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India: How missing facts and context are toxic for media coverage

By Pramila Krishnan

India is a country made up of many countries – a statement often made in discussions about India and migration. Studies show that three out of 10 Indians are internal migrants. A search for work, for a better life or for marriage are the most common reasons behind such migration. Parents seeking better educational opportunities for their children is also a factor. Generally it is people from the most vulnerable and marginalised communities who have been forced to migrate.

Millions move each year – many from the countryside to the city where they think they will find jobs and a better life. Many have to cope with different cultural traditions: for such people it feels like a move to a foreign land.

India is also a magnet for immigrants from other smaller neighbouring countries who are escaping poverty and political unrest. It has become a homeland for hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Nepalese, Pakistanis and other nationalities.

Particularly for Sri Lankan Tamils, India is viewed as a second motherland but the relationship with Bangladesh is more difficult. A fence along the 2,500-mile border between the two countries has been built by the Indian government to keep out migrants, though this has not stopped the most determined getting through. Estimates of Bangladeshis who have crossed into India illegally over the years range from four to 20 million but no one is sure of the exact number.

Yet despite the tension caused by such movements – and periodic outbreaks of violence between peoples of different cultural or religious backgrounds – India is in many ways a migration success story. Since independence in 1947 the many different states in India and the multiple languages and customs have been woven into the fabric of the world’s largest democracy, with at least 2,000 ethnic groups united in their diversity.

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“Indo Bangladesh Border Gate” by Arupparia licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

One of the major problems for government agencies and journalists charting migration is a lack of up-to-date information. The numbers run into millions. The government has no accurate figures of where people come from – or where they travel to. It is also often hard to differentiate between internal migrants and those from neighbouring countries: to local people all strangers might appear foreign.

According to a 2011 census, India had a population of 1.210 billion, more than double the figure in the early 1970s. It is a country of youth: more than half of the population are below 25. It’s estimated that within 10 years it will surpass China as the world’s most populous country.

As in China, India has seen a big shift in population from rural to urban areas over recent years. The 2011 census recorded that the urban population increased from 286 million to 377 million between 2001 to 2011. The prediction is that almost half of India’s people – about 600 million – will be living in cities by 2030. Already two cities – Mumbai and Delhi – have more than 10 million each while six others have more than four million.

Migration: An untold story across the media landscape

Media coverage of migration issues in India is – with a few notable exceptions – relatively rare and not very thorough, especially in the non-English-language media. In newspapers there are few attempts at serious analysis, partly because there is so little clear information available, though some journalists are now beginning to probe the issue in more detail.

Overall there is very little discussion of trends and no serious coverage of migration-linked human-interest stories. Journalists instead tend to report in the context of a debate in Parliament or in a state assembly, giving the views of government but little else.

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“Indian migrant family” by McKay Savage licensed under CC BY 2.0

Where individual stories about migrants appear they tend to reflect a general public prejudice against them: if a crime, however minor, is committed by an immigrant it features far more prominently in newspapers than similar crimes committed by locals.

Recently there has been more media discussion, prompted mainly by two books by journalists. Another more recent development has been migrant use of social media to tell their stories and voice their concerns. Veerapandian, a journalist working in Tamil Nadu in south India, won a special literary award for his book Parukai, highlighting the plight of poor students who migrate from the countryside to the cities to pursue their studies.

Samir Kumar Das, a journalist and academic who has written extensively on migration issues, refugees and the plight of internally displaced persons recently edited a book entitled Media Coverage on Forced Displacement in Contemporary India. Looking at migrants in the Bengal region he says: “Local media, particularly the newspapers, have been successful to a certain extent in portraying forced displacement in the state. Problems such as ethnic conflicts, floods etc. and their impact on people are highlighted.

“However, the media have failed to address the issues in their totality, as well as objectively. Largely depending on official sources, local newspapers have tried to inform readers about the intensity of the problem, but failed to establish a lively communication between victims and civil society-at large.”

Assam and the north eastern region have seen some of the biggest migratory movements in recent years – with hundreds of thousands settling in the area from Bangladesh and Bengal and from countries to the east, including Myanmar. Tensions have risen between indigenous groups and the newcomers as people compete for farmland and living space: there have been periodic outbreaks of violence.

Journalist Nilajaana Dutta has come up with a reference book named Forced Migration in North East India: A Media Reader to inform fellow journalists on the issue, its history and ways to cover the story in detail.

Migration has been the core subject of reporting by journalist P. Sainath. He has written many articles featuring the urban-rural divide, migration of farmers to urban areas, how thousands of farm workers have vacated villages over the years and settled in urban and suburban areas in search of jobs.

