Coal power and the news business in India
“At first the villagers didn’t know what an environmental report was,” explained Sister Supriya. “But once we started using the projector for the presentations in the villages, people started to understand the consequences of this proposed coal mine.”
I sat across a long wooden table from Sister Supriya and Dr. D.S. Maliya, a geography professor, in the Christian Mission Hostel of Dharamjaigarh, a small town in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Sister Supriya, other nuns and Dr. Maliya took the projector to the surrounding villages, sometimes doing four shows in a day. By the time they finished in one place, they would already be getting calls to go to the next village.
“You see,” added Dr. Maliya, as he unfurled several maps in front of me, “This shows that the mining company is going to need to dig out coal that is under our town – under this very hostel where the nuns live.”
Indeed, the maps showed the boundary of the company’s proposed coal mining project to include approximately half of Dharamjaigarh. The company in question, DB Power Limited, originally submitted the same maps when it applied for its environmental clearances from the Indian government but later insisted that it would not need to displace anyone.
Misinformation, lack of information, low public awareness – these are just some of the problems confronting villagers who would be displaced by the project. Supriya and Maliya’s projector presentations offer a rare example of a successful public awareness campaign leading to a public hearing on a major industrial project in India.
DB Power, a subsidiary of Dainik Bhaskar Group (or simply the DB Group), plans to use coal from around Dharamjaigarh for its power plant that is about 100 kilometers farther to the south. The main business of the parent company, though, is not in mining or power plants – DB Group runs an extensive media empire in India and describes itself on its website as "India’s largest newspaper group."
Local activists allege that DB Power received biased coverage from the DB Group’s newspaper, Dainik Bhaskar. A few of the headlines immediately leading up to the public hearing included "Black diamond to lend sparkle to Dharamjaigarh’s Destiny" and "Villagers move forward in support of DB Power." None of the Dainik Bhaskar articles mention that the same company owns both the newspaper and the mining and power company.
However, at the public hearing, more than 400 people spoke on the record against the project; not a single person from the town went on record in favor of the coal mine. After the public hearing, Dainik Bhaskar ran several articles airing allegations against Dr. Maliya suggesting he paid for his home with illicitly gained money. (Dr. Maliya insists he has proven this to be false.)
Others have also taken note of the increasing connections between media and industrial companies in India. E.V. Murli, editor of The Hitavada, a competing newspaper in the state of Chhattisgarh, said, “This is a growing trend,” but he maintains a positive outlook. “We’re not worried about this in the long term because people don’t believe much of what Dainik Bhaskar reports – they know what news to value and what to throw away. Dainik Bhaskar runs a newspaper to serve its own business interests, and people have caught on to this.”
Patrika, a larger Indian newspaper that recently expanded to Chhattisgarh, has run several articles critical of coal and power projects in the state. But Mahendra Shekhawat, the local editor for Patrika in a region with a high concentration of these projects, said his newspaper has already experienced the backlash from their articles.
“Because of our stories, we have been blacklisted for advertising by top government officials and the project proponent companies – but we’ll be publishing even more stories. We are not worried about losing their advertising revenue,” said Shekhawat. For a large newspaper like Patrika, the advertising revenues from its other branches across India can protect it from corporate blacklisting in Chhattisgarh. “I share a pessimistic view of media and the prospects for the future with so much corporate influence,” he said. “But I still believe they can’t buy everyone.”
A third newspaper editor in Chhattisgarh, one of the editors of the Chhattisgarh Daily, a Hindi language newspaper, offered a less rosy view of things: “The media is very good at hitting safe targets, the ones who won’t hit back.” The extent to which companies manipulate public hearings for their projects while the media remain silent caused him to conclude he had “no reason to be optimistic about Indian democracy.”
Two of India’s largest newspapers, The Hindustan Times and The Times of India, belong to large family-run businesses. Each of those family business groups has ties to major industrial, chemical and infrastructure companies.
Democracy, in India as much as anywhere else, depends on an informed and engaged public. With major media companies facing questions about conflicts of interest, smaller civil society groups have launched some of the most effective attempts at raising public awareness. However, these public awareness campaigns are scattered and small scale, and they depend on a variety of groups working independently.
India’s future as a democracy greatly depends on how it balances community rights and its economic development – and this will hinge on accurate reporting by an independent media.
“Money and power is being consolidated into fewer and fewer hands,” the editor from the Chhattisgarh Daily grimly observed.
Nick Wertsch is studying the role of public discourse in India under a Fulbright Fellowship.