of these people come from the affluent upper middle class, who view politics as a cesspool and will not have anything to do with it barring drawing room conversations and exercising one’s vote. The fact that they formed a party and contested the elections, albeit with one candidate, is a significant step forward.

But what happened on polling day? The voter turnout in New Gurgaon was a measly 40 per cent or less. In one polling booth, there were only 173 people who cast their vote. Now, I’m guessing that some of this could have to do with the fact that many of the residents of New Gurgaon may have moved in very recently or are still registered as voters in other parts of the country. But that would be a small number.
It’s become fashionable to berate the urban middle class (both upper and middle) for not being more dutiful citizens. But few will try and analyse why the urban middle class behaves the way it does.

For some idea about the reason, here’s an article you should read. It’s called `Upper middle class seceding from India’ and was written by TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan. Here’s the link: It’s an excellent piece.
I will just quote two passages from there, but you will need to read the whole article to understand the import of what TCA is saying.

“The combined effect of these two developments on our society has been dramatic. The economic strength has meant the enlargement of the middle classes and the controlled political chaos has meant their gradual disengagement from the political process. The voter turnout is a quick indicator of the underlying attitude.”

“The political issue is whether a country with a disengaged middle class can look after its institutions of democracy and governance. These institutions require a high level of commitment, and the fact that this commitment is being eroded is evident in the decline of our institutions.”

I think the reason why the urban middle class does not vote or engage with politics more actively is because it faces a crisis of choice. There is no party that represents their voice. Let me elaborate from a personal perspective. Actually it’s not very personal and I have found many of people of my generation and from a similar socio-economic background feeling the same.

My political awakening came during and just after the Emergency, around the time I was finishing school and joined college. Obviously, we couldn’t but oppose the Congress, which embodied everything that was bad about Indian politics – dictatorship, dynasty, lack of principles and values, the lumpenisation of politics (represented by Sanjay Gandhi’s goons and the Youth Congress riff-raff). For those not enamoured of the Left, it was the Janata Party that was the preferred party. And though our admiration for the Janata Party was shaken in the wake of the developments in 1979, something within us revolted at the thought of voting for or supporting the Congress.

Soon the disillusionments with the non-Congress parties began to increase, as the heroes of the Emergency chose personal aggrandisement over principles. The BJP was formed in 1980 but no one seriously reacted to it. It was just another star in the anti-Congress galaxy. The National Front experiment revived our hopes of an era of value-based principled politics but it was like the last burst of light from a dying flame. The election violence in Meham orchestrated by deputy prime minister Devi Lal’s party and the government’s refusal to take action, L K Advani’s rath yatra, the crude antics of those who claimed to be inspired by JP. And then, the Mandal issue. That was perhaps the last straw.

I didn’t exercise my vote in 1991. I couldn’t bring myself to.

1991 was a watershed. The Congress that came to power seemed to have put the dynasty and the socialist legacy behind it. We started looking at it in a new light. But we found that the party hadn’t gotten over the dynasty.
Corruption, communalism, casteism and criminalisation became the new leitmotifs of Indian politics. There was no room for values, principles, ideology. That’s when I decided to start voting for individuals and not parties. The choice got narrowed down to candidates from the Congress and BJP. The rest had rendered themselves absolutely irrelevant and were speaking in an outdated idiom I couldn’t relate to. Yet I resented having to choose between these two parties.

Right now there is no party that resonates for me. No party is interested in appealing to me or to the socio-economic group I come from.

The Congress may have improved in some ways and there are a lot of people in the party I respect a great deal but its continued belief in the divine right of the Gandhi family to rule is abhorrent to me. The sycophancy seems to have plumbed to disgusting levels. But I am told it is not an issue for the vast majority of the people in the interiors of the country.

So I look towards the BJP. For me, its championing of economic reforms and its bijli-sadak-pani slogan were a refreshing change from the mai-baap attitude of the previous governments. It too has a number of people whom I have a lot of respect for. And it seemed to have put the fuddy-duddy Jan Sangh behind it. But it became a Congress clone and I also come up against its Hindutva agenda. Though I will take on critics of the BJP who adopt double standards when hitting out at the party (more of that in a later article), I am uncomfortable with its sectarian appeal. I cannot relate to a party that rationalises the Babri Masjid demolition or does a knee jerk reaction to the arrest of the Shankaracharya. But I am told that the BJP does not bother if people like me agree with it or not. We are, after all, not its constituency.

The sundry regional parties and the non-Congress, non-BJP parties aren’t bothered about me and I don’t want to have anything to do with them.

And then there is this whole attitude to economic reforms. `It has benefited only the urban middle classes. They don’t represent the real India,’ is the refrain. The aam admi is the one who counts, we are told, not the urban, English-speaking middle classes. Those who opposed the BJP thought they were mocking that party when they said India was shining only in the metros. They didn’t realise that they were mocking people like me as well.

For every political party, people like me are a minority who can be ignored. And then they complain when people like me don’t vote.

It just doesn’t make sense to me.