Surya Shankar Dash
When the fourth estate is peddled like real estate, when journalism and dirty business collude, and when Orwellian ‘doublethink’ becomes the way of the scribes; we can unhesitatingly conclude that the so-called fourth pillar of democracy has been reduced to smithereens, much like the other three pillars.
Since its first edition in 2011, the Tehelka ThinkFest has been seen as a severe blow to the codes of journalism. The first ThinkFest featured the benevolence of the most controversial names in the business world that year, Essar and Tata Steel, both corporations stuck neck deep in a quagmire of accusations, from being involved in mining scams, telecom scams, sponsorship of the Salwa Judum, Radiagate, environmental violations, illegal land grab, forced displacement and several other crimes. But it was no surprise as Tarun Tejpal, the top gun at Tehelka, had earlier been seen that year at the Jaipur Literature Festival defending the event’s sponsorship by criminal corporations like Shell and Rio Tinto; he had essentially argued for his own case. That Tehelka was not the going to organise seminars on rural issues in Jamia Milia auditoriums anymore. That they would now openly solicit endorsements from the very corporations they had exposed in their publications.
Shoma Chaudhary, the Managing Editor of Tehelka, in an interview defended Tehelka’s decision to rake in blood money, saying it was to tell stories of the poor. Since 2012, aside from its problematic coverage of Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi’s cases, the publication seems to have cautiously veered from reporting any scams about Essar and other sponsors. Even prior to the ThinkFest, the publication was totally mum on the 2010 medieval-era styled pillaging of villages in Odisha’s Kalinga Nagar, where Adivasi communities have been fighting Tata Steel with their lives. In the same NYTimes interview, Shoma mentions how Tehelka refused money from Vedanta, but many might be aware of how Tehelka had once carried a Vedanta press release in the guise of an article glorifying Vedanta’s CSR activities in Lanjigarh & Niyamgiri, attributing it to a reporter who personally claimed that he had not written it.
This year, the Think Fest has amongst its sponsors even more infamous corporations like the Narendra Modi-backed Adani group, land grabbers like DLF and late liquor baron Ponty Chaddha’s Wave. The Adani group is widely known for its illegal land grab for its illegal SEZ and port in Mundra, all facilitated by the Gujrat Govt. It is India’s largest coal importer, biggest private port operator and biggest thermal power producer (read one of India’s biggest polluter). The Modi government has allegedly alloted land to Adani at the rate of Re.1/- per sqm, at least a thousand times less than the market rates. In fact, a CAG report highlights that Adani gained more than Rs.70 crore when the Gujarat government-owned GPSC sold natural gas to it at rates much lower than what it had bought from the open market. Another CAG report says that Adani Power owed at least Rs. 240 cr as a fine to the Gujarat Govt but was officially fined a little more than Rs.79 cr.
After destroying more than a thousand hectares of coastal mangroves and being slapped with a Rs. 200 crore fine, Adani needs all the goodwill that events like ThinkFest can garner for it. After all, it is India’s most indebted company with a debt bill of at least Rs. 65,000 cr while its revenues stand at Rs. 47,000 cr.
The rise of Adani is closely linked to the rise of Narendra Modi in the post-riot situation. Modi needed big business to support him and Adani fulfilled that role. In return Adani was given a free run to devastate nature and society and rise from a mere Rs.3,300 cr company to a Rs. 47,000 cr company within a decade. With Modi’s blessings Adani has grown rapidly and made inroads across the nation and world. While its proposed coalfields in Australia are going to be one of the single largest producer of greenhouse gases, in Odisha, the company’s goons have been seen orchestrating attacks on activists like Prafulla Samantara, who are opposing the massive proposed coalfields in Angul. The infamous Tata port at Dhamra, which is devastating Olive Ridley nesting grounds, is slated to be taken over by Adani soon.