Sainath’s news reports, mainly in The Hindu, one of India’s main English-language newspapers with a readership of more than two million, caused consternation in the bureaucracy and forced the government to look into the agrarian crisis. The 2011 census showed that, for the first time since population records began, India’s urban population had grown faster than that in the countryside.

“Clearly, something huge has happened in the last 10 years that drives those numbers,” said Sainath. “And that is: huge, uncharted migrations of people seeking work as farming collapses. We may be looking at – and missing – this cruel drama in the countryside. A drama of millions leaving their homes in search of jobs that are not there. Of villages swiftly losing able-bodied adults, leaving behind the old, hungry and vulnerable. Of families that break up as their members head in diverse directions.”

His articles have stressed how liberalisation and the mushrooming growth of multinational firms have eroded the lives of villagers in various occupations. He questioned poor labour management policies of the government and absence of facilities for migrant workers.

Sainath quotes Dr. K. Nagaraj, professor at the Asian College of Journalism, in Chennai, south India. “The migrations of these past 15-20 years are overwhelmingly distress driven and often disruptive of the lifestyle, roots and family bonds of the migrant. Very few gain in terms of acquiring skill and capital, unlike those from the middle and upper classes. When the latter migrate, they usually make big gains in skill, capital and mobility in the jobs ladder.”

Sainath also talks of the exploitation migrants are subject to: “A massive chain has sprung up of middlemen and labour contractors who gain heavily from this exodus and thus seek to organise it to their benefit. They supply labour at cheap rates to a variety of patrons – from town and city contractors and builders to corporations, including multinationals.

“This not only helps depress the local wage, but also offers patrons a pool of cheap labour that is desperate, unorganised and thus relatively docile. The employers don’t have to bother about the migrants’ security, workplace conditions or any standard benefits a city labourer might know of and claim. To the workers, this system offers quick if low payments, crushing debt and unending despair.”

Jayati Gosh, social activist and a well-known economist, also writes for The Hindu and various other media outlets on migration. Gosh has highlighted how the Indian statistical system is not really designed to capture short-term migration. She says this results in policymakers being unaware of the sheer extent and the likely increase in migration in the years ahead. She says the census captures only permanent migration by asking respondents if they had previously lived somewhere else and how long ago that was.

Gosh, writing jointly with C.P. Chandrasekar in The Hindu Businessline, says India’s economic growth has been fueled by the movement of labour. “Such migration is not only a sign of dynamism – it reflects increasing inequalities, agrarian crisis and inadequate livelihood generation in many parts of rural and urban India.

“Apparently, a growing part of it is short-term and often repeated, although destinations may change. And while it has already created huge changes in the lives and work patterns of ordinary Indians, these consequences are yet to be adequately recognised and addressed by public policy.”

Regional migrants and the media

Immigration from Bangladesh to India has long been a thorny issue for politicians and led to the building of razor wire fences along the border. People are often shot by Indian border guards as they try to cross.

According to the Indian government, the fence is also designed to keep out so called “Muslim terrorists” and to prevent illegal smuggling of cattle. India’s majority Hindu population regard cattle as sacred while Muslims eat them and this often causes ethnic tensions.

Estimates of the number of Bangladesh nationals in India vary enormously, and there are no accurate figures, though some politicians have claimed there are as many as 20 million. This figure proved emotive in local elections: some journalists sought to dispute it, quoting an official at the Indian Statistical Institute who called such estimates “exaggerated” and said that internal migrants from other Indian states can easily be confused with Bangladeshis.

While the fence is controversial, it tends to gain more media coverage outside rather than inside India. Writing in the online journal The Diplomat – a Tokyo-based online magazine looking at issues in the Asia-Pacific region – Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, a New Delhi-based journalist, says there is a need to understand what causes the Bangladeshi exodus.

“The major causes are socio-political strife, natural calamities, communal riots, and poor economic prospects. Amongst these the economic issue has been the most dominant factor. In spite of deportation, arresting the flow of immigrants from Bangladesh will be very difficult, since economic conditions and opportunities for employment back home are bleak.”

Bhattacharjee says dialogue between the two countries is the only solution and finding some way of providing work permits and regulating the ebb and flow of people is required.

There have been some signs that they are working to tackle some of the more difficult issues. One major problem, left over from the colonial era, has been the existence of enclaves of people from Bangladesh and India on either side of the border. There are an estimated 100 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India.

Earlier this year the two countries agreed to an exchange of land and, for the first time, there are hopes that this highly contentious issue, involving the livelihoods of thousands of stateless people, is on the way to being settled. The settlement was given fulsome coverage in The Times of India, The Business Standard, India Today and other media outlets.

