TIME was, in the forties, fifties and sixties of the 20th century when politicians, bureaucrats and their like did not take the Indian language press seriously. After all, they must have felt, what influence did it wield, especially in the context of the English media which held sway especially in urban areas?
In a way the Indian language media was, if not looked down upon, certainly kept at arms length. No longer. According to a survey conducted by the Media Research Users Council, the Hindi press is more popular now than the top selling English newspaper among the masses. Not just Hindi, even the so-called ?vernacular? press has edged out English newspapers, with Daily Thanthi in Tamil having 209 lakh (20 million) readers followed by Lokmat in Marathi with 207 lakh readers, Ananda Bazaar Patrika with 158 lakh readers and Eenadu in Telugu with 142 lakh readers. The Times of India leads in English with 135 lakh readers, but it goes down to the fifth position compared to the Hindi press with Dainik Jagran having a massive 536 lakh readers, Dainik Bhaskar 306 lakh, Amar Ujala 282 lakh and Hindustan 235 lakh. Impressive numbers indeed. Interestingly, among the top ten positions in readership of the English press, non-news magazines are more read than newspapers with India Today coming after The Times of India with 71 lakh readers, followed by Hindustan Times with 61 lakh and The Hindu with 49 lakh. Reader'sDigest occupies fifth position with 49 lakh followed by General Knowledge Today with 44 lakh, Filmfare with 37 lakh and Competition Success Review with 33 lakh. The Kolkata-based The Telegraph and the Hyderabad-based Deccan Chronicle command 30 lakh readers each.
According to the latest figures maintained by the Registrar of Newspapers in India, the largest circulated multi-edition daily is The Times of India with a daily circulation of 25,42,075 copies. What do these figures indicate? How come the Indian language newspapers are doing so well? In the first place the number of literates has grown substantially, percentage-wise. The literates are mostly among people speaking local languages, whether it be Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu of Malayalam to mention but a few of them. In the second place the Indian language media cater to the tastes and concern of the people and not of the elite. In other words, the Indian language media is people-friendly. In a newly published work Headlines from the Heartland written by Sevanti Ninan, the point is made that the rural readership has jumped from some 98 million in 1999 to some 200 million as of now. What this means is that almost one out of five people in the country has taken to reading newspapers. According to Ninan one characterestic of the Hindi press is that it no longer represents the pan-Indian interests but is content with specific, local interests. Which, of course, is perfectly understandably and is universally true. But what is shocking to learn is that in the Hindi media especially, agriculture gets low priority. And even more significantly, news relating to landless labour, migrants, poor dalits and poor backward classes, victims of hunger and indebtedness, in the words of a reviewer in The Hindu ?misses the radar?. in most of these newspapers?. A pity. Meanwhile there is a pleasant surprise awaiting Hindi readers.
Believe it or not, a group of commercial sex workers has taken the initiative to bring out a news magazine for sex workers in Hindi called Lal Batti Dastavez. An English edition called Red Light Dispatch is also being brought out and, according to Gomantak Times (October 15), about a thousand copies are printed and apparently sold. The enterprise is attributed to one Anurag Chaturvedi, a trustee of the Mumbai-based NGO called Apne Aap that works for the rehabilitation, empowerment and welfare of sex workers. According to Gomantak Times, ? the project took off because of what Anurag and his team have witnessed over the years?the brutality and harassment that the sex workers are forced to face each day while living trapped in miserable conditions?. Chaturvedi is quoted as saying that the magazine'sbroader aim is to ensure that no sex worker is exploited or victimised by pimps/cheats and that they could ultimately get out of their murky world to do something more constructive in life. Topics like sex-workers? health, human and legal rights and personal stories are reported to be part of the magazine'seditorial agenda. It is not clear how many of the sex workers, especially in Mumbai, Kolkata and smaller cities are truly conversant in Hindi, much less in English but the enterprise surely is worthy of praise. Is it though? This particular journal is reportedly supported by some NGOs but one wonders whether it is financially a paying proposition. In July 2007, a debate was held in New Delhi on the subject: ?Is Excellent Journalism Bad business?? and among the participants was then President A.P.J. Kalam. During the debate a point was made that people would always want news, only it needed to be packed well. But what is news? For newspapers, for instance, reported that P. Sainath recently won the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award for ?his passionate commitment as a journalist to restore the rural poor to India'snational consciousness?. Fewer still reported, as did The Indian Express (September 3) that during World War II ?hundreds of helpless Indian soldiers serving under the British Raj were used as ?guinea pigs? in gas chambers to test the effects of poisonous gases on humans??a shocking revelation. The media can make one famous; at the same time, it can also turn a celebrity into a nonentity. The Tribune recently carried a tribute to Tarakeshwari Sinha, once a much-talked-about beauty and a Minister besides in the seventies who died after a prolonged illness in Delhi ?unhonoured and unsung?. Once described as ?Glamour Girl of Indian Politics? she died without any newspaper taking note of the sad event. Sic transit gloria mundi one might say. All earthly glory is transitory, a point that Page Three celebrities might not wish to note but one which they would do well to remember. And what is said about Tarakeshwari applies equally to many ex-Chief Ministers whose deaths have gone unreported in recent times by a cynical media.