#India – Stifling Dissent in the name of Public Interest #WTF

Date: 1 June 2013
Subject: Whose public interest? | Jayati Ghosh in Frontline

Whose public interest?

The government of India has taken the stifling of dissent in the name of public interest to great lengths without encountering any resistance.
IN the United States, the Barack Obama administration is facing a lot of heat in a scandal that his Republican opponents say is “as big as Watergate”. This is not so, but clearly the issue has been taken seriously enough by the U.S. government to cause some heads to roll almost immediately.

So what exactly happened? In 2010, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling lifted government limits on independent political donations by corporations and labour unions in federal elections. This enabled a surge of political spending, which, as it happened, went mostly to conservative groups as they tended to be better supported by big business.

The task of one department of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS, the tax administration agency of the U.S. government) was to determine whether applicants observed the political activity limits and deserved tax-exempt status. It is alleged that between 2010 and 2012, this agency subjected conservative groups to special scrutiny, especially those associated with the right-wing “Tea Party” movement that wants lower taxes, smaller government and generally opposes Obama.

There is no evidence that tax-free status was actually denied to any of the organisations in question. Nor was there any question of otherwise inhibiting their functioning by placing restrictions on their activities. What this adverse targeting essentially did was prolong the period of time involved in reviewing the application for tax-free status and therefore delay the eventual recognition. (Incidentally, since such recognition gets granted with retrospective effect, the financial implications are also not so severe.)

Even in this relatively minor negative light on those with differing political opinions, the resulting public outcry has been loud and vociferous, and the response of Democrats and the administration has been immediate penitence. The IRS expressed regret, the criteria for scrutinising applications were immediately changed to make them more “neutral”, Obama announced how angry he was and promptly fired the head of the IRS, Steven Miller, while the person in charge of the offending department announced his early retirement.

These measures have failed to quell the anger and outrage. A Tea Party group based in California has sued the IRS, in the first of what may be several lawsuits against the agency’s supposed targeting of opposition elements. Some argue that by targeting it the IRS has brought the Tea Party back from the dead—the “intimidation” by the state has become a rallying cry for several public protests led by conservatives. The Obama administration continues to be on the back foot on this despite its relatively quick measures to undo the damage.

Indian situation Contrast this with what is happening in India at the moment. The Central government has blatantly used the recently amended Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act and other instruments available to it not only to target political opponents but, more worryingly, to target and suppress any forms of democratic dissent, especially those trying to bring out the voices of the people against the excesses of corporate power. And it is doing so with little opposition and almost no public outrage.

The most recent and egregious example of this relates to the INSAF Trust, a coalition of more than 700 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) across India mostly engaged in grass-roots activities and people’s struggles. According to its website, INSAF was formed soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid primarily to promote and defend the interests of the people, and is devoted to resisting corporate-centred globalisation, combating communalism and defending democracy.

The organisations that are part of INSAF generally see themselves as facilitators of struggles oriented towards ensuring the human rights of citizens in India, not instigators of such actions.

On April 30, the Home Ministry issued an order summarily freezing the bank accounts of INSAF and suspending its official clearance to receive foreign funds. The terse order simply states that “acceptance of the foreign contribution by the said association is likely to prejudicially affect the public interest”.

That such a charge can be levelled arbitrarily against an association of organisations devoted to defending the democratic rights of deprived groups in particular, and strengthening the secular fabric of the polity and society, is really of grave concern. But the more appalling thing may be that such a draconian measure on the basis of this laconic and unsubstantiated charge is now completely legal under the revised Act that regulates foreign contributions in India.

The rules of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, came into force on May 1, 2011 (ironically, on May Day, the day that is supposed to celebrate workers’ struggles). Rule 3 states that the Central government “may specify any organisation as organisation of political nature on one or more of the following grounds:

(i) organisation having avowed political objectives in its Memorandum of Association or bylaws;

(ii) any trade union whose objectives include activities for promoting political goals;

(iii) any voluntary action group with objectives of a political nature or which participates in political activities;

(iv) front or mass organisations like students’ unions, workers’ unions, youth forums and women’s wing of a political party;

(v) organisation of farmers, workers, students, youth based on caste, community, religion, language or otherwise, which is not directly aligned to any political party, but whose objectives, as stated in the Memorandum of Association or activities gathered through other material evidence, include steps towards advancement of political interests of such groups;

(vi) any organisation, by whatever name called, which habitually engages itself in or employs common methods of political action like ‘bandh’ or ‘hartal’, ‘rasta roko’, ‘rail roko’ or jail bharo’ in support of public causes.”

