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The Hindu Editorial Analysis | PDF Download

Date: 11 September 2019

Factoring in safety

 Major industrial accidents point to the need for a stronger worker safety law

  • India’s record in promoting occupational and industrial safety remains weak even with years of robust economic growth. Making work environments safer is a low priority, although the productivity benefits of such investments have always been clear. The consequences are frequently seen in the form of a large number of fatalities and injuries, but in a market that has a steady supply of labour, policymakers tend to ignore the wider impact of such losses. It will be no surprise, therefore, if the deaths of four people, including a senior officer, in a fire at the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation gas facility in Navi Mumbai, or the tragedy that killed nearly two dozen people at a firecracker factory in Batala, Punjab are quickly forgotten. Such incidents make it imperative that the Central government abandon its reductionist approach to the challenge, and engage in serious reform. There is not much evidence, however, of progressive moves. The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019, introduced in the Lok Sabha in July to combine 13 existing laws relating to mines, factories, dock workers, building and construction, transport workers, inter-State migrant labour and so on, pays little attention to the sector-specific requirements of workers. One of its major shortcomings is that formation of safety committees and appointment of safety officers, the latter in the case of establishments with 500 workers, is left to the discretion of State governments. Evidently, the narrow stipulation on safety officers confines it to a small fraction of industries. On the other hand, the Factories Act currently mandates appointment of a bipartite committee in units that employ hazardous processes or substances, with exemptions being the exception. This provision clearly requires retention in the new Code.
  • A safe work environment is a basic right, and India’s recent decades of high growth should have ushered in a framework of guarantees. Unfortunately, successive governments have not felt it necessary to ratify many fundamental conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) covering organized and unorganised sector workers’ safety, including the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981.
  • Those ILO instruments cover several areas of activity that the NDA government’s occupational safety Code now seeks to amalgamate, but without the systemic reform that is necessary to empower workers. It is essential, therefore, that the new Code go back to the drawing board for careful scrutiny by experienced parliamentarians, aided by fresh inputs from employees, employers and experts. Industries that use hazardous processes and chemicals deserve particular attention, and the Code must have clear definitions, specifying limits of exposure for workers. Compromising on safety can lead to extreme consequences that go beyond factories, and leave something that is etched in the nation’s memory as in the case of the Bhopal gas disaster.
  • On the last morning of October 1984, Rajiv Gandhi was campaigning in West Bengal when a police jeep intercepted his Mercedes to deliver the message: “There’s been an accident in the house. Return immediately to Delhi.” His mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had been shot at by her Sikh bodyguards in her garden, on the way to a TV interview. As he waited for a helicopter to take him to Calcutta, the Congress General Secretary turned on his transistor radio to get the latest. He tuned in, not to All India Radio but the BBC. The news was not good but that is not the point.
  • Even in pre-reforms India, when broadcast media was a government monopoly and mouthpiece, a would-be Prime Minister’s first resort of trust was “Auntie”, not mummy’s Akashvani.
  • Thirty-five years on, with 400 private TV news channels, 1,000 newspapers, and 3,000 radio stations, it is a telling commentary on the credibility of the Indian news media ecosystem — in fact, on the theology of “competition” in a freemarket economy — that nearly every piece of information which contests the establishment narrative that all is well in Kashmir, has come from a non-Indian source.

Stark contrast in coverage

  • Here’s a baker’s dozen since the “lockdown” began: First video of protests, firing: BBC, ‘Al Jazeera’, Reuters; Number of arrested: AFP, AP, Time, The New York Times; Minors among those detained: The Washington Post; Detenus flown out of overcrowded jails: AFP; First pellet injury death: ‘Huffington Post’; Soura, epicentre of resistance: Reuters; First bullet injury death: France 24; Beatings, torture: BBC, The Independent; Harassment, sexual abuse of women: Deutsche Welle; Civilians forced to chant ‘Vande Mataram’: Foreign Policy; Doctor detained for speaking of shortage of medicines: BBC; Hospitals turning into ‘graveyards’: The Wall Street Journal; Emerging medical emergency: The Lancet editorial.
  • With most “national media” plunging into the patriotic duty of drumming up support for the “constitutionally contentious” move — privileging the interests of a rampaging State over that of the caged citizen — the contrast provided by global outlets unmasking the suppression of human, civil and fundamental rights of Kashmiris, has been so stark that one website was constrained to ask: “Are foreign and Indian media reporting on the same place?” A mainland journalist on assignment says she has encountered so much hatred for the media’s part in painting a monochromatic picture, that she has had to apologise on behalf of her fraternity multiple times.

