Nov 122014
 

My column in the DNA on October 16th 2014

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” This quote is attributed to the great Albert Einstein in an attempt to explain the Theory of Relativity to someone in a simple and effective manner. And, like most general analogies, this holds true. It is just a few years ago that I joined the media, as a freshly minted graduate student, with stars in her eyes and the belief that the media can be used to bring about social change. And, lo and behold, before I realised it, it has been 20 years. And 20 years later I find myself just as excited about the media landscape as I was all those years ago – it is diverse, it is exciting, and one is working with one of the most interesting audiences in the world. The media in India has changed so rapidly and people have welcomed new technologies and formats with such open arms that it seems like one has managed to cram multiple lifetimes into one.

If you look back at the 20 years, it has been a time of momentous change in the media. The world of Indian television has moved from watching a single channel (Doordarshan) to an explosion of channels that cater to every interest, language, genre and format. The other big move has been attitudinal. India has moved from being a single TV household, where most members of the family congregated to watch their favourite show to being a world with multiple screens and personalised consumption. What is also fascinating about the media landscape is that while in more developed economies we can see the gradual sunset of certain forms of media and other forms of media gradually becoming all encompassing, in India different media seem to be engaged in mutual co-existence and are thriving. Print is doing well in India, as is television, radio, as is digital. The audience has never before had so much choice of content that is available on so many different types of media, for next-to-nothing prices.

Twenty years ago the market scenario was very different. This was before the era of 24-hour channels. There were no dedicated Indian news channels, in fact news was still the sole prerogative of the State broadcaster, Doordarshan. The three broadcasters would air 3-4 hours of original content per day. And, unlike today, where you see wall-to-wall content of a certain kind, television, in those days, would air a plethora of formats and types of content to keep the audiences hooked. The expansion of television media in the last two decades has been organic. At the end of 2014, the Ministry of Information andBroadcasting had given permission for 825 channels to broadcast in India. There are close to 90,000 newspapers in India and most of us have stopped counting the number ofwebsites aimed at Indian audiences.

With this entire diversity and choice, one problem still remains. Who pays for the content? This is a question we grappled with 20 years ago, when technology was still grappling with addressability and the ability to charge the consumer for content. Today we have the technology in place, but are faced with the reality that there is so much free (and good) content in the world, who will pay for the content that you produce? And, this is not just a problem we are facing in India — it seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.

For most Indians, we get content at next-to-nothing prices. The cost of content for the consumer on the Internet is the cost of their Internet connection. You are paying for delivery, not for content. If you look at TV, the situation improves marginally. Most households pay between Rs300-500 a month for their cable/DTH connection for 300-400 channels. That is between Re1 and Rs1.50 per channel per month. It doesn’t matter if you only watch 10 of these channels; the fact is that you get them all for what you pay. In contrast, print has the best deal of them all. Most of us pay between Rs90 and Rs150 per month (between Rs3-Rs5 per day) for newspaper subscription.

This is, incidentally, less than the cost of a cutting chai in Mumbai) But given that the cost of producing a single paper is upwards of Rs20 per day, once again the Indian audience is getting a really good deal. In each of these cases, the cost of consumption is very low and approaches zero.

Finally, let us look at the contentious issue of quality — the constant refrain that is heard across the board is that “the quality of content has gone down. The media is pandering to the lowest common denominator”. And, the answer then, as now, is that how do you create ‘quality’ ‘good content’ when people are not willing to pay for it? How do create content that highlights ‘culture’ when people don’t want to watch ‘culture’ and would rather watch the latest item number? Do we, as media, act as arbitrators of media consumption habits or do we give the audience what they want? Do we create content for an audience that doesn’t want ‘good’ content in enough numbers, and doesn’t want to pay for it, when it does? Or do we create content that people will consume no matter what, and let the advertiser pay for the content?

These are interesting questions for which there are no readymade answers. Each media outlet has to make its own choices regarding its options. But, more interesting would be the choices of the audience – if they want quality, they have to pay for it. Conversely, they can consume what is available for free – but those come with no guarantees. The next decade while the media and the audience negotiate over this, will be interesting times.