There are several aspects of this rule that should be of great concern to every citizen. First, it is up to the government to decide which organisations fit this bill. Second, it contains an extraordinarily and even dangerously wide-ranging definition of undesirable political activity by an NGO. According to this new FCRA, any organisation that seeks to defend the interests of workers and peasants in any situation can be proscribed for being “political” even if it is not aligned with any political party. Third, even non-violent means of protest such as strikes and jail bharo (which were the lifeblood of the national movement, for example) are not to be tolerated.

Sweeping coverage This sweeping coverage effectively prevents most forms of democratic dissent and opposition from being expressed. It allows the government of the day to pick on any group it dislikes for whatever reason and just stop it from functioning. It stifles dissent generally, of course, but can also muzzle in particular those who attempt to raise their voices on behalf of the marginalised in society and those who are adversely affected by economic policies and processes that do not recognise their basic rights as citizens. This is especially the case because such people typically do not have access to the increasingly corporatised media or any other ways of working through the system.

In classic Orwellian doublespeak, therefore, such an order can really serve as a means of destroying those who are genuinely working in the public interest. It is worrying that this law was passed with so little discussion and open debate and so little apparent concern about how it could be misused by a government. Maybe one of the reasons that INSAF is unpopular with the government of the day is that it actually brought a case against this law on the grounds that it denies the rights of Indian citizens—a matter that is pending in the Supreme Court.

In any case, this issue is far too important to be ignored, as INSAF is just the current victim and there may be others next in the firing line. It portends a really disastrous and undemocratic trend towards authoritarianism, which is in any case a system that large capital is generally far more comfortable with. There have already been some straws in the wind in this direction. The current government’s intolerance towards anyone who openly disagrees with its own policies and narrow interpretation of national interest (particularly when such arguments conflict with the interests of national and international—indeed, “foreign”—capital) was evident in its handling of the protesters against the Kudankulam nuclear plant and the blatant citing of “the foreign hand” even when the protests were dominantly of the locally affected population. But now the net is being cast even wider, and apparently even without any particular need to cite either evidence or acceptable reasons for such aggressive state action.

So this treatment of INSAF may even be a test case—if the government in India gets away with this blatant abuse of power and undemocratic use of legislation to stifle dissenting voices, it may get further emboldened to adopt even more openly dictatorial methods. It is in our collective interest to assert the true significance of “the public interest” and show that it cannot be appropriated for its own purposes by whatever government is in power.


The NDTV case against Nielsen and Kantar has raised questions about TV ratings- The “Raddi Business”

Are newspaper sales and readership measurements any less questionable?

Shivendra Gupta / Mumbai Aug 06, 2012,  IST, BT

A 5 a m cup of tea at Supela Chowk on National Highway 6 in the steel city of Bhilai is an unlikely place to understand the economics of the newspaper business. But over tea, newspaper vendors and agents talk of the unspoken part of the business. Two leading newspaper publishers in Chhattisgarh, they claim, buy about 50,000 copies of each other’s newspapers every morning. The idea is to prevent the competitor’s product from reaching the reader. Ex-employees, with some pride, tell you war stories of how the two publishers have dedicated staff and godowns from where they manage this operation. They add quirky tales of how at one stage the rate of “raddi”, or old newspapers, was higher in Nagpur, 275 km from Raipur, capital of Chhattisgarh, and they hired trucks to ship the “raddi” to Nagpur to get better value.

Similar stories are heard in Bhopal, where two publishers have been engaged in tough competition. Action like this has unintended consequences. The Audit Bureau of Circulation, or ABC, certifies the circulation numbers of publishers, and these numbers get boosted as a result of such competitor action! In turn, advertisers rely on ABC certificates to know which newspaper sells how many copies. So while buying a rival’s copy is intended to hurt him, it unwittingly ends up also helping the rival through higher certified circulation numbers. Inevitably, there are also multiple cases of newspaper companies across the country doing voluntary “raddi” of their own newspaper in order to get higher certified circulation.

