Digital Engagement

The Television revolution of the early nineties in India and also in many parts of the developing world disengaged development discourse in favour of infotainment in the process outwitting the tenacity and reach of the print media; and all but killed radio broadcasting; but TV was self-destructive in the long term as TV succumbed to TRP ratings and sensationalism; TV was also responsible for dumbing down the import of content and left the credibility of the Fourth Estate questionable. The mad rush for TRP ratings touched the news desk too branding it into a show, a sponsored programme! While TV was user-friendly and enjoyed unprecedented flexibility it lacked depth and credibility.

Today though the TV channels are screeching propaganda mouthpieces for or against the Establishment. In the process the human development index has meant nothing for the Corporate Media sling fests.

Recent Media history nevertheless highlights the need for development discourse succinctly. In the aftermath of the Bhuj earthquake of 26th January 2001 the efficacy of radio to reach the frontiers beyond the horizon beat the TRP driven eye balls of all TV channels put together, hands down. Even to this day more than a dozen years after the Asian Tsunami there is no national news agency reporter in remote places like Nicobar or Minicoy in India.

The reach of All India Radio was one of the foundations in broadcasting programmes on Disaster Risk Reduction for it effortlessly reached the last mile through the humble simple transistor. Print media retained its credibility and depth but could not breach the literacy and language barriers. Neither could it beat the electrifying minute by minute news breaks of cable television. Breaking news - being either dumbed down or sensational – killed the credibility of TV News. By 2017 in India, people have started preferring the stale news of state broadcaster Doordarshan instead, prompting cynics to say that the relevance of the state broadcaster has come a full circle since the days former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had said “if you don’t like Doordarshan, please switch off the TV set”...

Between the print media and electronic media there emerged some space for the online digital media - called web portals which carries flexibility and depth at the convenience of the web visitor. Web portals have great flexibility but lack penetration and access. Hence the need arises for multimedia content / programming: It happened just when the internet penetration increased - wrapping the planet in a blanket of surreal socialism as new avatars and experiments in sustainable development took wings quite literally from the stake holders in the grassroots: Livelihood security for impoverished fisherfolk needed out of the box thinking: World Bank funding for training fisherfolk in alternate livelihood options in Tsunami struck landscapes of coastal Tamilnadu in India for instance gave the stake holders – Irula tribes (whose traditional vocation included hunting rats and killing snakes) - to take up fishing and crab trapping in return for mangroves conservation in notified Protected Areas like Pichavaram Mangrove Forest.

Mangroves are a proven means of eco technology… to cultivate saline resistant rice varieties, in mitigating the pummelling power of hydrometeological calamities, and in ground water retention as well as in preventing saline water incursion into the ground water table in coastal areas.

Sustainable natural resource management, replenishment of the ground water table, changing cropping patterns for climate neutral sustainable agriculture are issues that need to be disseminated to both consumers and farmers. The battle against open defecation also falls under the same area of priority engagement to change mind-sets and to educate the educated.

The Swatch Bharath Mission begs converting the mindsets of the beneficiaries, - for – they resist using indoor toilets, sustaining the age old practice of open defecation instead. Till this open defecation is completely eradicated Swatch Bharath Mission and its future avatars will remain no more than lip service … or more to the point – old wine in a new bottle.

Scientific applications for development have made the difference between and life and death for the weak n vulnerable thanks to New Media using technology for dissemination. Fishers depend on ocean state forecast for weather updates, ocean currents, hydrology reports, fish migration, fish spawning fishing holidays, coral bleaching.

Farmers on the slopes of volcanoes in Indonesia are alerted of imminent volcanic eruptions through forecasting. Agricultural scientists have developed new strains of rice varieties that are resistant to saline water ingress triggered by coastal incursion and other hydrometeorological disasters.

Anthropologists have documented indigenous peoples’ traditional wisdom in mitigating disaster risk by adopting alternate sources of nutrition in disaster struck landscapes.

Wildlife scientists have deployed cameras and studied not just natural history and gene pool of endangered species like tigers; but they have tagged endangered species like albatrosses and marine turtles to study their migration patterns; and they have understood their natural history behaviour to recommend conservation best practices and sustainable win – win solutions to mitigate human wildlife conflict.

Awareness on water and sanitation as well as menstrual hygiene, family planning and micro finance could also be safely attributed to the power of propaganda through community radio.

All the same the political determination that accompanies the present implementation is praise-worthy and needs the backing of the intelligentsia, public finance and corporates.

Ofcourse fake news and divisive propaganda will be there as long as people prefer to be blind selectively to the half-truths that suit their best interests. Fake news is the bane of the social media reign.

The foot soldiers of such benchmark development indices – reporters, activists, scientists, anthropologists, NGOs and think tanks underscore the need for sustained engagement even if multimedia interventions are expensive … consider the expenditure involved in travel, photo documentation, bandwidth, interviews, research, documentation, translation, lobbying etc. The bricks to click economy can be real even in a surreal world of socialism and sustainability powered by the internet!

These are the foot soldiers, who can change mind-sets – for revolutionising positive change for sustainable development needs more than policy support. Preaching to the unconverted, uninitiated or educating the educated becomes the responsibility of the Media then.

Yet, we have miles to go before we sleep. Water, food and livelihood security, water and sanitation for all, sustainable solid waste management, inclusive sustainable growth for the Have-nots like indigenous people, differently abled, sustainable agriculture, clean energy mechanisms, emission reduction targets and climate change adaptation needs to permeate the clichéd grassroots level. Hunger and poverty eradication, eradication of debilitating diseases, sustainable consumption, smart city governance, are issues that need sustained media engagement to translate into reality in the field; … these are not just clichéd Sustainable Development Goals meant to be entrusted to the United Nations. These are Goals which if we put to practice, - we, - and our future generations will benefit. Activism can be propelled by the engines of intellectual stewardship of the Fourth Estate indeed.

These issues largely escape the attention of mainstream media, obsessed as they are with political reporting, or armchair journalists seeking political patronage in capital cities. To institutionalise media’s role as a game changer it needs public funding - necessitating open source dissemination, it has to be free of the copyright regime and with institutional legal backing for effective grassroots level syndication.

Clearly the reach and need for multimedia advocacy as illustrated by the success story of the Irulas in and around Cuddalore / Pichavaram in Tamilnadu reiterates the need for further development and evolution of multimedia interventions and discourse. This calls for thorough legal and institutional backing; not the least of which is financial support.

While print media can inspire change the electronic media can show and pave the way for change in mind-sets. It is a prudent combination of the two that can effect change in the field… not just in India, but this is applicable to Asia, Africa, South America and subjects like sustainable consumption was never more relevant in the Occident than it is today. Be it sustainable water consumption, ground water replenishment, change in cropping patterns, soil conservation, sustainable fisheries, equitable investments, fair trade, fair criminal jurisprudence, labour rights, or free and fair elections, the significance of the Media cannot be reiterated any more succinctly.

Digital India, Digital payments, Digital platforms, are all aimed at inclusive development because these new media transcend the literacy and language barriers besides being accessible to differently abled people.

But without changing mind-sets through effective dissemination, the efforts will be futile as the hiccups in the Swatch Bharath Mission for universal sanitation and End to Open Defecation clearly exposes in India. Digital Media can play a very effective role in initiating change. We are excited at the prospect of this cusp of change.

Digital Discourse Foundation is one such ambitious attempt to usher in change through intellectual engagement with the combined power of the pen camera lens and digital media.