Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Amazing the depths to which media has plummeted…..prefers to dicuss Montek’s toilets on prime time…..

On a day when the US Defense Secretary was in India, trying to woo India into a futuristic partnership (and no doubt trying to sell his country’s wares!); on a day when China too was wooing India’s foreign minister on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO); on a day when the PM finally shook off the lethargy of his government and announced some bold steps; at least one TV channel in India was focused on the Rs 35 lacs spent on the renovation of toilets at the Planning Commission! Surprisingly, this subject was not branded “toiletgate” or some such idiotic thing as has become standard practice in media these days.

A full 20 minutes or so of prime time was dedicated to this subject. A full panel comprising 4 or 6 (I forget how many) “eminent” panelists were called in to debate this subject of supposedly vital national importance. The anchor no doubt was in full flush; using his facial expressions to add drama to the anyways-dramatic discussion that was going on!

Consider this. One panelist said that within a few square kms of the Planning Commission’s office were huge residences “occupied” by ministers. Each plot was worth hundreds of crores of rupees. I didn’t quite understand why this man was going on and on in this direction when the topic itself was so interesting and of such extreme importance. Then I figured. He was probably referring to the plush toilets that already existed in the bungalows of Lutyen’s Delhi, his suggestion perhaps being that Montek should go to his own house if he felt nature’s urge rather than splurge the “tax payer’s” money!

Another lady (a former or current bureaucrat) went on to explain the feudal system of India and how ordinary Indians wet the toilets (true indeed!) and hence the other Indians (the empowered class as it were) couldn’t possibly use those toilets. In other words, they needed their own toilets! I couldn’t quite understand if she was OK with the expense incurred or found it too elitist. I think she was confused, unclear and unable to decide – like much of the bureaucracy these days!

Then there was Mohandas Pai who started off really well by saying what the right thing was. That Rs 35 lacs is such a small sum of money that it doesn’t warrant a discussion on prime time TV. That the government of India has an annual budget of some Rs 12 lac crores and hence a small spend of this order wouldn’t do anyone any harm. That there were other big ticket items that should be contained in order to rein in the fiscal deficit. Suddenly however, he felt compelled to add more value to justify his presence on national TV. Suddenly, he blamed the Planning commission for not having provided toilets to 60% of Indians after 60 years of independence. Notice how clever corporate honchos are getting with language! The brilliance in the syntax of using 60 twice for effect is unmistakable! It’s the media effect I say!

And finally the anchor was trying his level best to juice up the debate as much as he could. Using predictable puns (all toilet jokes his “newsdesk” could think up!), he added a really interesting twist to the debate by wondering if the news media’s ire on this subject was because Montek had defined the poverty line at just Rs 28 a day! I understand that news anchors don’t understand economics, but this has to be the height of demonstrated ignorance!

And of course, as is often the case, the numbers were all mixed up. Was Rs 35 lacs spent on 2 toilets (that would indeed be too lavish) or on 2 toilet blocks? Someone conveniently (and in the interest of making the show interesting I guess!) forgot the word “blocks” after the numeral 2. Now Rs 35 lacs for 2 blocks would be fine, wouldn’t it? But Vinod Mehta, the other panelist, who usually speaks a lot of sense, thought it was Rs 35 lacs for 2 toilets. He went on to narrate how he had recently refurbished 3 toilets in his house for Rs 1.5 lacs. Wow! He must be a terrific negotiator. Or maybe he is ok with wet toilets! Anyways, he was later told that it was for 2 blocks of toilets which had 20 “seats”. Unfortunately this clarification didn’t help. Vinod Mehta thought it was 2 toilets which could seat 20 people…..hahahaha. At this point, I just couldn’t take it any longer. This was a true comedy show pretending to call itself a prime time news show! I preferred switching to the other channel that was glued onto some scam that it had supposedly unearthed (it unearths one every day!) and eventually onto the “yet another” channel that preferred to discuss Ramdev’s entertainment quotient! Kirron Kher was on the show and she got so lost in pushing her party’s cause that she forgot she was on TV, not on the big screen! Couldn’t make up my mind if she was an entertainer at all or not for she pointed out strongly that she also had a mind and a soul. Guess entertainers don’t have either!

Such is the state of affairs of India’s news channels. There is a drought of intelligence out there. Prioritization of objectives worse than what the  Planning Commission manages. And political bias more obvious than the deep freeze that is seen in decision making!

The real truth is it matters little how much the Planning Commission spent on its toilets. I have visited several ministries and government offices and I am sorry but the offices are really pathetic. The toilets stink. The corridors are dark. The doors are broken, the glasses chipped. The cutlery is of awful quality. This is not how the government of the 2nd fastest growing major country should present itself to the thousands of global visitors that come visiting. It’s time we stopped counting the pennies…..and focused instead on the bigger stuff…..

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