Nepali Times
State Of The State
Are we becoming another Bihar?


Nepalis like to bemoan the fact we border India\'s poorest and most lawless state. And we see Nepal going Bihar\'s way. So, if we don\'t want to end up as another Bihar, it may be useful to study the reasons why one of India\'s richest states became its most destitute.

In an age when the only news to come out of Bihar is of chief ministers who feast on fodder, or of the slaughter of low-caste peasants by landlord armies, it is difficult to believe that till the late 1960s Bihar was one of the most progressive states in India. Then the unstoppable slide downhill to the present: the state exists, it\'s on the map, elections are held, institutions are there, but nothing works. Even New Delhi calls its administration "Jungle Raj".
Finding a fancy reason for Bihar\'s entropy used to be the favourite pastime of ivory tower intellectuals at Delhi\'s India International Centre. These days, even they seem to have given up on Bihar as a lost cause.

There are obvious reasons for Bihar\'s sorrow: entrenched caste politics, low literacy and heavily skewed land ownership. But one major reason for Bihar\'s non-functioning anarchy was the media\'s decline, and the way it paralleled the decay of the state.

Bihar once had at least three quality dailies published from Patna: Aryabarta and Pradip in Hindi, and Searchlight in English, all highly respected journals that were fair and factual. Rapacious politicians not schooled in the liberal traditions of the independence struggle didn\'t appreciate the media\'s adversarial role. The newspapers survived for a while, but Indira Gandhi\'s Emergency drove the final nail in the media\'s coffin. The conscience of Bihar was sent to sleep.

Today, Patna does have local editions of big national newspapers like The Times of India, Hindustan and Aaaj,but these are business enterprises first. What they practise can best be called a kind of \'corporate journalism,\' a style that teaches one to remain on the right side of the powers-that-be, with an occasional scoop to keep circulations up. The result is for all to see: you couldn\'t tell by reading the Patna papers that the corruption every citizen of the state experiences first hand is endemic. Their body-bag headlines are from Kashmir, not an investigation into the latest massacres by the Ranvir Sena or the Maoists.

Nepali editors are sanguine that we will not meet Bihar\'s fate because our post-democracy media is vibrant and alert. It is true, despite the preponderance of pamphleteers, a section of the Nepali media is indeed doing its job remarkably well.

However, the Nepali media has to grow out of its herd mentality, to question what appears to be self-evident, and not to be manipulated and motivated. For instance, many in the media rubbished the citizenship bill without even examining the contents carefully. The fact that the proposed act was a bipartisan exercise that came with stringent procedures and contained ample provisions to prosecute those found guilty of granting citizenship certificates illegally has been all but ignored.

Then there was the reporting over the Laxmanpur Barrage. The barrage has been under construction for quite some time, but the issue was raked up just when the Prime Minister was packing to leave for New Delhi. The press reports appeared investigative but in the end played right into the hands of those who wanted to poison the atmosphere before the visit. The prompt and tough rebuttal from the Indian Embassy proved just that. To give due credit, some in media ridiculed one lawmaker\'s suggestion that the barrage be demolished. But others failed to see through such populist bluster.

By being unprofessional, by not protecting its independence, by not safeguarding its adversarial role, the Nepali media will contribute to democracy\'s slow demise. The Nepali press has to ask \'why\' every time a vested interest group offers a facile answer to \'what\'. It must question every planted half-truth.

Former chief justice of the Supreme Court, Vishwanath Upadhyaya, holds that much of the Nepali press is substandard. He has a point, but can he show us one section of Kathmandu society, that can be held up as a model for the press to emulate? A society gets the media it deserves, I suppose. But an accountable and committed media can also mould a society in its own image.

There are other safeguards against degenerating into another Bihar, but for Nepal, an energetic and independent press is the most obvious one.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)