"43.7 Million People break Guinness World Record." This is surely the stuff of which headlines are made. Nearly 44 million is a lot of people. And both Indians in general and the media here in particular usually love Guinness records. According to a recent Associated Press feature, The Hindustan Times has run over 50 stories this year about bids for Guinness records, and it is still not far ahead of the competition. The latest to join the ranks of record-seekers - or, at least, to be reported in the press as considering the possibility - is the family of Raj Kapoor. Yet the record broken by 43.7 million people did not quite make it.

Perhaps the nature of the event was the spoiler. The 43,716,440 people who together (reportedly) broke the record were participating in approximately 6540 events in about 127 countries, organised to enable people to "Stand Up and Speak Out" against poverty over 24 hours spanning 16 and 17 October. But then again here was a relatively "happy" story - that so many millions are willing to express their concern about this serious problem is surely good news. Even though the media today have a preference for upbeat stories, this one obviously didn't have what it takes.

The fact is that poverty does not make much news in India these days. There as barely any acknowledgement in the English-language press in Bangalore of the 20th International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (17 October). This year the day meant to focus attention on poverty more or less coincided with the midpoint in global efforts to fulfil the commitments made by world leaders in September 2000, which were subsequently condensed into eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be met by 2015. The first MDG is to "eradicate extreme poverty and hunger" and the other seven are closely related, aiming to create "a world where people are no longer condemned to a life of extreme and egregious poverty," as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently put it.

The scant attention paid to poverty by the media even on such an occasion could be due to more pressing parallel preoccupations: the shenanigans of politicians after the collapse of the coalition government in Karnataka, the enduring tug-of-war over the Indo-US nuclear deal, investigations into the bomb blasts in Ajmer and Ludhiana, the bomb blasts in Karachi during Benazir Bhutto's home-coming parade, the ups and downs in the fortunes of the Indian cricket team and allegations of racism among cricket fans, religious festivals and, of course, the thrilling roller coaster ride offered by the Sensex, as well as the fascinating relationships between Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor, Nicolas and Cecilia Sarkozy, and the late Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed.

Is poverty passe?

The apparent disinterest in poverty could also be due to the widespread assumption that it is no longer an issue in rising, shining India. The government certainly seems confident about getting rid of this long-standing and somewhat embarrassing bugbear. Media reports on the release of India's 2005 country report on the MDGs in February 2006 quoted G K Vasan, Minister of State for Statistics and Programme Implementation, saying "We are already way ahead in poverty eradication" and assuring the audience that the goal of eradication of extreme poverty would, in fact, be met well ahead of schedule.

How journalists could let such statements pass without further probing is a real puzzle. If those claims seem rather incredible, a possible explanation for the extreme optimism may be found in the message from the Ministry's Secretary, PS Rana, in the document. According to him, some of the indicators specified under the MDGs were dropped due to "non-availability of sufficiently reliable data." And the indicators for which data was missing were: "proportion of people below $1 (PPP) a day, proportion of population below minimum level of dietary energy consumption, ratio of school attendance of orphans to school attendance of non-orphans aged 10-14 years, maternal mortality ratio, proportion of population with access to secure tenure, unemployment rate of young people aged 15-24 years, and proportion of population with access to affordable essential drugs on a sustainable basis."

How convenient. The question of why this information (especially on the first two, fourth and sixth indicators mentioned above) was unavailable when so many official agencies, including the decadal Census of India and the more frequent National Sample Survey (NSS), are engaged in the periodic collection and analysis of data was not raised, let alone answered.

Of course, official estimates of poverty vary widely. According to the latest data offered by the Planning Commission, the number of people below the poverty line in 2004-05 was just under 22 per cent (close to 220 million, nearly a quarter of the country's population). This is the figure if the poverty line is calculated at an average per capita per day expenditure of Rs. 11.60, the approximate equivalent of US$ 1 in "purchasing power parity" (PPP). If the line is fixed at an average income of US$ 2 (in PPP terms), the proportion rises dramatically to nearly 80 per cent. And there are various estimates in between, depending on where the bar is set and what criteria are used (income, expenditure, calories, etc.). At the end of the day, despite official preoccupations with number-crunching, the fact is that statistics are notoriously easy to manipulate in order to present the desired picture to support the favoured policy.

Seeing is believing

However, what a US Supreme Court judge once said of obscenity can surely be applied to poverty: "When I see it I know it." No person of sound mind who is not wearing blindfolds can possibly believe that poverty is anywhere near eradicated in this country. There were plenty of clues in the media in the days immediately preceding and following 17 October that clearly indicated the continuing prevalence and persistence of the problem and provided ideas for a variety of stories on different aspects of the subject. Unfortunately, none of them were picked up for further investigation.

