News as it is delivered: Of Media, Politics and ‘Power’
By Patricia Mukhim
The word ‘Power; in the caption has nothing to do with power as we understand it in today’s context. Power is the energy that comes to our homes through cables. In other words, ‘electricity.’ I am not doing a spin here. It’s just how we in the media weave our narratives. Before I come to the point of ‘Power’ let me also clarify that when we report news, we quote political personalities including their choicest vocabulary. If anyone is offended then please sue the personality that has offended and not shoot the messenger.
The media world is as crazy as politics is because one follows the other and each thrives on the other. If the media is to fulfil its democratic role it should offer a wide variety of opinions and perspectives to encourage citizens to choose from among them in evaluating public policies.
If the media allows politicians to set the public agenda, what will ultimately happen is that politicians will narrow public discussion and diminish democracy. This is what is happening in our State. Perhaps the only democratic section that allows the public voice of dissent is the “letters to the editor” section where anguished citizens can have their say and rave and rant at will. This section actually informs us as to what is wrong with governance rather than the news about which politician said what.
If we have observed carefully, in the present MDA Government nearly all queries on important issues of governance are tackled by Chief Minister Conrad Sangma himself. His deputy reduces serious issues to trivia hence he is not taken seriously. The Deputy CM is in charge of the Power Department yet it took the CM to brief the media on what’s gone wrong with the Power Sector and what the Government is trying to do. Essentially what the CM tells us about the Power Sector is that just juggling officials will not work. Hence Meghalaya Energy Corporation Limited (MeECL) will now have experienced professionals drawn from the open market to repair the Corporation. What one fails to understand is how a bankrupt Corporation is going to bankroll these professionals who will have to be paid salaries that the corporate world does.
In the early 1990’s when the Meghalaya State Electricity Board first launched into a semi-corporatized model, it had a full time Chairman in Mr VS Jafa who set the groundwork towards crafting a revenue model for the Board that would make it sustainable. But even Jafa had to admit that the transmission and distribution losses were what was turning the Board into a leaking tap. At that time some private firms had been shopping around in Meghalaya to find out if they could take on the T&D part of the Board. But as always, such attempts at partial privatisation were demonised and seen as attempts to sell off the family silver to knaves and fortune hunters. Now we have come to a point where the inevitable will have to be delivered to us the naïve public as a bitter pill. The MeECL is so deeply entrenched in debt and ineptitude that resuscitating it is near impossible. Pumping in the crores no longer works. The Corporation seems to be guzzling money that goes into a dark hole and nothing is known thereafter. Its balance sheets are never made public. It’s a state-owned Corporation with the State being the only shareholder. And the money put in by the State is the taxpayers’ money, hence public money, And the State owes the public that much transparency.
For starters we would be interested to know the following (1) monthly income of MeECL from sale of power to constituents/customers from all sectors domestic and commercial (2) Monthly payment to power suppliers – NEEPCo/Power Grid/etc. (3) Total number of technical and non-technical/clerical staff and fourth graders (4) Monthly salaries to (a) technical staff (b) non-technical/clerical staff (5) Payment for vehicles on hire and total no of vehicles owned by MeECL (6) Up to date valuation of MeECL assets and their market value (7) Status of the Smart Meter programme (8)How many households have been smart-metered and are paying bills based on bills generated by Smart Meters (8) How are people managing to read their Smart Meters when the power is shut down and the internet plays fast and loose? These are not state secrets and their disclosure would not lead to any compromise to national security.
It would appear that even those at the higher echelons of the bureaucracy have become highly philosophical and attribute the breakdown of the system at Leshka and elsewhere as Murphy’s law being at work. Murphy’s law states that, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” Another interpretation of Murphy’s law is also that if there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, then someone will do it. So in the end no one is really responsible for all the goof-ups in the MeECL. What they don’t goof up on is in collecting the monthly dues. For those of us in the business of churning news and therefore of being information-stressed we need all our inner strength to avoid exhaustion, anxiety and depression. As news churners we rarely discuss this despair but we all feel the same. We don’t know what to say that is positive. So, we keep our conversations to our gardens, our families, books and movies and some light gossip such as which minion of which minister has bought a 7 crore home in Lachumiere – a prime location that only the very affluent can afford. That minion was just an employee and before that was operating tourist taxis or some such job. These sorts of information are not ‘gossips’ really. They are down to earth real life stories and they point to the rapid degeneration of political decency. Yet as journalists we don’t want to make one another feel hopeless and helpless. Our symptoms resemble those of combat fatigue.
Information overload can make us vulnerable to despair. We understand the brokenness and the sorrow in our own communities in the distant rural outback of Meghalaya. We are also fully aware of all the things we cannot change. Staying focused on the light in the world is hard work. Sometimes we risk losing our ability to think clearly or experience life completely. We lose our vitality and sense of direction. We cannot help others. We cannot fix anything. Yet we cannot allow ourselves to drown in despair because we still have to be of service to others.
And just to correct the perception, we are not heroes/heroines either. We try in small ways to make a difference each day. We may not be able to change the world but believe we can change our little backyards by engaging in cleaning up rivers and planting trees.
At times even us hardened souls are shell-shocked by the kind of news and wheeling-dealings we get to hear. “Are we hearing correctly? We ask. And then realise we have to toughen ourselves and develop better coping skills and not get sucked in by dystopia. Lao-Tse expresses this point in his poem that says, “If there is to be peace in the world/There must be peace in the nations,” and ends with “If there is to be peace in the home/There must be peace in the heart.” Lao Tse lived a long time ago. What peace can anyone have when the person is unsure of the next meal? When the IT professional or a ‘work from home’ person finds himself/herself out of ‘Power’ for two or more hours and is completely switched off from the world, he/she cannot be at peace.
Fifty years of Meghalaya. We have indeed come a long way!