While one could get stuck on Adani, there’s a long list of logos that make up ThinkFest’s Patrons that need to be talked about. Essar, for instance, continues to be one of the chief patrons of the event. If this video from the first fest is anything to go by, Neena Tejpal herself admits that Essar and Tehelka essentially share the same values, at a time when the memory of Essar’s role in the telecom scam, in supporting the Salwa Judum, its illegal diversion of water from river Mahanadi and land grab in Jagatsingpur for a steel factory where displaced people are protesting, was fresh in our minds. Essar’s relationship with Modi, of course, reads out like a jaded Bollywood love story– with Shasi Ruia accompanying Namo on foreign tours to Switzerland and South Korea, making promises of undying investment at Vibrant Gujarat summits, falling out in the face of 8000 crore sales tax dues, being caught in a compromising position by the CAG and eventually making up.
Also on the red carpet of sponsors are JSW Steel, pulled up by both the Lokayukta and the CBI in connection with the Karnataka mining scam, causing a windfall Rs. 890 crore loss to the exchequer in resources, just as JSW wired a hefty thank-you in the form Rs 20 crore donation to Yedyurappa’s son’s trust for turning a blind eye to its excesses.
Iconic scammers DLF, whose large-scale land-grabbing stunts have even found mention in Tehelka, are presenting the John Pilger session, if only to add to the irony that the ThinkFest is the perfect example of the industrial-military-media complex that Pilger always endeavored to expose.
A session with Medha Patkar (quite a feat to get her to endorse an event sponsored by Coca Cola), Bianca Jagger and a former Maoist revolutionary is being presented by a defense equipment manufacturer, Pipavav, just as disarmament activist Binalakshmi Nepram is also a speaker at the event. Pipavav has just been awarded a 920 crore contract to build warships for the Indian coast guard.
Other sponsors include chronic polluters and cartelists United Phosphorous, who slapped a 25 crore defamation lawsuit against activist Rohit Prajapati for exposing pollution at their VAPI plant. United Phosphorous also leads the race in Mumbai’s garbage scam to process the city’s waste in its Deonar dump for a whopping cost of Rs. 26,000 crore, and displace those amongst its poorest who make their living from garbage. To stir up some local angst, Goan mining companies also feature on the list of sponsors.
If that wasn’t enough to fill one up with disgust, the line-up of speakers is no less. Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, BJD MP often seen on TV defending Naveen Patnaik’s corporate resource grabbing, a high-flying mining and cable TV baron, is being heralded as “The Golden Boy…clearly a doer, a technocrat eager to set an example of good governance and efficiency”. This “‘accidental politician’ irritated by the inefficiencies of the country still beset by many of the problems of the ‘licence raj’” is no less than an Adani. His mining company, IMFA, availed of loan waiver from the amounting to over Rs. 2000 crore from the Naveen Patnaik government in 2007.
Then again, Panda hasn’t had a fraction of the good times that Vijay Mallaya has gotten away with. And yet here is, presented by Tehelka as ‘the Maverick Mogul’, his achievements listed as “bringing back to the country the sword of Tipu Sultan, Mahatma Gandhi’s eyeglasses” and “an annual calendar shoot with stunning models” (not necessarily in that order, but well, “it says as much about Mallya as the balance sheets do.”)
THiNK is a celebration where people like Nandan Nikelani, Vijay Mallya and Jay Panda will be promoted endlessly to the point that all their past misdeeds are pushed out of our consciousness into oblivion.
While a few names like Medha Patkar, Bianca Jagger and John Pilger on the guest list might make Think seem like an honorable seminar to attend, just a little digging exposes it as a vulgar celebration of dirty blood money appropriating a journalistic organisation that was, until now, seen as a torchbearer of truth and progressive values.
It is understandable that there is no outcry from the general public, who might buy the general rhetoric of the sponsored bottomline. But for those in the know, those who’ve seen the truth behind the logos, who’ve resisted it in their own capacities, and who have yet chosen to actively engage with or ignore the goings-on on this rotten stage, it raises uncomfortable questions.
It signals an era where even vociferous dissenters believe that struggles cannot exist unless legitimised by the media, just as the avenues of getting an uncomfortable story covered are rapidly shrinking in the face of media corporatisation. It makes even the socially defiant among us afraid to call out this mainstream masquerade and risk the chance of never being invited to the ball.
As it trivialises and capitalises on the very pillars that it stands on, ThinkFest forces us all to do a double-think on what kind of inconvenient truths and truth-tellers we can live with, as the lines blur.