Immigration from Sri Lanka is treated differently from that of Bangladesh by both government and the media. Starting in early 1983, thousands of Tamils fled northern parts of Sri Lanka, caught up in a civil war between the Tamil Tigers, fighting for a separate state, and government forces. They sought refuge in Tamil Nadu, in southern India.

R. Bhagwan Singh, an Indian journalist who has written extensively on Sri Lanka, says: “The Tamil Nadu government, with funds from the federal government, created refugee camps to house Sri Lankan Tamils and took care of them by giving them monthly monetary doles and highly subsidised rations.

“Their children also had access to education. The Indian government provided necessary facilities and ensured that they are treated well. And compared to citizens, refugees received better treatment from the government.”

With the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, some refugees have returned home, though others have attempted long, hazardous journeys, trying to gain entry to Australia and other countries. Singh has tried to document the suffering of these Tamils in search of a better life. “But now with the end of the war these countries have closed their doors to them because they are no longer fleeing from war but are now mere fortune seekers,” says Singh.

The Indian media has reported that many of these Tamils now feel more at home in India and are reluctant to return to Sri Lanka. One, Prasanth Sekar, was reported as saying he was not willing to return. “I am still scared and worried about security for the Tamils there. I am not willing to get back to my country. Moreover, I got used to Indian soil and I’m comfortable here. To me Sri Lanka is just a distant country. I feel that I am an Indian.”

Migrant issues surface in various parts of India, often in areas which are becoming more prosperous and where locals are concerned about an upsurge in migrants taking jobs. Madhumita Dutta is a Chennai-based activist and researcher who has highlighted migrants’ problems in Tamil Nadu in The Hindu.

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“Bangladesh-India border” by Moin Uddin licensed under CC BY 2.0

He says migrants – many from poorer areas in northern India, have no working rights and live in bad conditions. “Tamil Nadu has a fairly large interstate migrant population, estimated to be over ten lakhs (one million), with large concentrations around Chennai, Coimbatore, Trichy, Madurai, Hosur, Tirupur, Kanyakumari and Tirunelvelli.

“Hailing from Assam, Bihar, Orissa, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and even Nepal, these men come to work on private and government construction sites, in small engineering ancillary units, steel-rolling mills, hosieries, foundries, in roadside eateries as well as fancy city restaurants, as security guards and even as farmhands. While walking past a slum or even a fishing kuppam (village) these days, one can catch a soft snatch of conversation or song in Bhojpuri, Hindi, Bangla or Oriya.

Dutta wanted to find out who were these men, sometimes labelled North-Indian “thieves”, and what their loot looked like. “So I met a few young men from Bihar who had just come back from ‘duty’. They were huddled together in a small room in one such slum. A 120-sq.ft. room with peeling green walls, a few shirts and pants hanging from the hooks nailed to the walls, a mirror, a plastic comb, small suitcases and bags, a kerosene stove, a few cooking pots and pans, plates, tumbler and two buckets, floor mats and mobile phones! No toilet and an open bathing area.”

While such focused, human-interest reporting is rare in the India press, other media platforms are covering migrant problems.

Social media is playing an ever-greater role. There are several online Facebook groups aimed at raising support for the rights of Tamil refugees and residents of communities trapped in the enclaves on the Bangladesh-Indian border. Young migrants in particular use Facebook, Twitter and other social media to highlight their problems: they say they are united in the virtual world and share views about their identity.

The information deficit that harms media

Several research studies have illuminated the prevailing unsafe environment for both internal migrants and immigrants. There is, however, a lack of basic information about how many immigrants there are and the movements of people internally and across borders.

This means that journalists lack accurate statistical information, which can often lead to ill-informed assertions about migration by the public and politicians, which under-resourced journalists find hard to refute or verify. Many researchers fail adequately to disseminate their material – important findings and data do not reach local news organisations and civil society.

Though the government has set up institutions such as helpline centres, and redress mechanisms to provide justice to migrants in difficulties, in many cases the institutions do not work on the ground.

For its part, the government needs urgently to update its records on numbers and movements of people – both in and out of India and within the country. Only then will the true scale of the issue be known – and proper policy measures put in place. Schools need to be established in urban areas to cater for migrant children – their education is vital for the future of the country.

The media also needs to be far more proactive. Too often, reportage tends to reflect ill-informed opinions from locals who accuse migrants of stealing their jobs or ruining their neighbourhoods. There are exceptions: several journalists are now taking a broader, more nuanced approach and presenting the migrants’ point of view. But a great deal more could be done to ensure fair and balanced reporting.

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Tagged with: ARTICLE 19, Asia-Pacific, Asian College of Journalism, Bangladesh, India, Muslims, Samir Kumar Das, Sri Lanka, Tamils, The Hindu, The Hindu Businessline