Categories
Issue 23 Issue 7

Through the Looking Glass: Gender Lens and Education Policy

In September 2020, the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) and the Directorate of Education initiated a joint project called the Early Warning System that utilizes school attendance records to develop interventions to curb dropouts by identified at-risk children. 

Prolonged absenteeism can lead to failing the course, especially in rural areas where students lack the financial resources to learn externally. Studies have shown that students who regularly attend school tend to perform better than those who are always absent, as frequent practising of skills helps build one’s ability to perform better than infrequent learning. It is thus essential to note absences and their reasons to ensure a balanced and consistent education for all.

DCPCR developed the policy expecting that the Covid-19 pandemic would lead to a rise in school absenteeism. The pandemic delayed the policy’s roll-out, but a pilot was initiated in October 2021, and the Commission fully implemented the policy in April 2022. DCPCR chairman Anurag Kundu explained that reduced or prolonged attendance as a metric would help gauge whether a child was facing a crisis at home that is affecting their education. The primary causes for absenteeism detected in the pilot included sickness in the family, moving back to the village, lack of parental awareness, labour, early marriage, taking care of household chores, and death. 

The system will send an automated SMS to the parent/guardian of any student who has missed more than 66% of working days in a month or missed more than seven days in a row. If there is no response, it will send an Interactive Voice Response (IVRS) call to understand the reason for absenteeism and make a note in the system if anything is detected. If there is still no response, the teacher will call the parents up and enter the details in the system. If the parents are unreachable or the child is detected to be “high-risk”, home visits will be conducted and adequate steps are taken on a case by case basis. 

Given the policy’s recent implementation, there isn’t substantial data on the interventions made in girls’ cases compared to boys. While the policy remains ungendered mainly, it is crucial to consider the differing reasons for absenteeism amongst girls and boys. Among adolescent boys, the most significant cause of missing school has been child labour which has been hard to solve since counselling and encouraging them to go to school may help, but the families still need their income. Amongst girls, on the other hand, the most prominent causes include early marriage and menstruation. Kundu said that four of their successful interventions were in cases where parents wanted to get their daughters, ages 15-17, married. The parents were counselled to push this decision until after they completed school. 

The policy could become fully functional only in April since its implementation depended on students physically attending school, which was optional until now due to the pandemic. The policy also made no arrangements for online schools or helping those facing difficulty accessing education while they were at home. In 2021, a Delhi-based NGO conducted a survey and found that 56.1% of girls had an increased responsibility to complete domestic chores during the pandemic with less time to focus on their education. Studies show a gender-based digital device, with 33.6% of girls not having access to digital devices and 64% saying that boys had more access to devices and the internet in their communities. Many girls studying before the pandemic couldn’t return to classes as their families didn’t want to spend their savings on their daughters’ education.

Unicef released an alarming report predicting that 10 million more girls would be at risk of child marriage by the end of the decade due to the pandemic. Education is a protective factor against child marriage. Still, with school closure and increased economic strain, girls are pushed into marriage as a last resort to help ease the family’s financial burden. Strict policies, ensuring access to health services and providing social support to families are vital to ensure girls stay in school. Similarly, another significant problem faced by girls attending school is menstruation. 

A 2018 Delhi based study found that 40% of girls didn’t go to school while menstruating. The fear and embarrassment that breeds from the social stigmas around menstruation and the lack of proper sanitary materials, no privacy at school, restrictions imposed on girls, and their mother’s education lead to a drop in attendance which hampers education. Not addressing these things in policy means that little will be able to be done when the issues arise. Interventions to reduce social taboos, increase awareness, provide healthcare and expand the curriculum to provide sound information are essential to combat this problem. The Early Warning System, like other policies, should find ways to implement interventions that account for these factors and include clauses that aim to address these gender-specific issues. 

The National Education Policy of 2020 faced a similar backlash. Specific provisions might promote girls’ education, such as the provision of a Gender Inclusion Fund which would be utilized towards an equitable education for girls and transgender students and an increase in public investment to bring down education spending. This policy, however, encouraged public-private partnership in education which might lead to more schools turning private and becoming inaccessible and unaffordable. Increased tuition would make it harder to convince families to spend on girls’ education and lead to them dropping out. 

