Naivete, Idealism and SOP Stories

(as with other older — anything over three years old — posts on this blog, the statement of purpose i wrote while applying for higher studies too is being uploaded post facto)

In Robert Fisk’s The Great War For Civilisation, Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist who has voluntarily embedded herself in the occupied territories to report on the occupation, describes the role of a journalist as monitoring the centres of power. As an Indian development journalist, I couldn’t agree more.

This country stands at a crossroads. On one hand, poverty is under attack like never before. Destitution here being hugely rural, mostly agrarian, the indian government has kicked off fundamental reform in agriculture. The farmers’ biggest bugbear, an imperfect agri-produce marketing infrastructure that distorts price signals on their way up from the market, and appropriates as much as 80% of the final value of the produce, is being overhauled. The government is trying to migrate small and marginal farmers to higher value crops. For the landless, for the non-agricultural poor, there is a huge push on microfinance. As roads and telecommunications reach deep into the country, old problems in connectivity are being fixed.

Also, the state is not the only engine for development any longer. A growing number of Indian companies are spotting market opportunities in resolving the informational and infrastructural barriers that keep the poor impoverished. For instance, Indian business group ITC is using ICT kiosks to buy agri-commodities directly from farmers (at last count, 3.2 million farmers sold their produce to ITC). The value unlocked by disintermediating the traditional chain, says the company, is large enough to boost farmer incomes while upping its own profits.

At the same time, there are newer challenges. The development engendered by our rapid growth rate isn’t very equitable. Some states are growing, others aren’t. Agriculture is moribund. The revival in manufacturing is led by companies that made massive efficiency gains through mechanisation. They do not employ as many people as they used to. The booming service sector mainly employs the educated middle class. In all, most of the working class has been pushed into the unorganised service sector – with little job security, no pensions. This is creating a tinderbox. You probably know about the anti-Muslim pogrom that the Indian state of Gujarat saw in 2002. A big underlying factor for that was the state’s jobless growth.

Nor is this development sustainable. For instance, three of India’s poorest states, Chhatisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand, are encouraging mining projects. My friends in UNEP, Greenpeace and assorted regional NGOs tell me both environmental damage and human displacement are on a staggering scale. This is part of a larger trend. Gunning for growth, India has adopted an aggressively pro-industry stance. The Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF), the guardian of our natural resources, is denotifying forestlands, relaxing environmental safeguards.

These themes yield complicated stories, stories that are as rooted in ecology as in economic growth, as rooted in poverty alleviation as in local realpolitik. And that is why I am applying to the Masters programme on Environment and Development. That, with an emphasis on poverty studies, will help me study these developments in the wider context of a third world country. (I am also applying to the population and development programme. If I get through the latter, then I will put special emphasis on studying the environmental issues).

Let me explain. A dam called Polavaram is coming up in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Once up, it will supply electricity and water to a special economic zone nearby. It will, however, also drown 650 sq km of prime forest and displace 271 tribal villages. It is the quintessential development dilemma.

How should the media decide whether to defend or oppose the dam?

One cannot critique the dam focusing on just its environmental fallouts, while ignoring the benefits that will accrue from it. Such an article will not be taken seriously by the, well, centres of power. Development is about tradeoffs. The question is whether that tradeoff was worth making or not. In the case of Polavaram, the government believes the dam will add greater value than the forests and the tribals can. To have any heft, the ideal article has to test the thinking underlying that assumption.

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