For example, on 15 October, The Hindu had a report headlined "Climate change: poorest will be hit the hardest" (based on interviews with Bangalore-based scientists who are lead authors of reports by the Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). It also reported that a delegation of social activists under the aegis of the Ekta Parishad were going to meet Sonia Gandhi to hand over a draft National Land Reform Policy (already submitted to the Prime Minister's office) aiming to provide land to the landless, on the premise that the country will not be able to achieve a structural end to rural poverty without such reforms.

The Times of India (TOI) carried a report headlined "More Indians than Chinese remain hungry, says survey," quoting from the Global Hunger Index 2007 put together by the International Food Policy Research Institute. Typically, the story began with the paper's customary obeisance to economic growth: "India may be the second fastest growing economy in the world, but it still has a long way to go in eradicating hunger, where it is ranked at the 94th position, well behind neighbouring China and Pakistan…" Deccan Herald (DH) also had a reasonably detailed report on the survey findings, whereas The Asian Age (AA) had just a tiny item in the briefs section on the front page, which that day featured a long, prominent piece on the London release of Dev Anand's autobiography.

On 16 October a report on the Global Education Digest 2007 in DH, headlined "UNESCO: Primary education burdens poor," stated that the fundamental right to basic education remained a distant dream for India's poor. The paper also carried an op-ed piece related to World Food Day (16 October) headlined "Instil confidence in nation's food producers." The Hindu's report on corruption in the administration of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in Orissa - despite the transparency safeguards mandated by the relatively new law - was the only reference in the Bangalore press that week to what is arguably one of the most important ongoing measures to combat rural poverty.

The TOI did, however, have an editorial related to poverty. Titled "Disturbing diagnosis: India falls short of meeting welfare goals," it referred to a report by the UN and the Asian Development Bank pointing out that India is a laggard in meeting some of the MDGs. It would have been interesting to get G K Vasan's response to this finding. Again the emphasis in the edit was on economic growth and it reflected the lower end of the scale of official poverty figures:

"For a country that is growing at 9 per cent there is no reason why India's social indicators should be embarrassingly poor even when compared to other middle income countries," the edit said. "India's poverty levels may have fallen from 37% to 22% over the last 15 years but progress in non-income aspects of poverty leaves a lot to be desired… High growth is now generating the resources needed to enable India to address these problems on a war footing… social sector outlays must be seen as an integral aspect of our push for prosperity… The health of the economy must contribute to the health of everyone. Growth alone cannot create well-being, if it is not accompanied by better health."

Rise and fall

On D-Day (17 October) the front pages of most English newspapers in Bangalore featured the concert of the hip-hop band, Black Eyed Peas, the previous evening. The NIE's report on the Stand Up and Speak Out campaign was buried on page eight. The others did not refer to the global campaign at all.

TOI was the only paper that had an edit which at least mentioned poverty. Headlined "Problems of Equality: Poverty is declining but inequality is on the rise, says IMF," it was pegged on the World Economic Outlook brought out by the International Monetary Fund. The edit made a distinction between equality of opportunities and equality of outcomes, pointing out that India is nowhere near ensuring the former for all its citizens. The edit deemed the "free play of market forces" essential but it did at least highlight the need for fair "starting conditions."

AA had more items relating to World Food Day than to poverty (although it devoted considerable space to an article from the Spectator on "the second richest Russian"). The paper reported that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had expressed concern about continuing evidence of starvation, large-scale malnutrition and lack of access to agencies and schemes meant to provide food security, and called for watchdog committees to ensure the right to food. It also quoted Agriculture and Food Minister Sharad Pawar on the government's commitment to food security in the form of two official programmes to augment food production and availability (the National Food Security Mission and the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojna).

The Hindu marked the day with an editorial page article by agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan headlined "From killing fields to smiling fields," suggesting that the focus in dealing with the agrarian crisis should shift from suicide relief to suicide prevention. Although there was no direct reference in the piece or elsewhere in the paper to poverty or the MDGs, two days later it published another edit page article by two IAS officers and a member of Tamil Nadu's State Planning Commission headlined, "Dimensions of rural poverty in Tamil Nadu." Pointing out that the state's rural poor are marginal and small farmers as well as landless labourers, the authors suggested that a comprehensive agricultural strategy should include the conferment of land ownership along with increased public investment in agriculture.

The only editorial in the paper during this period that referred to poverty-related issues was one that appeared on 20 October. The focus of that was primarily on the problems caused by rising world food prices, including the prohibitive rise in the cost of food aid meant to save millions from starvation in the least developed countries.

