Down To Earth completes 15 years

Published: Thursday 31 May 2007

having just completed 15 years of publication, our first duty is to thank those readers who've been with us from our first issue of May 31, 1992. They have sustained us and given us meaning. They have had numerous options--the 1990s saw the dotcom boom, the satellite tv explosion and the arrival of numerous magazines--and anybody with Rs 20 to spare at the news stand (or Rs 289 for an annual subscription) is spoiled for choice. But there is a core readership of this magazine that has spent the money and taken the time to read what is printed. If you belong to this category, please accept our unqualified appreciation for being engaged, for being unsparing when we have erred and encouraging when we have been true to our raison d'etre.

Why do we publish? Why this magazine? The reasons were enunciated in this space 15 years ago "This magazine is not the product of a desire to capture a share of the information market. It is the product of a need that we feel within us, of a desire to fill a critical information gap," and that what will make or break this magazine is "whether the need we feel is indeed widely felt". The fact that we have survived and our readership has grown shows a clear demand for such information.

Our readership has also diversified--there is an entire generation that has grown up after India opened its economy to the world. Several readers have written to us, complaining about too many 'negative' stories. They find too many stories describing what is wrong--bad news--and too few 'positive' stories with examples of the way to a better future. This is thrown into high relief given the euphoria in the media about India's rapid economic growth in the past few years. Here, we'd like to remind our readers of what was apparent in 1992 "In the years ahead, India will have to seize every possible opportunity to grow and develop and at the same time it will have to make a bold effort to hold on to its soil and roots. This task is not going to be easy. It can easily tear us apart... In an increasingly integrated world market economy, ever more forceful in its embrace, it is going to be extremely difficult to isolate ourselves. The foreign wind will blow hard and strong... Our technological advancement ought to be determined by our own priorities and needs. The industrialised countries will flood us with information and technologies. What we choose will depend on our values and our intelligence."

It is now clear that the path chosen by India's ruling class is not based on our values and priorities. The media, which ought to have shown more clearly how haphazard and lopsided is our growth trajectory, is instead driven by the corporate rush, getting swept off its feet by the ever increasing foreign direct investment. But this is only half the story, if not less. A large majority in India is not benefiting from the economic growth, and its problems are not finding a voice. It's not that poverty and deprivation were not there before the Indian economy was opened up. But the rate at which the powerless are being sacrificed at the altar of ill-planned industrialisation has increased sharply.

The ruptures are too big today. Most sectors we explore now show the powerless being pushed off their land, if not in the name of industrialisation then in the name of biodiversity conservation. The chasm between the powerful and the powerless is becoming rigid. It is only because of the moral bankruptcy of India's preening ruling class--and its media--that social fissures are not discussed in the popular domain. These contests are the most intense when control of natural resources is at stake, land being the most critical. So, farmers are being forced to sell agricultural land on the cheap; forest dwellers are being evicted to create inviolate protected forests; seasonally migrating graziers are being stopped from grazing livestock in pastures that were once free for them. It is not that all farmers, forest dwellers and graziers are innocent of wrongdoing and don't need to be regulated. But our systems of administration are increasingly forcing them to 'encroach'. And this is happening when industry is being allowed a free run of resources and the middle class's consumption is being underwritten with huge hidden subsidies.

It is important that the government encourage economic growth and allow markets to prosper, setting the standards and regulating their engines. But there is something sinister when this growth happens in an undemocratic way, when crony capitalism thrives at the cost of a majority that is crushed, and which sees all opportunities being snatched and delivered at the doorstep of those with ready access to the corridors of power. The only option left with the majority is to vote out political parties that are in power, for which the media has adopted a term of convenience anti-incumbency. But the majority cannot throw out the corporations that corrupt the country's politics and the bureaucrats who namelessly, facelessly 'facilitate' this corruption. It also can't influence a media which gets all its feedback from the ruling class.

While we are constantly looking for 'positive' stories that show us more sensible approaches to growth and development, it is important to not give up on 'bad news'. Because it holds a mirror to society. For alternatives to emerge, a wider discussion on what's wrong is important. Those who want to look the other way have many options--in print and on air.

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