Sep 262014
 
My column in the DNA, earlier this week
The Times of India’s stand is pretty much the same as that of khap panchayats – she was wearing revealing clothes, therefore she asked for it
  • PTI

Last week, the Times of India, that claims to be the most read English daily in the world, peeked down actor Deepika Padukone‘s dress and put up content titled “OMG – Deepika Padukone’s Cleavage Show”. Ms Padukone, unlike most who grin and bear this sort of intrusion into personal space, hit back in a series of tweets that essentially took the news brand to task, in no uncertain terms.

In a Facebook post that has attracted over 2000 comments and over 150,000 likes (at the time of writing), Ms Padukone says, “I am not naive about my own profession; it is one that requires lots of demanding things of me. A character may demand that I be clothed from head to toe or be completely naked, and it will be my choice as an actor whether or not I take either. Understand that this is a ROLE and not REAL, and it is my job to portray whatever character I choose to play convincingly.”

And then the TOI decided to explain itself: “Deepika, we accept your reel vs real argument, but what about all the times, and there have been many, when you have flaunted your body off screen – while dancing on stage, posing for magazine covers, or doing photo ops at movie promotional functions? What ‘role’ do you play there? So why the hypocrisy?”

Well, since the old lady of Bori Bundar has asked, I thought I would help them understand the most basic aspect of women’s rights. And that is actually just one word – one simple yet elegant word – consent. Consent, very loosely defined, is permission or assent. Has the person in question said yes? At a second level is a related question, just as equally valid in the context of women’s rights: “Do women have the rights over their own body?” When a woman says no, no matter who she is, does it a) mean yes? And, as importantly, b) is she going to be judged by what else she says when she says no?

It is all very well to say, you are flaunting your body, albeit in a different context and therefore it is all right for us to intrude on your privacy, and use your body to our advantage. But at a very fundamental level, this is pretty much the same argument that we have been hearing from every regressive element in the Indian ecosystem. What the paper and everybody else needs to understand is that it is very clearly a matter of a woman’s right over her body and her consent for anyone else having a right over it.

The response of the TOI on the Deepika Padukone issue occupies the same space as a famous film scene. In the film Dostana starring Amitabh Bachchan, Zeenat Aman and Shatrugan Sinha, Zeenat Aman plays a modern woman who wears a bikini and a sarong at a beach. When ‘eve-teasers’ whistle at her, she complains to the policeman (played by Amitabh Bachchan). His retort is, “Aap aise kapde pehen kar ghar se niklengi toh ladko ke seeti nahi toh kya mandir ki ghantiyaa bajengi?” (if you wear such clothes and leave your home, what do you expect men to do – whistle or ring the temple bell). Today, we can look back at these lines and say regressive, regressive attitude, blaming the woman for violence and the rest. And we would be right. What do you say to the leading English language daily?

It looks like almost three decades later nothing has changed. It is the same argument that is being used. Today, when we talk about women saying no to sex and then being forced, or to being groped, or being whistled at, the same set of counter arguments pop up.  The argument, whether made by a leading English daily or by the head of a khap panchayat, ‘but she was asking for it’ needs to be treated with the same contempt that you would have for a traditionally dressed woman or man, who with the full fire of righteousness, and in an Indian language tells you that girls who don’t cover up their bodies will be prey to rapists If that had been the case, we could be sure that all of us, including the newspaper in question – would have outraged over medieval attitudes and patriarchal behaviour.

This entire argument goes beyond Deepika Padukone and into the space of women and media created perceptions. I would argue that it is not Bollywood or item numbers that demean women, rather it is these sorts of attitudes that do. When a leading newspaper tells ‘you that you flaunt you body, therefore we can peep into your cleavage’ it is far more dangerous than the head of a feudal setup saying something similar. We know we should oppose the latter as it is antediluvian and archaic insofar as its perception of women is concerned. But, what about the former? If the feudal organisations think of women as their property, this treats women as much the same. And frankly, there is not much to choose from between the two ways of seeing women. Except that one is in English and the other is in an Indian language.

Finally,

A ‘roadside romeo’ is lumpen, but a media house peeking down a woman’s cleavage is ‘respectable’.
A khap panchayat that says a woman must be well covered to avoid rape is regressive, and a leading English daily which asks but if you flaunt it anyway, why do we need your consent?
No means no, except when we understand it as yes .

I agree with one point in the TOI article, and that is it reeks of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, it is not the hypocrisy of Ms Padukone, but of the media outlet. When the largest English Language daily in India justifies the invasion of the body of a woman – without consent – you should hardly be surprised that you have a system that justifies rape.

