Let’s begin by stating the obvious: the recent drought and the reported famine in the Tharparkar region of Sindh is a collective failure of the government, the media, the development sector planners as well as the citizens with a voice. There should be no mistake about this.
The print and electronic media has been quick to assert its nauseating self-righteousness and has blamed the elected provincial government as well as officials of the district administration. While there is no dispute that these actors ought to be held accountable, the electronic and print media is particularly culpable too. It is high time that the media admits its own faults — and we should hold the media and ourselves accountable.
For years, the brilliant Amartya Sen has argued that a functioning democracy is one of the most effective safeguards against famines. His larger concern is the issue of hunger but famines receive particular attention. Sen’s theory is based on the central importance of the role that public discourse plays in bringing to light issues that affect the public. He argues that competition between various political parties, the race for elected office and a free press combine to ensure that issues such as dangers of food shortages are brought to light relatively early on — resultantly this puts pressure on elected governments to act before the situation worsens. He, quite famously, has cited the famines that occurred in colonial India and compared the situation with post-1947 India where famines have been avoided.
There is empirical basis for Sen’s argument. But while famines may not have occurred in functioning democracies such as India, there have been avoidable cases of drought, wide-spread hunger as well as malnourishment — in India and other places including Pakistan.
For the purposes of the present, Pakistan needs to remember that droughts do not happen overnight. Famine is not a common cold that afflicts one person and then spreads to neighbours in a few hours. It occurs because of systemic and structural faults. It afflicts a population or a segment thereof because of lack of political and administrative will. It happens because the news media abandons stories that matter and covers stories that ‘sell’. Blaming the entire episode on district management might be convenient but it is disingenuous and an abdication of collective responsibility.
The print and electronic media deserve particular blame. Most of the time they keep attention on ‘the other’ by pointing to repressive laws or policies regarding freedom of expression. However, the press in Pakistan is arguably as free as any in the region and the same goes for the electronic media. In any case, no government pressure stops the electronic or press media from giving a voice to those wallowing in disabling poverty and extreme hunger. There are no two ways about it — the media is just not interested in telling the stories of the poor and the hungry.
There is no excuse for ignoring the increasingly growing problem of food shortages in the country. Even laws facilitating a free press cannot make up for lack of high-quality responsible journalism — a point made poignantly by Sen in his latest “An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions”.
This becomes clear whether you look at the media’s coverage of the justice system or this particular drought. The Pakistani print and electronic media is obsessed with running half-cooked snippets from hearings involving high profile figures before the Honourable Supreme Court. Yet there is a complete lack of focus and attention when it comes to the lower courts and how the dysfunctional system affects the litigants.
As thousands starved in Tharparkar, during the first week of March, the electronic media’s hourly headlines focused on Pakistan cricket team’s progress in the Asia Cup. News of Tharparkar and starving Pakistanis appeared much later in the news coverage. If the electronic media accuses politicians of skewed priorities, it should take a look in the mirror.
With preciously few exceptions there is, ironically, a drought of high-quality and responsible journalism in Pakistan. Consider the media’s coverage of the woes afflicting the power sector. The media is never shy of pointing out how many hours of power outages have been faced by Pakistan’s major cities. And yet ask yourself this: how many times has the media focused on people who have never even been provided electricity, hospitals, drainage systems and schools? That population too lives in Pakistan. Why should they not matter?
It is not that these people do not exist — they do and the media is deliberately blind to their plight. What sells is glamour and blaming politicians. What counts for professionalism among the media in Pakistan is abdication of responsibility and pointing fingers at others. Convenience is the mantra — along with ratings and revenue.
None of this is meant to suggest that the political and administrative establishment should be let off the hook. But political and administrative agents never act out of benevolence — they always act out of a desire to avoid embarrassment and pressure. Deterrents and threat of embarrassment are often the best way of ensuring responsible action by human beings. But should the allegedly ‘fourth pillar’ of the state (i.e. the media) only focus on deep-rooted issues after gross acts of negligence have hurt thousands? Even the attention now being given to the drought by the media is likely to be piecemeal and temporal.
Important questions remain: such as the role and influence of the military in the Tharparkar region, the independence, effectiveness and responsibility of the relevant Disaster Management Authority, the lack of implementation of laws and policies regarding food security and essential commodities. Will these get any attention? I doubt so.
Structural and systemic flaws have been ignored. That is why they are likely to continue to hurt the disempowered Pakistanis.
Also culpable in these acts of negligence are Pakistanis like you and me. In our ambition-driven lives and in our so-called concern for dealing with terrorism we are far too often guilty of ignoring people who are not imperiled by bombs — but their lives are threatened by hunger, lack of access to hospitals, sanitation and other amenities of life.
The pets that we keep get enough food and yet we are blind to the plight of millions in this country who go to bed hungry every night. They wake up hungry the next morning and then go through the motions, waiting for life to end or for some small miracle that will prolong their existence.
In the 21st century, it is shameful that a country cannot feed its own people. And it is downright insulting to humanity that a problem as pervasive as disabling hunger is ignored by us in our public discourse.
Read also: What happened in Thar by Amar Guriro