July 27, 2014

AB(Lo)P... And the award goes to...

West Bengal’s politics offers a strange predicament these days. The opposition space is so empty, even the biggest media company in the state is competing for it. The CPI(M) has collapsed. The Congress is a rump, limited to 1.5 districts. The BJP is overhyping its 17 per cent vote share in the recent Lok Sabha election, which was an improved performance but way behind the Trinamool Congress’ 40 per cent.

Into this vacuum has stepped the Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP) Group, which publishes the Bengali-language newspaper it is named for as well as The Telegraph (English language) and runs news television channels. A news media organisation is many things. It is a commercial entity, which needs to make enough money to sustain itself. It is also a guardian of public interest, a promoter of ideas and policies it believes in, and a monitor of the government. These are high-minded tasks. Sometimes, in our trivia-driven, TRP-chasing, prime-time folk theatre days, they are conveniently forgotten. Sometimes, even supposedly serious newspapers and media editors become nit-picking gadabouts.

When this happens, criticism of a government does not follow reason – it simply seeks a reason. As such, the ABP Group is running a campaign against the West Bengal government for instituting and giving away awards to eminent citizens and achievers of the state, in various fields. The fields the West Bengal government recognises achievers in range from medicine to teaching, from culture to sport (including from non-glamorous sports). Even media-persons are applauded for a distinguished career.

Other states, as well as the Central government, routinely give similar awards. It is considered one of the mandates of a government, but it is only in West Bengal that the largest media house treats it as a sin. It excoriates the chief minister, accusing her of wasting money and neglecting those in poverty.

Is this an “either-or” situation? Should a government focus on poverty uplift and social development to the exclusion of recognising cultural benchmarks and achievers who are public models? If it should, can one extend this logic to newspapers and media houses.

Should they be asked to reduce (or nullify) their budget for social-butterfly stories, page 3 parties and film-industry gossip and pay for more journalists to cover the problems of rural Bengal? Should be asked to stop sending journalists on expensive trips to England to cover a cricket series and send the same reporters by train to Birbhum, to pluck an example, to cover a district sports tournament?

ABP gives a whole host of awards itself. Here’s an incomplete list:

• Ananda Puruskar, Suresh Chandra Majumdar Award and Prafulla Sarkar Award – for literature.

• Sera Bangali – for Bengali achievers in music, films, art, politics, science, literature.

• The Telegraph School Awards for Excellence

• Best City Awards 2014 – organised by ABP News

• Sananda Tilottama – a model hunt for fresh faces

• Snowcem-Anandabazar Sharad Arghya – Durga Puja Awards

• ABP Ananda Puja Samman – Durga Puja Awards

Telegraph Food Guide Awards – honouring the best eateries in Kolkata

• Unish Kuri Fresh Face – another model hunt for fresh faces

• ABP Majha Sanman Puruskar – for outstanding Maharashtrians

• ABP News National Education Awards

• Ebela Ami Amar Moto Samman Award – for social work

Until 2013, Businessworld magazine was owned by the ABP Group. It gave away the Businessworld Best Bank Awards and the Businessworld Young Entrepreneur Awards.

Could the money used for these awards – as prize money as to organise gala award functions – not have been spent on poverty alleviation, helping the downtrodden, putting in place a charity or CSR framework, or donated to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund or the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund?

Is there a hypocrisy and a contradiction here? Or do the ABP Group and its editors believe of themselves, to borrow Boy George’s lyrics: “I’m a man without conviction / I’m a man who doesn't know / How to sell a contradiction / You come and go / You come and go...”

The media has a karma. It is not to be chameleonic.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

July 14, 2014

The TVfication of Parliament?

Something new has arrived in the Lok Sabha. Two large screens allow members to see and hear other speakers during a debate in the House. No longer do MPs have to turn their heads to watch a speaker behind them or crane their necks to catch a glimpse of someone or something. Quite like cricketers watching a re-play on the giant screen in a stadium, MPs can now see the action from a better angle.

To me this completes the audio-visual medium’s capture of politics – or should it be the other way round? I’m being facetious. In fact I’ve written to the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha to introduce similar screens in the Upper House as well. They will prove to be useful and convenient.

