Every once in a while I get reminded of the fact that blogging is not journalism. At least it does not rise to that level most of the time. There are exceptions, Chris and Sheril at Intersection, dengre at DailyKos. But too often bloggers only grab something, repeat it, possibly provided their own interpretation… generally political. What they don't do is to ask some very basic questions, beginning with "Does this story make sense?". It it doesn't, they re-interpret it until it does.
Such was the case with the story that has been making the rounds headlined "1,500 farmers commit mass suicide in India." It seemed to be everywhere. I first found it at Green Change, referring back to a story in the Belfast, IR Telegraph. After commenting on the story… in which I accepted it at face value… I decided to check it out in more depth. The truth turned out to be even more interesting than the original story.
I was very surprised when I did a google search on "Indian Farmers Mass Suicide". The story was all over the place… mostly in American sources and mostly those that consider themselves to be progressive. Alternet, Huffington Post, Common Dreams, IndyBay, Democratic Underground. There were more, but you get the picture... but even Free Republic repeated the Belfast Telegraph story and they are hardly "progressive".
I looked for the story in Indian source news and did not find it. It should have been a sign of something wrong. All of the Indian news today was focused on the elections and in particular, the death of a number of police and election workers in the State of Chhattisgarh, the same state where the suicides were supposed to take place. So, it was not enough new to push aside the election and the attacks by "Maoist rebels".
Then, I dropped the word "mass" from my search and still had a hard time finding an Indians source, but when I did I began to uncover the truth. It was a story in DownToEarth, Science and Environment Online. In this, freelance journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary went to Chhattisgarh and did what all good journalists do. He talked to people, asked questions, read reports and completed all of that before deciding what the story was going to be.
Nawagarh in Durg district of Chhattisgarh is a small place by all standards. As in all small places here too everyone knows everybody and it was not difficult to find a local journalist as soon as we reached Nawagarh. We were looking for help to investigate the story of a farmer’s suicide in Chhattisgarh. A simple enquiry at a local paan shop on the roadside got us the address and directions to the most famous journalist in town.What Choudhary found was that Indian newspapers did not consider the deaths of a few farmers to be a story. There was no mass suicide... not 1500 all at one time. But, there were about 4 suicides per day.
“The figure is not just for this year. Chhattisgarh remains at the top of the list every year since its inception. 1,593 farmers committed suicide in the state last year according to the data provided by state police to the National Crime Records Bureau,” I said. It means four farmers die every day by committing suicide and in the tally, Durg is just behind Raipur, which tops the list amongst the districts of Chhattisgarh.Choudhary concluded…
Suicide is a complex issue and needs deeper investigation. A journalistic enquiry can only provide pointers to this problem—to draw attention of the people who are in a position to study the matter in detail and take appropriate action.
But will anyone heed the pointers? Not only Chief Minister Raman Singh but the opposition Congress also does not see any farmers’ suicide in the state. Some members of the farmers’ wing of the Congress party tried unsuccessfully to include the subject in the Congress manifesto for the last assembly election.
A high-profile Congress leader told me righteously, “We also visit the villages. We do not see any farmer committing suicide. So how can we include the issue in the manifesto?”
Maybe the reason no one can see is because no rich farmer is committing suicide.
So, what did I learn other than that the problems of the poor are not the problems of all.
The original story, for all of the sensationalism of the use of the term "mass suicide" in the headline, got some things right and missed others. Like farming everywhere, the results are affected by the weather. The Telegraph's reporter cited a falling water table. This, in a State that averages 1.4 meters of rain per year. I also found a similar story that involved crop loss from flooding and the ensuing suicide of the farmer.
When everyone can publish whatever they want, then the onus is on every reader to make sure that they have the latest, most effective, bullshit detector.