Failing the reader

The late David Halberstam said in one of his prolific commentaries on journalism that all the reporters of all the newspapers working all the time cannot cover all the events that are happening.

Most newspapers do not put all their reporters on all the events of the day. Some of them may be deployed for other pressing commitments that have little to do with news. They may actually be ‘creating’ the agenda, rather than covering things as they happen. Some of the reasons for this conflict of interest may be commercial, others political.

Nowhere does this appear more striking than the coverage of civic affairs in a metro like Chennai. The major areas which the news media have failed to cover and thus lost the trust of the reader are not difficult to identify: the absence of a time-bound perspective plan (not to be confused with the Master Plan which has been in the works for one and half decades) for COMPLETION of civic projects already underway; the rampant corruption in civic projects that is eroding public finances while not adding anything significant in project terms; the failure to move ahead with the agenda of public transport; the misuse of projects like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission using the privileged status of the DMK in the UPA government; and the lack of capacity of most civic bodies to introduce any meaningful change in the way the city is managed.

The result of such a fundamental failing even of leading newspapers is the gradual disintegration of available infrastructure. This Deepavali season, people in their expensive cars, SUVs and the most modern two wheelers are bumping along on broken, pitted, potholed and ruined roads (which were obviously not built according to the specifications issued in the multi-crore tenders) to the textile shops that are raking in the money. There is no story in any newspaper on the disconnect between the revenues flowing to the government in the form of vehicle taxes, urban taxes, income tax, commercial tax, parking fees and fines levied by the Police amidst all the chaos, and the absence of any facility extended to the citizen by the city and state governments.

A senior official of the Chennai Corporation had this to say by SMS in response on Wednesday to an SMS suggestion that at least building debris could be used to level out the broken roads, such as Usman Road at Mahalingapuram flyover construction site, one of the worst hit: I appreciate ur concern. Kindly…rains stopped yday. Yday night itself concreting has been completed. today evening traffic will start one side. Other side tonight it will be completed. debris may not help as traffic is heavy. Thanks for your input.

When you consider this along with a statement made by the Tamil Nadu Highways Secretary, K.Allaudin that the construction projects in Chennai are not making progress because of lack of capacity among contractors, the rot in the system becomes readily evident. The irony is not lost on citizens that Mr. Allaudin has not spoken about infrastructure projects such as the MRTS which have already been built, but wait to be commissioned for no self-evident reason.

It is incomprehensible that a senior bureaucrat of one of India’s fast-growing states should try to deflect attention from governmental failure to complete infrastructure projects such as flyovers, bridges, flood drains, garbage handling and pedestrian pathways, by blaming lack of capacity. Mr. Allaudin also said that one company, L and T, was so overbooked that they cannot handle any more projects for the next two years. So what happened to the practice of global tenders? Are there no engineers on the planet who can  work on a few tenders in a city that prides itself variously as the Detroit of India, Singapore in the making and so on?

What surprises the average citizen is not the diversionary tactics of the government of the day, but of the generally complicit coverage by the news media in this situation. It is of course hard work to study allocations for projects, completion dates stipulated in tenders, clauses relating to non-performance by contractors using the Right to Information Act etc. We cannot expect sound-bite ridden television to go deep into these concerns. It is easy for them to point the camera at a live event rather than shoot footage for a documentary script, edit it painstakingly and back up claims with research.

But what has happened to the good old print media?

Meanwhile, here are some recent newspaper reports about the hellish times faced by Chennai residents.

First spell of monsoon hints at what’s in store | There is more to rain than meets the eye | Monsoon brings good flow into reservoirs | Corporation councillors recall one-year of activities | Post-rain blues, autorickshaw strike set residents’ woes overflowing

(A factual inaccuracy in this post was corrected on 01.11.2007)

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