India: A distracted Republic

Last Updated: Thu, Dec 26, 2013 05:29 hrs

Is there a country in the world that suffers from attention deficit disorder as severe as India's? After a month or so of hyperactive news coverage, prompted by the Tejpal arrest, the euphoria over the Aam Aadmi Party's win in Delhi and the outrage over the US marshals' handling of Devyani Khobragade's arrest, it is hard to think of one.

Our media play a greater role raising the volume than just about anywhere else. Newspapers may be in decline in the West, but in India many middle-class households routinely read a couple of newspapers a day. Evenings are spent flicking from one news channel to the next when the shouting becomes unbearable.

If there was an Olympics for debate and disagreement, we would win it easily. This is visible even at dinner parties and on the streets outside where drivers in huddles await their masters and mistresses within. In addition to this multitude of newspapers and news channels, India has all the 21st-century distractions of Twitter and other social media that also characterise the West.

The Tejpal case prompted somewhat facile coverage of sexual harassment in the workplace. But, as a column on the media website The Hoot observes, not very much was said about how our society remains a patriarchy well beyond the office.

When our media's attention wanders, it often completely drops one story in its chase for the next: the Tejpal scandal pushed the story of the Gujarat police's stalking of a woman, spearheaded by Narendra Modi's right-hand man, Amit Shah, off the news agenda almost entirely even though both cases reveal an abuse of power by powerful men.

Both point to a chauvinistic status quo that often makes it seem like women, even relatively well-off ones, are a fifth caste in India's social hierarchy.

The persistently poor state of women's health and nutrition, and consequently children's health, receives little coverage in our media by contrast. As Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have pointed out, our media is captive to the concerns of the middle and upper middle class. It is certainly more likely to write about dieting fads than malnutrition.

A bias dictated by class was apparent in the coverage of Devyani Khobragade's admittedly mishandled arrest in New York. The head of a US non-governmental organisation told me she was perplexed by how this issue had created a one-sided shouting match while similar actions by US authorities in the past few years against Taiwanese and Italian diplomats had not provoked such a reaction in those countries.

Dubai's sentencing of two Indians to a year in jail on December 24 for a satirical video about some of its youth mimicking "gangsta" culture has created scarcely a ripple of protest.

Indeed, it is hard to recall anything approaching national hysteria about the treatment of thousands of our countrymen who toil in West Asia. (Last Sunday's Indian Express had a searing report on the bonded labour conditions faced by workers in Saudi Arabia, but I doubt it will provoke nightly debates on TV.)

Dubai's treatment of our construction labourers is reminiscent of ancient Egypt's building of its pyramids. But it remains one of our favourite destinations to visit, and many people say they wish India was more like Dubai.

And so we continue with heated debates characterised by a lack of balance or even common sense, mimicking unconsciously the TV debates we watch nightly. The spread of angry comments over social media takes on the intensity of a flash flood that is suddenly forgotten two days later.

Meenakshi Ganguly, who heads Human Rights Watch in South Asia, makes the point that social media also contributes to campaigns against, say, the Supreme Court judgment that upheld the criminalisation of homosexuality. But when the moment of protest passes, the hashtag zone of Twitter moves on faster.

The Twitter phenomenon is true worldwide. But in a country with long-term problems such as the pollution of our water sources, the skewed incentives created by our government for the agriculture sector while it struggles with low productivity, and the inferior status of women - to name a few - this dwindling attention span can itself add up to something catastrophic.

How, so many observers have asked, do we still have the world's largest number of malnourished children decades after independence?

In a new book called Focus, the writer Daniel Goleman makes a distinction between our lower brain, which tackles banal everyday tasks, and our neocortex, which allows us to focus our minds on single, important tasks.

It is apparent our government leaders have neither the ability nor the news environment in which they are allowed to focus on the long term. I read parts of Mr Goleman's book while trying to make sense of these astonishing past few weeks of high-decibel news in India that changed every few days, while in China the big story was of the grand plans set out by Xi Jinping for the next three decades.

As the term of this fractious Lok Sabha draws to a close, more than 120 Bills await legislation. Our leaders must focus on the country's long-term challenges or risk becoming the basket case of this century.

If that isn't a task to concentrate the mind, I am not sure what is.

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