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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Media & National Interest

N. B.: The two subjects broached in this article linked by a slim thread, should probably be posted separately as two articles.

In the normal course, one would have dismissed Vinod Mehta’s comments as the rants of a disgruntled hack. He is a self-confessed ‘pseudo-secular’ and a ‘chamcha’ of the Sonia-G family. Whether it was admirable self-deprecation or wily forestalling, the self-description fits him as a glove a hand.

During his years at Outlook, Mehta projected a carefully orchestrated image of himself as a bleeding-heart liberal, perhaps to lend credence to the magazine championing a specific political course. One suspects the political course the magazine charted could be as phoney as Mehta’s bleeding-heart liberalism. He loves his single malt (also perhaps, caviar to go with it) and he loves Swiss women, none of which come cheap. He opened his innings with a stint at Debonair, which was no Mainstream and did not exactly strive to put two square meals on the round plate of a hungry stomach. When Outlook debuted in 1995, India Today was eighteen. It was firmly entrenched as a national political magazine catering to the tastes of readers who believed in a market-driven economy. Rather than take on India Today in its niche, Outlook probably positioned itself at the opposite pole to fill the gap caused by the defunct Sunday of the Anand Bazaar Patrika group. In other words, it was purely a marketing strategy.

As an aside, the mention of Sunday brings to mind two unsavoury characters, both of which the magazine - if it had had a life – would like to erase from its history, even in death. One was Vir Sanghvi, a former editor who mortgaged his journalistic ethics to Niira Radia. To morph a phrase (rather than turn it), ‘you can’t buy Sangvi’s ethics; you can rent them’! The other is Mani Sankar Aiyar, who as a columnist, used to blacken its pages with foul bile and bilge, during the former’s tenure as editor. 

Whether left-liberalism (an oxymoron if ever there was one) is synonymous with anti-Hinduism is not known, but over the years Outlook became the stable for anti-Hindu, anti-RSS, anti-BJP and anti-Modi hacks. It has what may be termed as the ‘first ever anti-RSS, anti-BJP, anti-Modi editor of a national news magazine’ in Saba Naqvi!

What are the prime objectives of the media? Are they to inform, educate or entertain? The answer depends of course on what type of medium we are talking about. If it is the news media, it should inform, certainly; and after and only after that educate if it can and entertain if it must.

However, in democratic societies the news media has a more important role. It has a duty to its audience. And that is to highlight the failures – not sing paeans - of the ruling elites. It is in this role that it plays the role of an opposition, a devil’s advocate, a whistleblower, an ombudsman. It is for this role of the media as the voice of the people (VOXINDICA) that Edmund Burke hailed it as the fourth estate.

Media in India largely performed these roles during the struggle for freedom phase and for some years in the post independence period. Their output was occasionally coloured by their pet ideologies, as most of them were ideologically-driven. But media persons of the time pursued it as a noble profession, with a truthfulness of purpose.

The infamous emergency of 1975-77 was in a way, ‘an ordeal by fire’ for the Indian media. It separated the chaff from the grain. To repeat L. K. Advani’s pithy phrase, a majority of its members chose ‘to crawl when merely asked to bend’. On her return to power in 1980, Indira, the architect of the emergency used a different tactic to mould the media to suit her purposes. That time, made wiser by her emergency experience, instead of the proverbial stick, she used the proverbial carrot. The carrot was the advertisement revenue handed out by the Department of Audio Visual Publicity (DAVP) under the I & B Ministry.

Any media that is susceptible to either the proverbial stick or the proverbial carrot cannot be anything else but the proverbial mule!

Indira was largely able to succeed in her gambit because the older, ideologically fired media persons, who fought and lost, were passing from the scene. The new crop which replaced them was borne into a different milieu. Ironically, it was a milieu in transition, in which ‘Nehruvian socialism’ marketed by his daughter as a panacea for poverty was giving way to market-driven economy. The liberalised economy of the 1990s saw a proliferation of the media and billowing competition. The once noble profession became a business. Political interests and business houses jumped into the arena for the political clout, owning a media house gave them. The audience, to whom the media owed its first duty, was lost in the melee. The raison d’ etre of the media became singing paeans to the ruling elites. Editors of the national media no longer were ashamed to call themselves ‘chamchas’ nor were national media columnists to seek corporate lobbyists to dictate the content of their columns!