Sep 082014
 

My column in the dna, last week

 

There are milestones and there are millstones. The former help you in terms of direction, the latter become a weight around your neck dragging you down. Often, the same event is both. And, a 100-day target, in a cranky democratic republic like ours, definitely counts as being both. However, given that this Government, like the last one, has given itself a 100-day target to showcase its achievements, and since their opponents are using the same to ask ‘what achievements’ — it is only natural that the rest of us (including the media) looks at the 100-day milestone. A word of caution here — it is too early to judge achievements, that will take at least a year, if not more. However, what can be looked at, and evaluated, are broad policy outlines.

The Good 100 days 

Focus on sanitation: The single most neglected area in India, sanitation, has been brought out from the shadows that it has lurked in, to the forefront of conversation. Given that more homes in India have TV sets than toilets, and given that the lack of toilets and adequate sanitation lead to a variety of issues from diseases to sexual assaults, the Narendra Modi-led government in general, and Modi in particular, have done a good job in getting this talked about. What would be good is if, in addition to building toilets, there is a certain emphasis on training people to use toilets (as opposed to the world outside), and understanding basic hygiene.

Make sons accountable: For this columnist, the single most interesting portion of thePrime Minister’s Independence Day speech was him saying “Parents ask their daughters hundreds of questions, but has any parent ever dared to ask their son where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are?” This was in the context of the growing violence against women – especially sexual violence. The focus on personal and parental responsibility was timely. In a society where it is the woman who has to bear the brunt of rape — both as an act of sexual violence, and in its aftermath of being judged by society — this was a welcome statement.

Calling off talks with Pakistan: While it is important to talk to Pakistan, it is equally important that the powers in Pakistan understand that they cannot arbitrarily break all norms of civilised behaviour, all rules of bilateral understanding, and still expect that India behaves as though nothing untoward has taken place. It is essential that the message that India is displeased is conveyed, and calling off the talks is a good way of getting the message across.

Scrapping the Empowered Group of Ministers: One would assume that a minister is empowered to take decisions. Therefore, to have an empowered group of ministers to take the same decisions that an individual minister is supposed to make is inexplicable. Why would you need a group to take a decision that a single individual would make? The Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the EGoM, hopefully, would mean greater ownership and accountability for individual ministers, as well as hurrying up the decision-making process.

The not-so-good 100 days
Scrapping the Gadgil report on the Western Ghats
: While development is vital for India, it cannot be at the expense of our natural heritage. This is something that we hold in trust for future generations, and we cannot destroy it in the name of development. It is imperative that the Narendra Modi government reconsiders its decision on not just scrapping the Gadgil report, but also the way fragile ecosystems are conserved. While there will be tremendous corporate pressure on the government, it needs to remember that if the ecological balance is disturbed, no one will make profits. China is paying the price of its development sans ecological perspective, India need not do the same. Being environment friendly, acting at one with nature, is as much a part of our civilisational ethos as language or ‘culture’.

Governmental silence: The Government of India is not just the government of its supporters but of all the people of India. While the party may feel persecuted by, real or imagined, left-liberal domination of the media, it still needs to communicate. Reading ministry press releases is neither interesting nor illuminative. The government’s silence looks less like strategy and more like petulance. In fact, often it appears about as communicative as UPA II. So advice to the government and ministers is — stop sulking, and start communicating. And no, Twitter and Facebook accounts are not enough. Your communication needs to be more inclusive and interactive.
Part-time defence minister: We have Pakistan to the west; China to the north; and the armed forces of India with rapidly aging equipment. There are issues of recruitments, corruption, infrastructure and more plaguing the armed forces. One would think it required someone who gives full time attention to these, rather than someone who juggles another ministry, especially one as taxing as Finance.

Price rise: It is hurting. When staple food becomes a luxury, when basic vegetables become unaffordable, and when the response is the same as the earlier government, then you have a problem on your hands. This government has no more been able to put a lid on inflation, than the previous government had. And, it’s method of communicating this has been as effective as the last government.

The current Government of India looks more decisive than the previous one. It has made the correct noises on a whole range of issues from Indian manufacturing to boosting tourism, from health care to education, from smart cities to cleaning up rivers. But, right now these are just words. To be able to evaluate the impact of these, these policies need to be implemented and progress needs to be monitored over a substantial time frame. For now, all that can be said is that it is a good start. But, unless the aam janta gets to see very rapid changes and benefits, their disenchantment will be equally rapid.