On 18 October both NIE and TOI had reports on the Stand Up and Speak Out events at the Art of Living International Centre in Bangalore the previous day. But only the NIE called due attention to the maternal mortality data released by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which established that India has the largest number of maternal deaths in the world, topping the chart among 117 countries. India also topped the list of 11 countries responsible for almost 65 per cent of all global maternal deaths in 2005. India's Maternal Mortality Rate (maternal deaths per 100,000 live births) was pegged at 450 --- and since the figure (with minor variations) has remained above the 400 mark for several decades, the chances of reducing it by three-quarters by 2015 (MDG 5) seem fairly remote.

The paper also had an edit on the subject, headlined "Investment in women," which pointed out that "what is more appalling is that the period from 1990 to 2005, also viewed as that of revolutionary economic development in India, witnessed almost no change in maternal health problems faced by women." Highlighting the fact that there had been only a one per cent decrease in maternal mortality in 15 years, it admitted that the achievement of MDG 5 seemed "more like a mirage." Again, it would have been interesting to have reactions to this ignominy from both Mr. Vasan and Mr. Rana, not to mention others in the government.

Scams and scandals

The TOI did publish an edit page piece on another poverty-related matter. Headlined "Stop the robbery," the article by Medha Patkar and Simpreet Singh referred to a report of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution that had exposed "what is nothing less than the robbing of foodgrains meant for the poorest of the poor." The report revealed that Rs. 31,585 crores worth of wheat and rice meant for the poor had been siphoned off from the public distribution system and delivered into the black market. Of course, this only confirmed with actual, official figures what poor people have been alleging for a long time.

The scandal continues even after the remaining food grains actually reach ration shops, where they are often sold at prices higher than prescribed rates besides being adulterated with - at best - lower quality grains. If the total worth of the fraud is added up, the authors pointed out, the food scam would total a few more hundred crore rupees - an amount that far exceeds those involved in many other scams made high profile by stings and other forms of investigative journalism.

On 17 and 18 October respectively, the TOI and The Hindu carried small reports on an apparently local issue that clearly called for more scrutiny. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (the new municipal authority for Greater Bangalore) has been collecting a "beggars' cess," amounting to three per cent of the annual tax on property, ostensibly for the "rehabilitation and maintenance of beggars." According to the report, as on 31 March 2007, the collection amounted to Rs. 31 crores. Yet from April to October 2007 only eight crores had been disbursed. Where are the rest of the funds, and what is being done with even the amount (a little less than a quarter of the total) that has been handed over to the Central Beggar Relief Committee?

Unfortunately, neither this nor any of the other clues that actually appeared in the press that week were followed up. Yet there is obviously plenty of scope for investigative journalism to help the public understand why, despite the huge amounts of money allocated over the years for a plethora of policies and programmes meant to tackle the many faces of poverty, India - the new kid on the global economic block -- still has the dubious distinction of being a world leader in hunger, maternal mortality and several other indicators of poverty. And if our newspapers and 24x7 news channels can provide regular updates on the stock markets, foreign exchange and bullion rates, weather, pollution, etc., surely they can add a poverty watch or at least an MDG watch to raise public awareness -- and maybe even create public opinion -- on India's performance in this critical area of development?

The priorities of the media were also evident in the coverage given to labour issues during this period. On 15 October, while The Hindu carried a fairly detailed report, along with a photograph, on a rally by women workers in the garment industry demanding higher wages, the TOI's single column report was just nine lines long. Two days later the paper published a detailed story headlined "Garment units lay off workers," revealing that 15,000 people in Tirupur and nearly 30,000 people - mainly women - in Bangalore had already lost jobs and that lay-offs were expected to go up to one lakh if the negative trends in the industry persisted. The story was entirely based on interviews with executive director level managers and one labour leader; none of the affected workers were tapped for their experiences or views.

In fact, barring a few editorials, the only substantial and original contributions to raising awareness on poverty and related issues during a week when poverty was supposed to be in the news were by people outside the media, especially in the form of editorial page articles. As a result the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty passed by without making much of a dent on public consciousness here.

A new report by Panos London, "Making poverty the story: Time to involve the media in poverty reduction," calls for greater involvement of the media in efforts to tackle poverty: "As the mid-point for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 is reached with progress in serious doubt…the time has come…to recognise and support the potentially crucial contribution of the mass media to efforts to reduce poverty... Policy change has often stemmed from shifts in public and political opinion, and the very reach of the mass media make them a vital force in raising public awareness and debate, even if they may not be direct policy actors or even consider themselves as having an obligation to influence policy and change society."

According to Jon Barnes, head of the globalisation programme of Panos and co-author of the report, "Policies on issues such as food security or access to public services are vital for poverty reduction, and the public needs to know how effective government policies and donor support are in making a positive contribution, particularly now achieving the Millennium Development Goals is in jeopardy." The media, he points out, "is a public good and in a prime position to monitor whether poverty reduction is taking place."