Be that as it may, whether he is a ‘pseudo-secular’ and a ‘chamcha’ or not, one has to agree with Mehta when he wrote in his Delhi Diary. Outlook. October 13, 2014:

Am I the only one who is a bit nauseated by the constant demand from the American side: “What can you do for us?” In all the discussions and debates with US policymakers and the media, only one question is being asked: “What does Modi bring to our table?” The list of requirements is formidable. They all revolve around India making life easier for US multinationals. As a result, on this visit our prime minister is always on the defensive­—he needs to “walk the talk”, “cut red tape”, “make environmental clearances instant”, “change the country’s laws to suit American companies”, “woo US corporate chiefs” etc. etc. Unfortunately, Modi has fallen into the trap. It would seem India is the supplicant. It seems India must go the extra mile for enticing Kentucky Fried Chicken to invest more. (Font colour changed for emphasis.)

One may not agree with Mehta’s ‘nausea’ (it could be because of an overdose of single malt the previous evening!) but one agrees with his substance. There are some important issues over which India and the US have conflicting interests.

CIVIL NUCLEAR LIABILITY ACT

The first is the Indian nuclear liability act that was enacted in the aftermath of signing the Indo-US nuclear deal. In simple terms, it is the amount of insurance that a US manufacturer is liable to pay in case of a nuclear disaster. The Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act as it stood in 2011 (applicable in the US) offers a ‘no-fault’ indemnity to be paid by the suppliers of up to USD$12.5 billion. Any claims exceeding it are covered by the US government. In contrast, after a lot of vacillation and much persuasion by the then opposition, the BJP, the Manmohan Singh government enacted the Civil Nuclear Liability Act 2010 which limits the liability of a US manufacturer to a paltry US$81 million and the rest to be paid by the Indian government within the overall limit of Rs 5 billion (note the figure is in Rs not $!). Thus a US manufacturer’s liability in case of civilian nuclear disaster in India is a paltry 0.65% of a corresponding liability in the US. Aren’t Indian lives cheap? Besides, the Americans are not willing to transfer the technologies either for Uranium enrichment or disposal of spent fuel. May one ask why would the Narendra Modi government like to go ahead with the Indo-US Nuclear deal instead of scrapping it and negotiating it de novo as the BJP had promised then?

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS

The second important issue is concerning intellectual property rights (IPRs) especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Even in this case the Americans have double standards. They expect the Indian government to protect dubious practices like the ‘doctrine of inherent anticipation’, the ‘doctrine of double patenting’ and the ‘patent misuse doctrine’ (see NovartisVs. The People of India for an explanation of the terms), which give the patentee the right to extend patents indefinitely. This means the patentee continues to enjoy exclusive marketing rights and exorbitant pricing, for ever.

The subject of IPRs is complex, so much so there are some in India who believe ‘compulsory licencing’ is a bad provision. They do not seem to realise that it was the result of a hard fought battle. The provision gives poor nations respite against predators who would not hesitate to patent Basmati rice, turmeric and even yoga!

The Indian pharmaceutical industry was dominated by the multinational companies till the nineteen eighties with a market share of between 70% and 80%. Today the status is reversed. The Drug Price Control Order (DPCO) of 1970 has given immense fillip to the Indian industry and was responsible for its phenomenal growth. There is a flip side to it too. It is this rampant growth that vitiated the healthcare system by introducing unhealthy promotional practices, some of them bizarre.

But the competition benefited the consumer. As an example take the case of amlodipine a drug used for high blood pressure and heart problems. The multinational which claims its invention, priced it at Rs 26/- per tablet when it was introduced in India. An Indian pharmaceutical company introduced the same at Rs 13/- per tablet immediately afterwards. Others joined the pricing war and the medicine, which millions of Indians need, is currently available at as low a price as Rs 0.65/-.

It is nobody’s case that the IPR regime should be dismantled. But one would like to know why the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) was divested of its powers to fix drug prices just before Narendra Modi’s departure to the US? Is it to propitiate the powerful US pharmaceuticals lobby?

The NPPA does not arbitrarily fix drug prices. It collects pricing data across the industry and only fixes the ‘mark-up’, which in layman’s terms means the margin after costs. Should it be an exorbitant 300% or a reasonable 30%? As an example, take the pricing of cetirizine, an allergy medication. A costing exercise done several years ago showed that its costs Rs 0.30/- per 10 mg tablet. Commercially available cetirizine tablets, marketed by companies with reasonably expected quality control measures, range in prices between Rs 1.50/- to Rs 3.75/- As this is not an ‘essential drug’ the NPPA too does not intervene in its pricing.  

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