JANAKPUR. Physical violence is often the only way for small towns in Nepal to get into the headlines of the metropolitan press. Sure enough, a gun attack on a priest at the Janaki Temple became 'breaking news' for television channels in Kathmandu. Some of the national newspapers carried the story on the front page.
The local press takes its cue from the national media. For local dailies, events from neighbouring villages hardly matter. When there is no news of shootings, abductions or political protests, FM radio channels clamour to interview national leaders rather than farmers or activists of the hinterland.
From Parsa to Siraha, at least eight districts of the central Tarai are in the grip of major to severe drought. In a region known as the rice bowl of the country, trans-plantation of paddy has been adversely affected. Except in select places where irrigation facilities are available – usually the constituencies of influential politicos – farmers have lost all hope in their main crop this year. Rice fields are cracked and dry with shoots ready for transplantation wilting in seedbeds.
The scale and the extent of the rural catastrophe waiting to unfold is frightening. When food production falls, of course, it will influence the political economy of the country in unpredictable ways. However, Nepali audiences have little clue what is happening in the countryside, as they are fed hourly accounts of the parlour games of power politics in the capital city.
The press across the border has shown more consideration for the plight of farmers. Forthcoming assembly elections did play a major role in politicising the drought in India. But at least part of the credit must go to the intensive coverage in the Indian media for getting Bihar declared a crisis zone and securing relief packages from central government for affected villagers.
Government interventions have their own flaws. To depict the corruption and callousness of relief measures, Ramon Magsaysay Awardwinner P. Sainath once compiled a book from his field reports:Why everyone loves a good drought. However, everybody loves a drought in India because the government cares about it, for whatever reasons. In Nepal, drought is a misfortune that does not interest anybody at all; villagers have to endure it all on their own.
In contrast, the devastation wrought by floods is spectacular. Scenes of helicopters rescuing people from their rooftops look good on TV, and earthquakes, too, provide their share of drama. But the effect of drought is less dramatic and more insidious. It is much easier to leave it all to development organisations.
The fascination of the metropolitan press with fashion, food, fun and the fantasies of the middle class is understandable to a certain extent. After all, they are the buyers every advertiser wants to reach and influence. An obsession with politics, too, has its own logic; in a poor country, the government is the biggest business enterprise.
The media, however, needs to prove its relevance by showing it cares about society. Endless footage of Shyam Saran being escorted to the VVIP lounge of Tribhuwan International Airport and honeymoon photographs of Manisha Koirala may tickle as audience's fancy, but do little to enhance the image of the press as the Fourth Estate of a nascent democracy.
What's more, few television channels or newspapers have invested in training journalists for reporting from small towns and the rural hinterland. The neglect of agriculture is a symptom of a deeper malaise; it reflects the urban bias of a national media that cares more about the traffic congestion in Kathmandu than deforestation in the Tarai or the denudation of fragile mountain slopes.
It has been said that what is news on television often depends on where your reporters and camerapersons are. The media manufactures news by reporting it. But it should remember it's not just government that has been guilty of neglecting the pauperised peasantry. Peace building has many dimensions; compassionate coverage of the travails of the marginalised is one of them.