In her article “The trouble with English Papers” (Business Standard, February 28), Vanita Kohli-Khandekar pointed out that while the circulation of English newspapers has grown 70 per cent in the last six years, readership as put out by the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) has hardly grown by two per cent. The “raddi” business is one of the key reasons for this trend. Copies that get printed are not reaching readers, and in fact are not intended to reach any reader.

An important reason is the low price at which newspapers are sold. Compared to a cost of about Rs 15, newspapers in India are priced mostly between Rs 2 and Rs 4. For ABC certification, newspaper companies have to show recovery of at least the “raddi” value (Rs 1 to Rs 1.50 per copy). The difference between the cover price and “raddi” value can be paid by publishers to agents as commission, and used for other incentives. The low cover price creates plenty of room for misuse.

It gets worse, because most newspaper companies promote special schemes like one- to two-year subscriptions at rock-bottom prices, and combo plans for multiple publications of the same group at attractive prices. This not only makes the product very cheap for readers but also makes copies vulnerable for further misuse in the hands of vendors. For such copies, the ABC certification rules are even easier. Newspaper companies have to recover just 10 per cent of the cover price of the newspaper to get certification, which is typically less than half the “raddi” value.

Sample this: The manager of a housing society with 20 flats in Mumbai’s Vile Parle got an unbelievable offer. The newspaper agent wanted the society, on behalf of its members, to subscribe to the two-year subscription scheme of two popular city newspapers by paying about Rs 8,000. The publishers were running a two-year, Rs 199 subscription offer. In return, the agent, instead of supplying the newspapers every day, promised to give the society Rs 30,000 back after six months. To the manager it sounded like a Ponzi scheme, but he discovered that the two newspapers were willing to give a product with a cover price of more than Rs 70,000 over two years, for as little as Rs 8,000. The agent was merely using the society address to get 20 copies of each of the publications at the low subscription price, which he would then sell to his regular customers at the printed cover price. From this arbitrage, he was ready to share half his spoils with the society. ABC sometimes catches on to some schemes, and it is not infrequent that publishers’ circulation claims are rejected.

As it happens, these subscription copies would not qualify for ABC certification, so what was their purpose? This is where the readership survey comes in. The Indian Readership Survey, or IRS, is used to determine readership and consumption patterns for a lot of durable goods by households across India. The IRS numbers, now published every quarter, are the basis on which advertisers and ad agencies decide how to allocate some Rs 15,000 crore of advertising money among various publications. With a sample size of more than 250,000, collected through four quarterly cycles, the IRS is one of the most comprehensive efforts at collecting data.

But if you want to understand how IRS functions on the ground, you don’t need to meet any newspaper company CEO, or for that matter any Media Research Users Council (MRUC) office-bearer. The best person to go to is Sandeep (name changed), who lives near Laxmi Nagar in East Delhi. It is difficult to believe what Sandeep promises. He claims he can “fix” any newspaper’s readership for as little as Rs 5 lakh for each city. He claims that he and his masters do this for a living and boast of leading publications as their clients.

The method is simple. Just fix the sample at the data collection stage. This sample forms the basis of the IRS survey. Sandeep claims to have field staff in his pocket; through this network of people responsible for data collection, he can fix the sample not only to improve the readership of a particular newspaper but also to reduce the readership of a rival newspaper. He offers the personal contact details of senior managers at big publications who are involved.

It is not that MRUC and the industry, including advertisers and agencies, have not been warned of such misuse. Recently, MRUC wrote to its members asking them to bring to MRUC any such instance that comes to their knowledge. The letter warned that MRUC would take police action against guilty agents and field staff.

Earlier, a rival readership survey (National Readership Survey, or NRS) faced similar charges of quirky and unrealistic numbers, and court cases were filed. Eventually, NRS was discontinued as a separate entity. With IRS now the sole survivor, it is in the same position as the sole TV viewership survey — a monopoly means the industry has nowhere else to look for reliable numbers.

The trouble with newspaper companies, as Vanita Kohli-Khandekar pointed out in her article, is that they have run out of good ideas to increase genuine circulation and readership. The pressure to grow has led the industry to adopt practices that are both unethical and in the long run unsustainable. Executives in some publications now spend most of their time managing such distorted schemes.

It is not that all practices in the television industry are above board, so newspapers can hardly follow the lead of TV companies. But a newspaper industry that is in decline globally cannot hope to show growth in India by resorting to questionable practices that distort crucial industry matrices — or there will be fresh law suits filed


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