Sep 012014
 

My column in the DNA, last fortnight

Forty five years ago, the United States of America, did the unthinkable — it put a man, actually two men, on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went into the history books as the first human beings to walk on the surface of earth’s only natural satellite. The lines that Armstrong says on stepping on to the lunar surface “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, is part of textbooks around the world. While there was great euphoria on this momentous scientific and technological achievement, the benefits from this, apart from national pride, were seen in the following decades. The investment in putting a man on the moon went beyond the material and the technological. It had a multiplier effect in scientific research, energy sources, food technologies and in many more fields. The impact on society was gradual; it wasn’t seen that pervasively in the decade that followed, but the Eighties and the Nineties reaped the benefits of this endeavour. From a communication perspective, the advances in satellite communication and miniaturised integrated circuits that were a by-product of the research into space exploration, transformed the world. Television, computers, mobile phones, and a host of other gadgets, that we don’t even think about, are the distant descendents of the investment into space exploration. The world, in the words of the famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan: “human family exists under conditions of a global village. We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums”.

Twenty five years ago, in 1989, a British theoretical physicist, Tim Berners-Lee, working in CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, came up with an innovative way of getting computers in CERN to talk to one another, and thereby allow the various scientists working on different projects to share information. His work led to the creation of the Hyper Text Markup Language, known more popularly by its abbreviation HTML. It allowed people to cross link content, and direct users to different pieces of content sitting on different machines. This simple and elegant way of connecting content led to the birth of the World  Wide Web and the Internet revolution that we are living through. When it started, in 1991, there were fewer than 500 servers that were connected. Today, there is no point counting, because by the time you have finished counting the number of servers, a large number would have been added. HTML revolutionised the world of information publishing and sharing. Suddenly everyone could be a publisher, a distributor, a commentator. Like the printing press almost 500 years earlier, the World Wide Web changed the way in which people saw the world. Suddenly, you realised that your views or issues, your fetishes or hobbies were not in any way unique —  there were others like you elsewhere in the world. If the moon landings and satellite communication had made humanity a ‘global village’ – the World Wide Web made it even smaller.

On September 4, the most ubiquitous web brand ever, Google, turns a sweet 16. Two young men, Larry Page and Sergey Brin looked at all the content on the web, and the existing ways of searching for information and decided that it was not good enough. The algorithms that they created for searching, classifying and organising content made using the web a lot more easy, and a lot more accessible. If HTML changed the way we create and share content, Google changed the way we searched and consumed it. There are those of us who remember a world before Google. We used Hotmail for email, Alta Vista for search, Netscape and Internet Explorer as browsers – all that has changed with the advent of Google.

If you really strip away the jargon and the technology from these three landmark events — in essence what they have done is made the world a smaller place, and made people very cognisant of the fact that the differences between the peoples of the world, in different nations, of different languages and traditions is actually not so great. We all bleed when we are cut, grieve when we lose near and dear ones, are inclined to help others (even random strangers), laugh at almost the same things, dance to almost similar beats and so on. Also, what is seen is that the desire for freedom and democratisation, the need to aspire and achieve is universal. What divides us is far less than what unites us.

It is, therefore, not surprising that there has been a backlash against this sense of being a ‘global family’ with shared ideals and values from those who were the traditional custodians of power – those who held the power over life and death of populations — extreme forms of religion, patriarchy and defenders of ‘cultural purity’. These are people who, until a few decades ago, were obeyed without question. Today, they are, mostly, ignored. When we see the backlash of regressive elements — be it the khaps in Haryana, or the mullahs who are asked for opinions, be it former Pope of the Catholic Church or the most extreme of all reactions the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) – what they are railing against is that loss in absolute power over the lives of the people they controlled not so long ago. Cultural purity, religious purity, way of life et al are just excuses for wanting absolute power.

Most of the world is slowly moving towards the idea of a global village – people are escaping their shackles and aspiring for the better things in life, including not being restricted in their aspirations. The medievalists who want to drag people back into their cordoned off ghettos are trying their level best to hold on to their crumbling power base, that has been reeling under the onslaught of science and technology, through violence. Like others before them, who stood in the way of aspirations of people, these medievalists too will turn into a footnote in history.

