Poverty and deprivation exist in such large scales in India, we argued earlier, that we cannot see them as failures of delivery systems or ideas alone. These are moral failures too, and most people recognise this instinctively. This is why, when confronted by the wide-spread suffering around them, many better-off citizens begin to express their concern in moral terms, and agree that we must do something - anything - to alleviate such misery. But despite this moral foundation, we find repeatedly that at the point of deciding what to do about such deprivation, we are no longer focused on the outrage behind our determination to act.
Take the Rural Employment Guarantee Bill, for example. Governments recognise that the current tide of economic development in the formal sector is simply going to bypass many of the rural poor, some of whom are starving. The Bill is the government's attempt to respond morally to that despairing situation. But the draft legislation itself bears no sign of this virtue! Instead, as we discussed in an earlier editorial, it is being asked if an employment guarantee for millions is 'affordable', implying that government's finances simply do not permit the luxury of virtuous attention to widespread hunger and unemployment.
Poverty is not the only example of moral failure of governance, although it is an obvious one. There are many others and as with poverty the moral premise of the response does not show up in reality.
Corruption - Transparency
It impacts everyone, and the poorest most of all. As custodians of our funds, governments are obligated morally to disclose information about how our money is spent. Reality: Both transparency laws and their implementation are often crippled.
Women's representation - Reservation
There's plenty of consensus on the need for reservation in Parliament for women MPs. Several draft law have made the rounds. Reality: Parliament has not seen a bill become law.
Everyone agrees subsidies for the better-off are a bad thing. Reality: Fertilizer subsidies benefit the industry first, farmers next. Rich farmers don't pay income tax.
Can media catalyse development?
A poor imitation
One answer to why this happens lies in a key element of media reporting of issues and events - proportion. Millions of literate Indians read newspapers and watch broadcast news in several languages every day, but how much of the reporting allows citizens to view our society's problems and stark disparities in the same proportion that the realities themselves exist? Roughly half our citizens - urban and rural together - are living in conditions that would be impossible for the privileged minority to describe as 'decent'. Yet, by and large the image of our own society that the better-off among us get from the media does not reflect this imbalance in its true proportions.
As citizens in civil society, our recognition of and motivation to assert ourselves on the sheer immorality of some situations is based on our assessment of how important some things are. And proportionate reporting of society by media is key to keeping our attention focused on tackling difficult problems, and building consensus on the solutions. Proportion offers media the opportunity to catalyse informed citizenship.
Without proportion in reporting, a vicious cycle of apathy develops, leading to predictable failures. Citizens observing the political indifference to deep suffering internalize this lack of moral outcome. We conclude that non-virtuous arguments and priorities always prevail in public affairs, and that's 'the way it is'. Decision-makers in turn know that they are not going to be sufficiently challenged on their consciences by a large enough constituency of citizens, or by their representatives in the media. As a result, not only is public virtue diminished, but more importantly this also has implications for the outcomes. The EGA is again a very good example.
Since we no longer ask if starvation deaths are affordable, we find ourselves debating a law whose provisions would not guarantee employment to the poorest, sanction the payment of below-minimum wages, and make employment itself discretionary. But replace the word 'employment' with 'food' (which is in anycase the motivation for the legislation) and it is immediately obvious how degraded the whole thing is. Keeping the original purposes of policy in focus is not only necessary to properly respond to development needs; without it, any response we develop faces the risk of collapsing on its contradictions.
Proportion is also an original principle of journalism; it offers balance in the public affairs discourse that is otherwise missing today. More significantly, it gives our citizen readers a more accurate sense for the society we live in than they would otherwise have. Many media organisations miss this key point; no amount of investigation and detail in reporting can lead to accuracy if the material that is selected for coverage isn't proportionately drawn from our society in the first place.
Media organisations do recognise the proportion argument. They protest that they do pay attention to significant issues - and indeed, with only a few exceptions, it is usually possible to find some coverage in virtually all newspapers and current affairs magazines. Even some niche publications occasionally wander into development topics; a sports publication, for example, might ask whether access to sporting facilities is available in poor communities, so that the best talent can be sought wherever it lies. Publications that have no time or space whatsoever for the public good are relatively few.
Still, there is some truth to the criticism that commercial media has abandoned all appearances of guarding the public trust. Many news organisations pander in far greater proportion to the entertainment and other wants of the better-off, even though amidst the better-off communities, an abundance of deprived citizens toil in the most inhuman conditions. The latter's concerns, however, are assumed to be uninteresting. Little wonder, therefore, that the proper proportion of interest necessary to tackle deprivation on a large scale simply vanishes. This may particularly be the case in the English language media. The 'targeted demographics' approach to revenues and growth distorts the attention to proportion that is needed to record society accurately.
But what exactly is the right proportion in which to cover the issues? The answer is admittedly subjective; there are no media-wide standards for proportionate coverage in the communities that media outlets actually serve. Still, the absence of such standards should not exempt the media from trying to maintain a proper proportion. Most alert citizens can spot under-reporting of the serious issues; they can tell when precious space and airtime is turned into infotainment, while reporting space for serious questions is reduced.
In the meantime, while the lack of proportion may cause our overall attention to developing the good society to waver, the reasons we recognise poverty, corruption and other problems as a moral failures themselves do not vanish. Transient virtue is no virtue at all. Proportion thus serves a dual purpose. It is key to citizens remaining alert to the moral basis for our concerns. At the same time, it is also the mechanism by which we remind ourselves repeatedly about what the larger concerns in our development journey ought to be.