2005-10-15 16:30:33 UTC
Journalists: Are you trustworthy?
October 15, 2005
Two Indian institutions have withstood the test of time and emerged,
time and again, as saviours of India - the Supreme Court and the
Press. Now both are under attack.
The Supreme Court for its highly illogical (illegal?) decision that
the politically motivated dissolving of the Bihar assembly was
unconstitutional (so far so good), but that the consequences of this
anti-constitutional act were okay, especially given the "political
realities" (so far, terrible). I am not a lawyer, but how does one
challenge a flawed Supreme Court ruling?
The media also has been under some criticism, especially after a leak
about the Prime Minister having a meeting regarding the falling stock
market turned out to be a false leak. There is talk of whether there
should be a regulatory mechanism set up to force journalists to be
I think this advocacy is a non-starter - the consumer is the one who
ultimately will correct the imbalances and punish the guilty. How can
a regulator decide what is intentionally false, and what is the result
of pure ignorance?
P Sainath, an award-winning rural affairs writer for his book,
'Everyone Loves a Good Drought', has just published an article
entitled "Lost the Compass?" (Outlook, October 17, 2005). In this
article, Sainath is very critical of the role of the media, especially
its role in ignoring the real India, the aam aurat.
He laments, "Rural India is a giant canvas that is begging the media
to do a portrait, many portraits. But it has failed resoundingly". He
worries that rural suicides do not get as much media attention as
But the one "woman bites dog fact" of Sainath that grabs genuine
attention is his startling and shocking claim that "foodgrain
available per Indian fell almost every year in the (economic)
And by 2002-03, it was less than it had been at the time of the great
Bengal famine (of 1943)". This in your face journalistic fact is then
highlighted as a blurb by the helpful editors.
The fact that the consumption of foodgrains is highly income inelastic
- i.e. consumption of foodgrains increases very little with income,
once an individual is sufficiently beyond starvation levels - is a
well-known occurrence, at least since the time of 19th century German
statistician Ernst Engel, and economists have ceased to study the
problem of stagnation of cereal consumption with income growth.
This is a stylised fact, which, after centuries of growth among
centuries of countries, has not been violated. Engels' law does not
state that absolute per capita consumption declines with income
growth, only that the rate of increase slows down.
An absolute decline of consumption does occur with many goods - these
are called "inferior" goods, and foodgrains is just such an inferior
So Sainath's point that foodgrain consumption declined in the 1990s
would be consistent with the poor actually having higher incomes after
the reforms! But his "fact" that per capita foodgrain consumption has
actually declined to the average level prevailing in a famine year is
a priori startling.
Actually not that startling, because Nobel prize winning economist
Amartya Sen warned us that the Bengal famine was not due to a shortage
of supply of foodgrains. Nevertheless, I do find Sainath's claim as
somewhat of a shocker.
Alas, none of Sainath's two claims is anywhere near the truth. Per
capita consumption (strictly speaking, availability) of foodgrains
averaged 364 grams per capita per day in the 1950s, and 391, 398, 420,
441 and 419 in subsequent decades with the last number being for the
period 2000 to 2003 (all data from the widely and easily available
Government of India, 2004-05 Economic Survey, Table S-17).
Contrary to Sainath, per capita availability of foodgrains peaked in
the decade of the reforms. What about the particular year Sainath
mentions, 2002-03? It turns out that in that year the availability
was a high 457 grams a day!
These statistics would suggest that Sainath's wild assertion about per
capita consumption in 1943 is equally wildly off the mark. If he is
right, it would mean that in 1951, per capita availability of 334
grams a day was some 25 per cent lower than the famine year of
1943?surely, not possible. In 1941, the population of India was 383
million (inclusive of Pakistan and Bangladesh).
Total production of foodgrains was 48 million tonnes and 1.8 million
tonnes of foodgrains were imported. This yields a per capita
availability of 342 grams a day, lower by 3 per cent than a decade
later, and lower by a third than Sainath's very low 2002-03 levels.
This is the age of the journalists - they have more power and
influence than ever before. Today, ideas spread more through
journalism than through the academia. Policy makers listen to them,
especially if the journalists' expertise corresponds to their
Populism pays and pays much more than hard-headed factual analysis. By
keeping the guilt in check, it makes the Scotch of the elite go down
that much better.
Ordinary folks do not have the knowledge, or the interest, or the
time, to fact check the data spitted out by journalists. Unlike
academics, journalists do not have to cite their sources - it takes
too much space and affects the flow.
In return for this privilege, journalists have a responsibility to not
betray the trust, or at least not to betray it so blatantly.