Aug 032014
 

Last week’s column for the DNA

The horrors of child sex abuse can be offset by a few simple but essential measures

There are many brutal things that one reads as a part of our news consumption – passenger airlines shot out of the sky in conflict zones; children killed in the escalating warfare between the Israeli government and Hamas; young schoolgoing girls kidnapped in Nigeria by fundamentalist terror groups; children dying of malnutrition; systematic violence against women; ethnic cleansing in Iraq and Syria; targeted violence against religious minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh – and the spontaneous thought is ‘thank heaven, it is not here’; thank the stars that we bring up our children in a relatively safer society. But that feeling of relative safety, security and a better tomorrow for the next generation gets shattered when we read about horrific child rape cases, that are increasingly featured in the media.

Last week, most of us reading or watching the news came across the story of the 6 year-old in an upscale Bangalore school who was raped by her skating teacher. As more and more details of the story emerged, the sense of horror and terror increased. The girl was allegedly raped by two staff members; one of the staff members, who was later arrested,  had child pornography depicting  kids in uniform being raped. There may have been other cases of child sex abuse in the same school that are still being investigated by the authorities. The school had outsourced the skating teacher’s function to an outside agency,  absolving themselves of responsibility. The school in question, as well as other private schools, also tried to get parents to sign a disclaimer that absolved the institutions of any responsibility for incidents that took place on premises or at school organised events.

This is not the first child sex abuse case to hit the headlines, nor will it be the last. Just last year we were shocked by the story of a little boy who was raped by school bus attendants. A six month old child who was raped; a three year-old abducted from home, raped and thrown away into the bushes. The horrors seem never ending and relentless. And, what makes it worse is that it is just the tip of the iceberg – stories that are reported as opposed to incidents that have occurred.

Child sex abuse is not a new phenomenon. There were always men, and sometimes women, who indulged their carnal desires with children. Not so long ago, it was believed that sex with a prepubescent girl would cure men suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. Children would be kidnapped, purchased and sold to men suffering from such transmittable diseases. The STD would not be cured, but the girls would be infected. It is not just false belief or superstition that drives such behaviour, but also baser instincts.

Children, today, are growing up in a far more complex and sexualised world than earlier generations. They are also exposed to images and behaviour that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Morality has changed, values have changed, and yet educators, the government and other bodies would rather cling onto modes of behaviour and deterrence that is better suited for a century earlier. These powers are seemingly taking an ostrich-like approach to the whole issue instead of taking concrete steps and measures that not just prevent such occurrences but also punish the offenders.

What is needed to keep our children safe? The first is a national level campaign educating parents, teachers and citizens in general about the dangers of child sex abuse. Creating an awareness that such a problem exists and steps that can be taken to counter it are essential. The solution is not to keep children at home – in many cases the home is as dangerous a place as outside. In many cases the case of sexual assault begins at home, by people who are supposed to keep the child safe. Simultaneously, making the children  understand that the world is not safe. That there are people who can touch and harm them in ways that are beyond their comprehension. Children need to be made aware of the dangers from such predators.

The second, and this is a slightly more controversial measure, is to start sex education classes. There are a number of social and cultural norms that will challenged by this – but the purpose of sex education is not to make sex more attractive. As anyone who has gone through a sex education programme will tell you, it is most likely to put off youngsters  and push the age of experimentation by a few years. If children cannot, for whatever cultural reason, go through these programmes, parents can perhaps take their place. So that they are best able to communicate to the children the issues at hand.  In a world where the local paanwallah can give you a memory card loaded with films for an amount as low as Rs50, the system cannot cope with the kind of content that is being disseminated. Porn is legally banned in India, anyone caught downloading it is theoretically breaking the law. But, when people can access this kind of content through a very different mode of file sharing – memory sticks and pen drives – control becomes difficult.

And finally the authorities need to be both more sensitive and sensible. The job of the authority is not to preserve culture, that is the role of family and society. Their job is to deliver governance and keep citizens, especially the most vulnerable in our society, safe. They need to be put through an education programme that helps them handle situations like this with sensitivity. This would include elected representatives at the central, state and local levels; the police force; the judiciary; administrators and educators.

The problem of child sex abuse is not going away anytime soon. The sooner we, as a society and people are geared to combat it — leaving aside our preconceived notions — the more likely are children to grow up in a safer world.