While the EWS didn’t mention digital education, the NEP pressed on it without making any provisions for the infrastructure required. The policy’s consolidation of school complexes provision would increase dependence on Open School, the national distance learning program. Any emphasis on this for girls would lead to increased domesticity and curbs on their freedom where they would have a degree but not be able to do much with it. Here, not including girls’ education and other marginalized communities in the policy leads to exclusion. It is crucial to look at policy-making from a gender lens and make gender-specific policies to ensure genuinely equitable education for girls. 

The system will send an automated SMS to the parent/guardian any student who has missed more than 66% of working days in a month or missed more than 7 days in a row. If there is no response, it will send an Interactive Voice Response (IVRS) call to understand the reason for absenteeism and make a note in the system if anything is detected. If there is still no response, the teacher will call the parents up and will enter the details in the system. Home visits are conducted if the parents are unreachable or the child is detected to be “high-risk” and adequate steps are taken on a case by case basis. 

Given the policy’s recent implementation, there isn’t substantial data on the interventions made in the cases of girls as compared to boys. While the policy remains largely ungendered, it is important to consider the differing reasons for absenteeism amongst girls and boys. Among adolescent boys, the biggest cause for missing school has been child labour which has been hard to solve since councelling and encouraging them to go to school may help but the families still need their income. Amongst girls on the other hand, the biggest causes include early marriage and menstruation. Kundu said that four of their successful interventions were in cases where parents wanted to get their daughters ages between 15 and 17 married. The parents were counseled to push this decision until after they completed school. 

The policy was able to become fully functional only in April given that it can only be implemented when students are physically attending school which was optional until now due to the pandemic. The policy also made no arrangements for online school and helping those who were having a hard time accessing education while they were at home. In 2021, a Delhi-based NGO conducted a survey and found that 56.1% of girls had an increased responsibility to complete domestic chores during the pandemic with less time to focus on their education. Studies show a gender-based digital device with 33.6% of girls not having access to digital devices and 64% saying that boys had more access to devices and the internet in their communities. Many girls studying before the pandemic couldn’t return to classes as their families didn’t want to spend their savings on their daughters’ education.

The National Education Policy of 2020 faced similar backlash suggesting that while there were certain provisions that might promote girls’ education such as the provision of a Gender Inclusion Fund which would be utilized towards an equitable education for girls and transgender students and an increase in public investment to bring down education spending. This policy however might lead to schools becoming inaccessible and unaffordable and girls dropping out. It is crucial to look at policy making from a gender lens as well as make gender-specific policies to ensure truly equitable education for girls. 

Reya Daya is a third-year student studying psychology and media studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include writing, photography and music.

Picture credits: Unicef

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 15 Issue 7

Connecting culture to climate change: The many WIPs of Vinod Nambiar

The 2nd Edition of the Nila International Folklore Film Festival of India (NIFFFI 2021) is on. Hosted by Vinod Nambiar and his folk culturist group, Vayali, you can join a conversation with culture revivalists from across the globe and see documentaries on vanishing cultures. These films are made by, among others, India’s own adivasi filmmakers.

Vinod, for the past eighteen years, has been exploring every medium that gets youth up close with folk art, tradition and a knowledge system in touch with nature. A software engineer by training, he grew up by the river Nila in Kerala and saw first-hand how a living culture can begin to end, if another generation does not connect with its land. A creative response was an all bamboo instrument music band who engage the young to play, perform and experiment away.   Another is to have an ongoing cultural calendar, where the local flavour of dance and pottery, weaving and drama, bring a once dying river’s bedside, alive. Determined to be creative in tackling the cultural loss caused by climate change and migration, he shares the challenges in a video chat with Anushree Pratap.

Part of  Open Axis, Issue 15 focuses on interviews with path-breaking Indians, responding to climate change challenges.

Video: 15 min.

Cover image is taken from Vinod Nambiar’s Facebook page.