Ground zero in Kashmir

  • Therein lies the great paradox. For a whole month in the 21st century, Kashmiri journalists have worked in the 20th. They have not been able to freely use the phone and the Internet, write or transmit stories, print or distribute newspapers. They have been denied curfew passes, harassed at security checkpoints, made to delete photos and videos. They have had to beg travellers flying out of Srinagar to carry pen drives and printouts of mobile screenshots. Of the Valley’s 174 dailies, fewer than 10 are being published; their e-papers are frozen in time, on August 5. One editor going abroad for training was stopped inside an airport after he had picked up his boarding passes.
  • Yet, with foreign correspondents being denied permits to go to Kashmir, American, Arabic, British, French and German media organisations have relied entirely on homegrown journalists for their stand-out coverage, which begs the question as to why Indian mainstream media (MSM) vehicles have not been able to find the space or the resources for them. Or, why they have felt duty-bound to “broadcast sunshine stories that life is back to normal and getting better every day”, in the words of a British academic. Either the Indian media is so true to its craft, or so craven, that not a single report has had to be disputed. For the first time since 2014, the parrot cannot hear the cries of the majority, Muslim in this case.
  • Near capitulation
  • It is not as if all the Indian media has buried the story: there have been tiny isles of valiance in an ocean of conformity. Just that, after the initial flurry, the giants are coasting in the routine and the official, as per the sage advice: “Some news is best not reported”. Pockets of English print and digital journalism still offer some exceptions but large swathes of language media have served unvarnished, Islamophobic propaganda sans scrutiny. “Whatever [the] Indian media is reporting, the opposite is true,” says one Kashmiri journalist. “Editors give directions to field reporters on the kind of soundbites they want from the ground to fit into their studio scripts. People oblige but viewers do not see the security men behind the camera.”
  • A charitable explanation for the near-wholesale capitulation — the “underhand censorship” as one media watcher called it — is that, in the epoch of hyper-nationalism, Indian journalism is reverting to its historical and dutiful role of “nation-building”. Newspapers at the time of Independence, TV now. So, while the “western” media can only see anger, abuse, chaos, trouble and violence in the kaleidoscope, ‘swadeshi’ media can only see peace, calm, order, happiness and acceptance. In the battle between hard reality and ‘sarkari’ spin, between democracy and ‘desh bhakti’, loyal owners, editors, anchors and other toadies know which perception has greater purchase in the #NewIndia market.
  • The peak of lows
  • In truth, however, Kashmir marks the apogee in a long orbit of evisceration of the Indian media, an ongoing project that has overturned the profession’s credo to “comfort the afflicted”. Successive low benchmarks — JNU, cow lynchings, love ‘jihad’, Sabarimala, triple ‘talaq’, Rohit Vemula, demonetization, Pulwama, surgical strikes — have taught the watchdogs to assume a supine pose. The pliancy in Kashmir, therefore, is a Pavlovian response. As The Economist commented: “The Press’s current sycophancy rises from a hinterland of intimidation, trimming and currying favour dating back to Narendra Modi’s rise in power in 2014.”
  • The strategem to subjugate the Kashmiri voice is, of course, a work in progress but it gained steam when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) joined hands with the Peoples Democratic Party in 2016. Standard intimidatory tactics with plausible deniability built into them — labelling newspapers as “anti-national”; denying government advertisements; arresting and interrogating editors — served to send the signal to the rest of the tribe. Battered by revenue shortfall, salary cuts and job losses, most fell in line. An artfully created class divide among journalists, between local and national, Pandit and Muslim, Indian and foreign, has polarized positions, and removed empathy from the equation.
  • Despite Brexit and Hong Kong, Kashmir has sparked a scramble among international news media houses, each trying to scoop the other. As the communications blackout took hold, BBC Radio thumbed its nose at Delhi by increasing the duration of its Hindi and Urdu bulletins with the teasing tagline: “Neither Internet shutdowns nor power cuts can stop independent news”. Meanwhile, the Indian MSM was resting its oars, having done its bit in the sacred task of manufacturing consent on the mainland. With the hashtag #KashmirWithModi trending on social media even without Kashmir being connected to the grid, Umberto Eco’s warning of the “invasion of the idiots” has come good.
  • The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) recently mandated captioning for TV programming in order to make it accessible to the Deaf or Hard of Hearing population. The decision comes nearly four decades after the United States first implemented captioning for the same purpose. India’s phase-wise implementation plan requires all 800 plus channels to start this on at least one programme a week, beginning August 15, 2019, Independence Day. By 2020, 10% of all programming must have captions; the figure is to grow by 10% every year, covering up to 50% of all programming by 2025.

