We will probably never know what happened to poverty between 2012 and 2018, as the 75th round of the National Sample Survey Organization expenditure survey for 2018 has been “junked" on specious grounds. What we do know, however, is that fall in per capita consumption expenditure is likely to be associated with a slight rise in poverty, while a sharp surge in the share of the top 1% of the country’s income distribution, loosely designated as crorepatis, is likely to have considerably exacerbated inequality. Although conjectures abound of the economic hardships resulting from the shocks of demonetization and a flawed good and services tax, solid evidence is missing. Yet, it is highly plausible that employment, earnings and investment suffered not just in the informal but also the formal sector. The budget for 2020-21 was a missed opportunity for a growth stimulus and better protection of the poor and vulnerable through strengthened social safety nets. This large segment of the population—especially in rural India—faces grim prospects and unrelenting hardship.

Our analysis, based on the India Human Development Survey 2015, points to a silver lining. This has to do with the important role of mass media in promoting upward income mobility.

There are two issues: one is the portrayal of abject poverty, and the other (not unrelated) issue of how mass media can influence income mobility from extreme poverty to affluence. Evidence from elsewhere (such as the US and Canada) suggests that print media/newspapers are dominated by political/economic news, followed by acts of crime, including terrorist activities, and have very limited and patchy coverage of poverty. The coverage of poverty is not considered “newsy", except when an extreme event occurs such as an earthquake, famine, or armed conflict. Our cursory review of print media in India is consistent with this view. There are various channels through which mass media can influence income mobility and expenditure. These include giving “voice" to the poor, highlighting policy failures, enhancing the accountability of policies designed for social welfare, and also generating awareness among the poor and vulnerable of remunerative employment opportunities. In addition, media can help overcome restrictive gender norms (e.g.: the promotion of female literacy and the employment of women outside their homes, and, more broadly, of women’s empowerment). These are all “positives", but biases in reporting cannot be overlooked (e.g.: misreporting of starvation deaths as suicides).

The widely used Tendulkar poverty line has come under serious attack because it is viewed as brutish by some. Hence, we have used terciles of per capita expenditure (at constant prices). The bottom tercile denotes extremely poor, the next the middle class and the third the affluent.

Mass media vehicles in rural areas have been disaggregated into radio, newspaper and television. Listening, reading and watching are broken up by gender. These are also distinguished into “never", “sometimes" and “regularly". A simple but intuitive methodology is used to overcome reverse causality—say, between poverty and regular watching of TV. We study associations between expenditure terciles in 2012 and exposure to mass media in 2005. Priority in time of media exposure or lack of it allows unambiguous comparisons across terciles in 2012.

As a vast majority of men do not listen to radio regularly, their shares across expenditure terciles are much higher than of those who do listen to radio regularly. What is indeed striking is that the proportions among regular listeners rise from 29 % in the first tercile to over 40 % in the third. Besides, as expected, the proportion of regular listeners is lower than among non-listeners in the first tercile, and the proportions of listeners are higher in the second and third terciles. An almost similar pattern is observed among women.

A vast majority of men do not read newspapers regularly. Hence their shares across terciles form a large majority. Shares of regular readers of newspapers rise markedly across terciles, with the share in the third tercile being four times larger than that in the first tercile. Among regular readers too, the proportion in the second tercile is double that in the first tercile, and the third double that in the second. Besides, the third tercile proportion among regular readers is just under twice as large as among non-readers of newspapers. A similar pattern is observed among women reading newspapers regularly.

Large majorities of men do not watch TV across terciles, but these shares decline with the lowest share in the third tercile (about 64 % as compared with about 85 % in the first/lowest expenditure tercile). Accordingly, the shares of those watching TV regularly rise across terciles, with that in the third tercile 2.4 times that in the first tercile. The proportions of men watching TV regularly rise sharply across the terciles, with that in the third tercile rising to just under 50 % from about 20.50 % in the first tercile.

Besides, the proportion of regular TV watching men is 20 percentage points higher than among men who do not do so. A similar pattern is observed among women. In brief, the media exposure of both rural men and women is associated with large welfare gains—reflected in considerably lower proportions among extremely poor and higher proportions among the affluent. However, larger welfare gains are contingent on media vehicles enhancing their sensitivity to socio-economic deprivation and checking their apparent proclivity to go soft on exaggerated, if not misleading, official claims of success in fighting socioeconomic deprivation.

Vani S. Kulkarni & Raghav Gaiha are, respectively, lecturer in sociology, University of Pennsylvania, and research affiliate, Population Studies Centre, University of Pennsylvania

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