Anushree Pratap is a second-year student at Ashoka University pursuing Political Science and Environmental Studies. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 7

Someone Great

Directed by Jennifer Robinson and starring Jane The Virgin star Gina Rodriguez, Someone Great is a 2019 film that at once encompasses humour, friendship and love in a breezy 90-minute movie. It is set in New York City, the home of three girlfriends in their late-20s, navigating their careers and loves, all the while holding on to their cherished friendship. The movie revolves around the protagonist Jenny Young’s (Gina Rodriguez) recent breakup with her long-term boyfriend. While at first sight, the movie might seem like another light break-up watch filled with peppy songs and quippy one-liners, it touches upon the less-talked-about aspects of heartbreak and moving on.

Instead of going the conventional way by focusing solely on the protagonist’s broken heart, it attempts to explain the nuances of a complicated long-term relationship, the troubles of emotional attachment and the pain of moving on. Through the film, the protagonist is shown as actively coming to terms with the break-up, moving from blaming her boyfriend to admitting her own faults. It ends on a bittersweet note, with Jenny realising that while her time in the relationship was beautiful, the ending was also justified and all she can do is look forward and wish her ex-boyfriend future happiness. This attempt at understanding and achieving closure is perhaps the highlight of the film

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis)..

Categories
Issue 7

From the Screen to your Couch: Here’s to Binging with Babish

Courtesy: Youtube, Babish Culinary Universe

There’s just something about food in movies, TV shows and anime: it looks unachievable-y better. Yes, it’s the colour-grading, the impeccable cinematography and the breathtaking animation but I would go as far as to say: it’s also the story and what it means to you. I feel an odd attachment to Ratatouille that has little to do with the dish and everything to do with the movie. So, the Youtube algorithm inevitably caught on and presented me with Binging with Babish— a channel where cinematic food is serious business.

Andrew Rea cooks all of this food better than you ever could but it truly is more about the journey—filled with witty quips, shiny kitchen equipment and fancy camera angles—than the “destination” (not least because we can’t eat the food). Watching Babish whip-up food from Seinfeld or Friends not only leaves me giddy with childish nostalgia, but also with a little too much faith in my own culinary abilities. That’s really not too bad given the times we find ourselves in. We could do with a restful break from all the stress—whether it ends in great food or just a “huh, so Homer Simpson really wasn’t kidding around with those waffles”.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 7

NPR Tiny Desk Concert: Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals

Courtesy: YouTube, NPR Music

It’s no surprise that Anderson .Paak’s concert is the most viewed video of the NPR Tiny Desk Concert Series. Backed by long-time collaborators, Free Nationals, .Paak offers stripped down versions of songs from his then released record, Malibu. Intimate, informal and ingenious, the band offers an unmatched dynamism as an R&B four-piece outfit. What stands apart is .Paak’s performance as a singer-drummer. Switching between effortless rap and flowing vocal melodies, .Paak never loses hold of his tight drum groove that is accentuated throughout by Kelsey Gonzales’ bass playing.

Over these laid-back grooves is the perfect coalescence of hip hop and soul music, offering a perfect entry point into rap music for those who tend to drift away from hip hop’s usual associations with old-school gangsta rap, or trap music. Even if the music doesn’t strike a chord with your musical inclinations on first listen, .Paak’s charming smile, the band’s chemistry and humorous banter in between songs will leave you captivated. Throughout the performance, look out for the band member wearing shades, he is undoubtedly the one who stands out from the rest.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 7

The Beginner’s Guide

Conventional notions of the intentional meaning behind creativity is challenged in The Beginner’s Guide. An interactive, narrative-based game developed and narrated by Davey Wreden, it follows the player exploring a series of short games developed by an individual named Coda. However, it isn’t Coda who introduces the player to their creations, but a narrator, named ‘Wreden’ after the game’s developer, who was once Coda’s close friend. The game follows the tumultuous journey of Coda’s creativity, depicted in the games they built before their sudden disappearance from Wreden’s life. 

Wreden walks the player through a variety of Coda’s games, highlighting signs of Coda’s deteriorating mental health due to doubts about their abilities and dissatisfaction with their ideas through recurring symbols and subtle allusions. Coda’s games provide elusive messages to the player to piece together the cause of their disappearance. The games represent Coda’s creative range and usage of his games as a means of communication with others. Through inescapable prison sequences, endless staircases that becomes progressively difficult to climb, and a cabin in the middle of nowhere that requires repeated cleaning with no sight in end, it becomes apparent that Coda’s games mean more than just creative expression to him. 

Davey Wreden’s games are best experienced without much explanation–they are always more than what they seem. At its core, The Beginner’s Guide effectively makes its players reevaluate what creativity truly entails, and understand the consequences of an insatiable desire for searching for meaning in creative products, even when there isn’t any. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 7

This One Summer

This One Summer, by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is a gorgeously illustrated graphic novel that tells a coming-of-age of two ordinary friends. The book explores the ups and downs of adolescence in this sweet summer novel, set in a lazy beachside town. What really captured my attention was the art style that exquisitely revives the bittersweet nostalgia of summer, heightened by the monochromatic moody blue color palate used throughout. 

The prose that accompanied the illustration is warm enough to bring out all the little things that happen over the summer. The story of this graphic novel follows a young girl Rose, who goes to a beach town for a summer break with her parents and befriends another girl from the town named Windy. As the story progresses, we see Rose go through struggles of growing up as a girl and keeping up with the changes in her life that this vacation brings in the form of troubles in her parents’ marriage, and her own life.  The language used in the book is rather interesting as it very well captures the dilemma through the eyes of Rose, who is old enough to understand what is going around her but not mature enough to care or significantly contribute or even comprehend the troubles and trauma she is going through. 

The attention to detail in the illustrations, coupled with the delicate prose makes this combination of panels a beautiful story that weaves together a story of two girls who try to navigate their way through a repulsive adult world filled with domestic drama with teenage troubles, in what is an otherwise languid summer. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 7

Godspeed, Miya Bhai

The recently concluded test match series between India and Australia in Australia bears testimony to the fact that statistics and results are intended to capture final outcomes, but seldom represent the stories that bring them about. The visitors emerged victorious, and in doing so managed to retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy while defeating Australia at the Gabba, their unconquered fortress of 32 years. 

From the horrendous start, a reclaim to victory, a staunch defensive save to absolute heroics leading to a resounding triumph, there was no dearth of stories in the series. None of these, however, managed to capture the popular imagination of our country as well as the story of Mohammad Siraj.   

A late bloomer according to Indian cricketing standards, Siraj guided his home-team Hyderabad to a quarter-final spot in the 2017 Ranji season. He debuted for India in the game’s shortest format the same year, and in ODIs in 2019. He has also been an IPL mainstay over the last few seasons, his last assignment being his role as the strike bowler for the Royal Challengers Bangalore team. He came to face severe flak under this role, due to poor results from the team. However, it was only during the boxing day match last year that Siraj would don India’s test cap for the first time. Siraj scalped 5 wickets over the two innings at Melbourne, showing the world that he could bowl with immaculate discipline, capitalizing on his first-class experience. 

Mohammad Siraj is a Muslim from Hyderabad, a city with a rich history of Nizami culture that continues to permeate life there. Hyderabad has a high percentage of Muslim population, with 44% of its residents following Islam. Among his teammates, Siraj is referred to as Miya Bhai. This term of endearment is often used to refer to one’s friends, especially in Hyderabad. A glance through Siraj’s social media shows us a man doing the Mujra, a dance form central to Nawabi culture. Along with a host of cricketing awards, Siraj is still unvarnished and unapologetic to be himself, staying authentic to himself and his culture. An unfiltered stance like this takes bravery in these times, as India and Hyderabad witness changes antithetic to their multicultural, secular character. 

The BJP’s Hindu Nationalist agenda is contingent on the ability to identify and censure a fictive Muslim bogeyman. The party has leveraged this notion, seeming to work against “appeasement” politics. In Hyderabad, it has tried to rebrand the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), a major political party as one that protects Pakistanis and Rohingyas, the villains of the current nationalistic discourse. In the search for pan-India Hindu support, BJP has reformulated local body politics in the city, by attempting to sideline the ruling TRS party and the AIMIM. Much of its campaign for the municipal corporation was centered around Hindu nationalism, rather than local issues. This method of majoritarian politics was effective in its success in December 2020, where it racked up 44 out of 150 seats.

At the same time, in Australia, Siraj with his heroics managed to win hearts all over the world. Playing on after losing his father just a few days before the series, it was evident how important cricket was after capturing his first wicket. He dismissed Marnus Labuschagne and pointed his hands towards heaven, knowing abba would be proud of him. 

After an Indian win in the second match, the opening ceremony of the third caught India’s collective attention. As the National Anthem played, Mohammad Siraj’s eyes teared up, prompting a widespread flow of both adoration and adulation for him. Amidst all this, to a certain few, this incident seemed to serve a point to further the “Good Muslim” idealogue that has become rampant. It seeks to present a caricature of accepted, even ideal behavior of the minority, to further strengthen control over the popular narrative. For Siraj, however, all it represented was a reminder of how far he’d come, and the joy that would have been all too evident for his father.

In this match, Siraj saw yet another challenge as he had to face racial abuse at the hand of spectators when he was fielding near the ropes of the Sydney Cricket Ground. This abuse started on the third day and continued over to the fourth day of the Test match. Certain sections of the ground were cleared, and an investigation remains underway. Following a hard-fought draw in this match, India were matched 1-1 with Australia on the scorecard. India’s squad was sodden with injuries to key players. Consequently,  Siraj, with all the experience of two matches, now had to lead a fresh bowling attack, one that had a combined total of 13 wickets, compared to 1033 for the Australians. 

Despite the obvious chasm between the two sides in experience and results, the Indians were resolute throughout the five days of play. On the fourth day, Siraj and Shardul Thakur fought hard to be the first Indian bowlers in the series to produce a five-wicket haul. This contest ended rather fittingly with Hazelwood getting caught by Shardul at third man off of Siraj’s bowling. On the last day of the series, Cheteshwar Pujara copped eleven blows to the body in order to shield the Indian team’s chances of fighting. The star of the show, however, was Rishabh Pant, whose intent and aggression sealed the match in India’s favor three overs before play ended. As soon as the winning runs were recorded, the first person to rush to the field was Siraj, embracing the day’s star before uprooting a stump to mark the end of a remarkable match and series. 

At the end of the tournament, India had made use of 20 players over their matches. It was the story of one of them, however, that will be talked about in the years to come. As soon as he landed in India, Mohammad Siraj visited his father’s grave, knowing that his trip was complete only then. Despite the “good other” comments that he attracts, or the vitriol that he has to face on social media, the identity of Mohammad Siraj, Miya Bhai is one that he wears proudly, defiantly, and effortlessly, one that is expressly similar to his bowling action.

Aditya Burra is an Economics and Finance major at Ashoka University. He enjoys hiking, and is particularly interested in understanding how right-wing online spaces function.

Picture Credits: Fox Sports

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 7

The Cost of the Cure: Understanding the Implications of India’s COVID-19 Inoculation Drive

Union Minister Amit Shah’s bold call for a duel to challenge vaccine skeptics came exactly a week after the Indian government’s inoculation program against COVID-19 was launched on 16th January 2021. The ambitious plan aims to vaccinate 300 million healthcare and frontline workers in its first phase using the vaccine derived from the Oxford-AstraZeneca candidate AZD-1222, dubbed Covishield in India, and Covaxin, produced by Hyderabad-based biotechnology company, Bharat Biotech and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

Despite initial optimism, the program has witnessed low turnout rates, due to widespread misinformation and safety concerns. The root cause of doubt about the program stems from the announcement by the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) on 3rd January 2021, when Covaxin and Covishield were given emergency use approvals. While the approval for Covishield was unsurprising, given its established efficacy in all three phases of trials abroad, it was the seemingly hasty rollout of Covaxin that caused a stir. 

Criticism of the vaccine primarily focused on the absence of Phase 3 clinical trial data, since the trials have not yet concluded. The initial backlash against the approval of Covaxin was met with officials responsible for India’s COVID-19 response claiming that it would be used as a “back up”, in case of the need for extra doses given the emergence of the new UK strain of the virus. Moreover, it was also made clear that Covaxin would only be administered in “clinical trial mode”, where its recipients would be asked for their consent and proper monitoring for side-effects would follow

However, this stance towards the vaccine changed a few days later, when it was announced that both vaccine candidates will be treated at par with one another.  According to Dr Samiran Panda, a scientist at the ICMR, the circulation of the vaccine essentially implied a single-arm clinical trial, where a placebo wouldn’t be used and results wouldn’t be published under a peer-reviewed journal. Moreover, vaccine recipients would not have the option to choose between Covaxin and Covishield. It was this sudden change of positions that raised concerns. 

Consent, Choice and the State

The question about individual choice and consent is critical to the discourse around the inoculation mission. The lack of choice between vaccine candidates has affected turnout rates with only around 56% of eligible individuals getting vaccinated due to concerns among healthcare and frontline workers about the controversy surrounding its fast-paced rollout.

Ethical concerns regarding consent plague the program – should recipients, who aren’t willing participants of a research study, not be allowed to choose between two vaccines that differ in terms of proven efficacy and safety? Given the major difference between the vaccine candidates, how can consent retain its true value when it directly robs an individual of their agency to make personal medical decisions? Most crucially, should the state have the authority to directly or indirectly force the hand of citizens in making informed medical choices?

The decision of the rollout of Covaxin under current conditions seems even more dubious at a time when essential workers are invaluable and at the highest risk of contracting the virus. 

Shifting Positions and Unwelcome Surprises

The behaviour of the Indian state and its important bodies in relation to its treatment of Covaxin is also perplexing. The very approval of a vaccine that hasn’t yet completed Phase 3 clinical trials raises alarm. The third phase of trials is critical since it provides for the closest possible model of how a vaccine candidate will behave when administered to a large population.

The vaccine’s intended use has also been disputed. The DCGI had claimed that it would be administered in an open-label clinical trial to ascertain its efficacy against the UK strain of the virus. In direct contradiction, Bharat Biotech managing director Krishna Ella has stated that there was no “confirmatory data” indicating that Covaxin works against it, and has suggested that this form of vaccine circulation was sprung upon him by the government.

The sheer disconnect between the understanding of India’s major regulatory body and the vaccine manufacturer not only is a matter of concern but also sets a worrisome precedent. Moreover, the suggestion that Bharat Biotech was unaware of the government’s expectation of the vaccine’s use can also lead to long-lasting implications for public trust in regulatory bodies and affect state standards for treatment approvals in the future. 

 Vaccine Diplomacy and Anti-Nationals
The past year has been marked by governmental positions that encourage the idea of India as a major player in the global response against COVID-19. The consequence of the same is the attachment of national pride to India’s vaccine response.  Hence, in the face of concerns about the vaccine, critics of the vaccination program have been liberally deemed ‘anti-national’, an all-too-familiar narrative that conveniently sensationalizes every aspect of the matter except its core problems.
Given that Covishield is relatively cheaper than Covaxin, it is important to question the government’s decision to purchase and circulate a vaccine that is yet to produce Phase 3 trial data. Moreover, India has only exported doses of Covishield so far despite having purchased 3.85 million doses of Covaxin, which is peculiar given the government’s otherwise confident domestic narrative around the vaccine. These facts paint a murky picture – one where India seems to be balancing domestic needs and international ambitions, with the former placed in relatively more uncertain territory than the latter.It is necessary to establish that the crux of the concerns surrounding Covaxin pertains to the confusion around its intended usage, authorization prior to completing Phase 3 trials, and the issues of recipient consent and choice. A pandemic is the worst possible time to sow skepticism around medicine. At the same time however, it is important to recognize that the consequences of any missteps in approval or administration of treatments can trigger mass disillusionment from life-saving scientific treatments for years to come. Given as things stand in India, one can only wait and observe what unfolds.

Aarohi Sharma is a Psychology student at Ashoka University. Her academic interests primarily focus on the intersection of politics and psychology in society.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 7

Bridgerton: A Regency Tale of Surveillance and Information Control

In February 2021, the Netflix show, Bridgerton, (based on the books by Julia Quinn) became the most streamed show on their platform after being viewed by 83 million households. But while we were busy fawning over the lavish balls and romantic storylines, did we happen to overlook a critical theme about the nexus of the media and mass surveillance? What is this nexus, what are its implications, and how has Republic TV emerged as India’s very own Lady Whistledown?

Bridgerton revolves around the lives of the influential families in 1813, Regency London. The show is rife with scandals and secrecy, all promised to be revealed by Lady Whistledown, the anonymous author of the town’s latest gossip column or scandal sheet.

The show begins by Lady Whistledown declaring that she knows everyone who is reading her paper, a way of subtly signalling that they are all being closely observed. She derives her information from a combination of surveillance or observation and leaked information through various networks (for example, gossiping maids who hear everything about the lives of their employers). 

As Whistledown starts revealing secrets and exposing the scandals of the high-society families, it becomes evident that through her society papers she can not only influence and manipulate the public opinion but also bring dishonour to certain families and impact the existing social hierarchies. 

Soon people start factoring in her presence in their social behaviour. Knowing that she’s lurking around, waiting to expose their secrets, the people of the town start to self-censor themselves. This is a common behavioural phenomenon which occurs when people know that they are under surveillance, and it serves as an excellent tool to exercise control over a population. In London during the 1800s, there existed a myriad of social rules and norms that were imposed on the people by society. For example, if a woman were to be seen alone with a man, then it would be assumed that her honour had been compromised. The society also frowned upon the free expression of one’s sexuality and enforced very strict gender roles. Any divergence from such norms would have potentially led to a scandal. 

Whistledown’s society papers display how if one person had a combined monopoly over surveillance and the media then they could significantly shape the society and make it conform to certain standards that they deemed fit. This kind of control could also be harnessed and exploited by those in power for their personal gains.

What’s even more alarming is that Whistledown’s readers accept whatever she writes with the utmost trust. Her word is seen to be “as good as gospel”. This is because news about influential people or celebrities automatically becomes sensational and thus even a small, probably fake rumour can also spread rapidly, with little attention paid to the credibility of the source. Unfortunately, this practice of ‘sensationalizing’ the news has found its way into the world of TV Journalism as well, an area where credibility should ideally matter the most. 

This is because as people’s attention spans decrease, they feel the need to be constantly entertained. Thus, news channels have begun to employ various theatrical elements to supplement their reports. This is because unlike Lady Whistledown, news channels are faced with immense competition and they must resort to these theatrics in order to increase their TRPs. 

A survey conducted in 2020 by CVoter with a sample size of 4500 people across the country found that 73.9 per cent of the people surveyed feel that news channels in India “are more of entertainment than real news”. And 76.7 per cent said that TV News channels and TV serials both “sensationalise and scandalise everything”. This only goes to show that the credibility of TV journalism has declined. Now that they are functioning primarily for entertainment, these channels aren’t that different from Lady Whistledown’s society papers, as they are both used for societal control. 

Consider the Republic TV. After observing 1779 prime-time debates the Caravan found that Republic TV was consistently biased towards the Modi government, it’s policies and ideology. In addition to this, the channel is also said to have focused less on pressing issues such as the state of the economy, education or health and more on drawing attention away from these issues. Their analysis also revealed that the channel has consistently attacked those to oppose the ruling government. 

Caravan’s analysis also revealed that Republic TV has consistently attacked those to oppose the ruling government. News channels have the power to shape public opinion and it’s obvious that this space can be exploited to put forward certain political agendas.

In addition to this, the government of India has amped up its mass surveillance on its citizens in recent years. And has specially cracked-down on various social media platforms. By surveying our social media activity, the government has been able to silence countless journalists, artists, etc. In addition to this, the Uttarakhand police recently declared that the police can now deny a citizen the clearance required for obtaining a passport if they post ‘anti-national’ posts on social media. By creating such laws and going after individuals who question the current regime, the government has set the precedent for what counts as acceptable behaviour on these online platforms. All this stands to be the government’s not-so-subtle cue for the public to begin self-censoring themselves on social media. 

But so far this has not worked. Protests and political dissent transitioned to social media platforms in the wake of the lockdown. And now these virtual spaces have evolved to be conducive to political dissent. And as for Lady Whistledown, she may be in control of the society at the moment, but any day now, the people of the town could discover better things (provided by unbiased and more credible information sources) to dwell on and her scandal sheets will become irrelevant.

Ashana Mathur is a student of Economics, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).