The wellspring

  • The policy impetus for this decision is rooted in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 which made “sub-titles” on TV a right. The major challenge for the Ministry now is to ensure compliance by all channels, state and private, as set in the time table.
  • Captioning on TV for the aurally-challenged is not new. Many countries have followed the U.S.’s lead. Still, India’s foray into TV captioning is significant for two reasons. It is one of the first major countries in the Global South to embrace captioning for media access, Brazil being the other one. But India is the first country where the importance of captioning, or Same Language Subtitling (SLS) has been established for mass reading literacy.
  • Key goals
  • At a time when countries are searching for scalable and evidence-based solutions to achieve their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SLS in India, if implemented as mandated, is poised to make a massive contribution to SDG-4 on quality education; this is because quality education, foundationally, depends on good reading skills.
  • India has a billion TV viewers. The average Indian watches TV for 3 hours and 46 minutes every day, according to the latest FICCI–EY Media & Entertainment report (2019). Film (24%) and general entertainment (53%) are the dominant genres. All of this content is now required to have SLS, in all languages.
  • Scientific evidence suggests that SLS on TV would serve three goals: daily and automatic reading literacy practice for one billion viewers, including 500 million weak-readers who would benefit the most; Indian language improvement for one billion viewers, and, finally, media access for 65 million aurally challenged people.
  • All English channels in India have been implementing SLS for film and general entertainment content for over a decade. A fascinating study that compared ‘dubbing’ with ‘subtitling’ countries of English content on TV found that the population in the latter group has better English language proficiency. English channels in India added SLS on their own to help the Indian ear grasp unfamiliar English accents, causing a rise in viewership. Importantly, the English SLS experience establishes that it is not difficult for the entertainment industry to implement SLS system-wide, if it so desires.
  • Studies in India are at the global forefront of advancing SLS for reading literacy, having proven in several TV pilots that: SLS causes automatic and inescapable reading engagement even among very weak readers who can barely decode a few letters; regular exposure to SLS leads to measurable reading skill improvement, and improved reading skills result in much higher rates of newspaper and other forms of reading. With frequent exposure to SLS over three to five years on content that people watch in any case, most weak readers can become functional and even good readers.
  • Inspired by the Indian experience, there is an active campaign in the United Kingdom to TurnOn-The-Subtitles (TOTS) by default in children’s programming. Ironically, while India plans to follow in the footsteps of the U.S. and the U.K. to get started on captioning for media access, the U.K. is drawing on SLS work in India for reading literacy. India is in a unique position to scale up SLS on TV for both goals: media access and reading literacy.
  • The cost of SLS is negligible for new content when incorporated in the production process itself. To institutionalise SLS on TV, broadcast policy could, therefore, simply mandate it for all new content produced and telecast after a set date.
  • For more than a decade, the Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) have found that, nationally, half the rural children in standard 5 cannot read standard 2-level text. Despite all the system-level inputs on quality education, this outcome measure has stubbornly resisted any noteworthy improvement. If India is to achieve its commitment to SDG 4 on quality education, we need solutions, backed by evidence, and the collective power of the government, civil society, academia and the industry to implement them.

Other platforms

  • The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has taken the most important step toward mainstreaming TV captioning. Now, together with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, policy needs to mandate SLS on all digital Over-The-Top (OTT) platforms. Although translation subtitling is commonplace on OTT platforms and they offer SLS in English, none of them has SLS in the Indian languages, such as Hindi subtitles for Hindi content and so on. This is simply because the policy does not yet require SLS on OTT.
  • Civil society has shown how SLS can be implemented cost-effectively. Academia has provided strong evidence that SLS works remarkably well to achieve the multiple goals of media access, reading literacy and language learning. The entertainment industry must play its part by turning on SLS for audio-visual content in all Indian languages. SLS is a right. Let us do the right thing.