The screens and their need as well as impact have been with me for the past two days. I’ve been preparing to speak in the debate on the Railway Budget. My 30 minutes will come on Tuesday, July 15. (Update as on Sunday, July 20: The discussion on the Railway Budget was not taken up in the Rajya Sabha last week. Now, hope to speak on July 22.) Later in the week, a colleague will speak on the General Budget. He too must be working hard, poring over papers, perusing the finer details to find ideas and hidden gems and pitfalls and discussion points. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing since Friday. As a result, I’ve studiously avoided all television debates on the two Budgets.

My challenge – and the challenge of so many other MPs – will be to say something new and different, innovative and insightful, and something that has not already been said. After all, from a society that was famously slow to react, we have become a polity that is hyper-reactive.

Consider what I mean.Within minutes of the Budget, the first reactions and sound bites came. Within an hour, social media was abuzz with official responses on Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, Mamata Banerjee was among the first to put her thoughts on Facebook. Within two or three hours, after we discussed the Budget speech internally - as was the case with other parties no doubt – there came longer pieces-to-camera and crisper, more meaningful sound bites that articulated considered party positions.

By the evening, there were the prime time, pre-prime time and post-prime time shows. Some of these were replicated the following day, before the media cavalcade moved on to another subject, another controversy, another piece of “breaking news”. By then so much had been said on the Rail Budget and General Budget. By then, if you actually bothered reading the voluminous papers of the Budget, nothing had been said on the Budget.

The parliamentary debate is almost like a delayed climax. It is where thought will go into the Budget discussion. In our media-driven times, it is also a bit of an afterthought.

Or am I being too cynical?

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

July 12, 2014

Crib Deaths: From medicine to society and sociology

News about the deaths of seven new-borns in a hospital in Malda, north Bengal, left me depressed. I phoned an old friend, Dr Tridib Banerjee, a renowned Kolkata paediatrician and chairman of the West Bengal Task Force on Crib Deaths. These were not the first crib deaths in recent months. Why was this happening? Couldn’t we, with all the technology at our command, save those precious little lives?

I was hoping Tridib, with his experience of decades, would be able to enlighten me about this recurring phenomenon. Talking to him proved quite educative, as he suggested ways to bring down the infant mortality rate.

Malda has made it to the news often for crib deaths. Each death is a tragedy and brings an irredeemable sadness to the family in which it occurs and for the parents who have lost their child. Yet, as Tridib told me, it is not as if such deaths are “everyday phenomena”. “Besides they take an enormous emotional toll on the doctors,” he said, “and place the hospital under stress. Failure to save a life is never easy to cope with.”

It needs to be noted that even on a “normal” day, the infant mortality is about three to four in tertiary hospitals such as the one at Malda, where critically ill new-borns are brought in. On some days, there is a clustering of seven babies gone in a single hospital on a single day. This makes the picture seem ominous.

The Malda hospital is a referral centre. It has what is called an SNCU or Sick New-born Care Unit, which is where extreme and critical neonatal cases are sent. The babies who arrive at this Malda facility are already very ill, critically ill. Saving them becomes that much more difficult. Take the seven crib deaths that occurred the other day; six of the children came from far-flung areas of the district. Already very sick – too ill for a local doctor to help – they had to bear an arduous and long journey to the city. This weakened them further, leaving them at greater risk of death due to asphyxia or infection.

Why were these babies brought in at a terminal stage? Were they born worse off, and weaker, than most other babies who survived and didn’t need to be taken to an SNCU in the first place? It was a simple, even na├»ve question, but Tridib was patient.

“Frankly,” he said, “there we move from medicine to society and sociology. Most of these deaths can in a sense be blamed on the fact that very young women, with immature bodies and in poor health conditions themselves, give birth to underweight and undernourished babies. If the practice of marrying off girls at a very young age, in their teens, could be put to an end, it would be a big help.”

Could the Kanyashree scheme, launched by the West Bengal Government and aimed at incentivising girl education and delaying marriage, achieve this? I live in optimism.

That is, however, a long-term solution. In the short run, health facilities and capacities have to be boosted. Till 2011, when the Trinamool came to office, West Bengal had six such SNCUs. Today, it has 40. By the end of financial year 2014-15, it should have 50. The idea is to spread the SNCUs across the state, so that, for instance, the babies who needed to be taken to Malda could have gone to a facility much closer and cut travel time.

Will this enhancement provide succour to those seven bereaved families? No.I do hope and pray, however, that it will help other parents, those whose little ones need critical care.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress