In an interview published in the Times of India (18 January 2019), Jiby J Kattakyam asked Malayalam writer Paul Zacharia, “Is the public space for intellectuals and free speech shrinking despite new avenues like social media?” Zacharia’s reply was, “The space for free speech for any citizen, leave alone intellectuals, has shrunk to a minuscule niche in today’s India. Free speech is the proprietary privilege of politicians. The media, if it wishes, can still exercise free speech, but in general prefers not to. For the first time in India, intellectuals have been murdered for representing reason, sanity and truth. Social media’s failure to be a democratic and civilized space and the barbarism with which some use it to attack free speech is a tragedy of monumental proportions. And given the shrunken minds of India’s political class across parties it is doubtful if even a regime change will return India to a free intellectual climate.”
Zacharia’s answer is an indictment of politicians, the media and social media. As publishers and printers we are to some extent in the service of, and users of, all three. Those who think their publishing and printing businesses can be neutral or uncaring of politics, intellectual freedom and free speech or indeed the issues of publicly supported education, health and infrastructure, are of course deluding themselves that their businesses or their work can grow merely by technology, monetization or subscriptions. If news media and book publishers continue to give in to hate, fear, censorship, threats and self-censorship, they will deservedly lose relevance.
In addition to ad revenues, newspaper subscription revenues are down and are not likely to recover or be saved by digital subscriptions except for those who can deliver content that readers are ready to pay for. Social media, even as we try to learn and understand it, has lost much of its credibility and even the power to influence beyond entertainment, pornography and some viral videos. Of the estimated Rs. 13,000 crore (US$ 1.7 billion) to be spent on the coming general election by all political parties, it is estimated that Rs. 7,000 crore will go to below-the-line spends such as rallies and other activities. The remaining Rs. 5,000 crore will be divided between print media, television, outdoor signage and social media. Moreover, if the overall election ad spend goes up, it is social media that is likely to gain with Facebook the winner, according to some experts. Social media advertising is expected to rise by as much 150% to Rs. 12,000 crore over 2019 according to the experts.
The publishing and print industries are not really showing exceptional or even real growth. Our experience in researching these industries for the past 20 years (in IppStar) has shown that high growth that allows real investment only occurs when the GDP growth rate is far above 6%. In the past three or four years this does not seem to be the case, no matter what kind of numbers the government cooks up and claims. Yes, there is growth but most of it is absorbed by the wider base engaged in minimal improvements in their subsistence. While this too is an admirable achievement, it does not create yet the economic dynamics for industrial growth and societal change for the better.
The last point that I would like to make is that notwithstanding the recently released ASER report on the dismal educational outcomes across India and the relatively better results of private education, education is a foremost government responsibility. The decline in education expenditure relative to the GDP (from 3.1% in FY 13-14 to 2.7% in FY 17-18) is a shameful occurrence. The defects and corruption of public education must be overcome and not merely transferred or shifted to the private education system. Or, even to some digital or robotic future. The educational system is of primary concern to publishers and printers and if it is not fixed we are headed for hypercompetition and economic bankruptcy; and, not only the moral, spiritual and intellectual bankruptcy that Paul Zacharia is talking about.