True lies!

Published : May 21, 2010 00:00 IST

The Project Officer of the Krishnagiri District Rural Development Agency, in Tamil Nadu, shows pamphlets explaining the conditions of the NREGS. A file photograph. Information that has to be wrenched out of the government now by using RTI needs to be made available freely without cover-ups and compromises.-N. BASHKARAN

The Project Officer of the Krishnagiri District Rural Development Agency, in Tamil Nadu, shows pamphlets explaining the conditions of the NREGS. A file photograph. Information that has to be wrenched out of the government now by using RTI needs to be made available freely without cover-ups and compromises.-N. BASHKARAN

ANY information that a government agency hands out with the exception of a very few like the Ministry of External Affairs or the Indian Space Research Organisation is usually taken with a bagful of salt, no matter how cleverly it is presented. The media usually report it as according to the government and often the story concludes with a wry remark that it remains to be seen how accurate the information is.

This is not just a middle-class reaction to government news, mediated though such reactions are by skilled spin doctors employed by a number of private agencies for a variety of reasons; one can see the general reaction to any kind of information or campaign the government organises. One has only to reflect on the Bharatiya Janata Partys India Shining campaign and the verdict in the Lok Sabha polls not too long after that. There simply is no confidence in the claims the government makes, irrespective of the party that forms the government.

This, sadly, also affects the news and other programmes broadcast by All India Radio and Doordarshan, both of them are perceived to be mouthpieces of the government (which they unfortunately tend to be if not all the time, at least for part of the time) and consequently what they report is discounted. Ironically, a comparison of the lead stories of a Doordarshan news bulletin, news bulletins of private channels and newspapers will show that they are more or less similar. But that is not how they are generally perceived.

Programmes on the achievements of the MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) in different States are usually dismissed as propaganda, even though it is now conceded that this was a major factor in the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddys resounding victory in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in the Andhra Pradesh. That, it is said, was an exception; in most States the claims made are false or exaggerated. This, in spite of there being social audits done by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) some of which have been documented on television and all of which have been reported on independently by the NGOs themselves.

Other statements and claims the length of highways completed, the amount of power generated, the number of health centres set up are rarely believed, which is tragic, because a huge amount of money is spent on making this information available to the public, and a good deal of what is said not all of it, granted is true. The lack of confidence in the state does it no good, nor does it help in building any confidence or optimism in people that something is being done for the benefit of society. Something is; the tragedy is it is not believed.

It is necessary for the government to consider seriously why this is so, and what can be done to alter the perception on government handouts and statements. In the United Kingdom, a department called the Central Office of Information brings out very well-produced brochures and booklets on the different projects of the government. They are informative, and on the occasion that I had to visit their central bureau in London, I found a good number of people drifting in and picking up these publications, or sitting and reading them. There was no sense of cynical amusement among the readers and no one actually threw away a press statement or brochure.

One has no means of knowing if the information made available by that office is qualitatively any different from what our Press Information Bureau (PIB) hands out, or the brochures and pamphlets that the different Ministries and government departments produce regularly. What one is concerned with more, though, is the reaction to these publications. If the publications, on which a great deal of money is spent, are accepted as being truly informative, the government can derive immense benefit. What, then, is the reason for a government-prepared publications lack of credibility? One basic reason is inherent in the government machinery itself. It is incredible how the officials within the system actually believe what they publish, even though some of it is demonstrably at variance with the facts. This may have to do with the officials need to maintain self-esteem. For instance, in the Health Ministry, if they admitted, that all efforts to provide basic health care in the rural areas were pointless because no health centre worked and there were no doctors in any of them, then they, as persons responsible for ensuring that such systems work, would feel a sense of defeat.

The fact is that a large number of health centres do work; but the mistake is in asserting that more centres work than is true. It is this flaw, common to all government officials, that destroys credibility. They will not admit, even to themselves, that there are flaws and glitches in their schemes. The obverse of this is that it is almost a Pavlovian response to say that health is a State subject and to reel off the large amounts made available to States for these schemes. This does not make for more health centres, or schools, or roads. And the media, and the public, are not fooled by this now familiar sidestep.

Many years ago, Dr. Bimal Jalan when he was MemberSecretary of the Planning Commission, talked to me about this problem and outlined a scheme to make a number of television programmes on the failures and achievements in different sectors. He felt that this would, over time, bring some credibility to government statements; people would come to realise that the truth was not being compromised in these statements. It was, as far as I know, the first time a senior government official saw what the problem was.

This attitude contains, in fact, the other aspect of the issue, apart from officials deluding themselves with their own reports and figures. That is the need to be totally honest with the people at large. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth what a witness swears to in court is exactly what government statements and publications must scrupulously follow. The reality is that many Ministries want to compromise with the truth. Here is where the PIB must be given a free hand to present the truth in their publications. They will need to be backed solidly by their Minister and, indeed, the entire Cabinet. If that is done, one can say with some confidence that over time, government statements will tend to be accepted as providing correct, valuable information.

If this is done, one major aspect of the democratic functioning of our country of keeping people informed as comprehensively as possible on what is being done will have been performed to a large extent. In other words, what has to be wrenched out of a government now by using the Right to Information Act needs to be made available freely; it is the peoples right and they need to be given the information they want without any cover-ups and compromises.

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