This piece was published on redhotcurry.com, 18th August 2012 and as an editorial in the Hindustan Times in September 25, 2012:
By all measures, Aamir Khan’s and Star Plus’ Satyamev Jayate has been a phenomenal success. Viewing figures surpass anything shown on Indian Sunday mornings since the Mahabharata and Ramayana serials in the 1990s. It has generated an astounding level of commentary in the print and social media. By the end of its first episode, the show’s website had crashed; even though the last episode of the show aired almost 2 weeks ago, it continues to be the subject of several hundred tweets a day.
Many critics have lampooned Satyamev Jayate as the venal ego-trip of a Bollywood star looking to bask in the reflected glory of hard grafting, dedicated others. Others have attacked the show’s televisual format. But this is too easy – and arguing that television limits SMJ is actually a little bizarre. Television obviously has its constraints – ad breaks, episode limits and so on – but it achieves a level of penetration that other media formats simply can’t hope to emulate. Satyamev Jayate has brought acute social problems into more Indian homes than any other show in Indian television history. Those who doubt this should take a look at the lengths the show’s producers went to ensure that the show reaches the villages as well as the metros (reportedly at considerable cost). Others have taken objection to the paradoxical elevation of Aamir Khan as India’s social conscience at the same time that the show seeks to champion India’s quiet heroes. This has been the basis for a range of accusations in the Twitterverse, ranging from which Khan’s alleged crocodile tears to his exorbitant paypacket. Even if some of these allegations are true, it doesn’t really matter. And those who say the show has made no material impact miss the point of television entirely.
What SMJ has achieved, without question, is awareness on an epic scale. The show has brought the reality of what are “wicked problems” (water shortages, environmental degradation) into an unprecedented public sphere. By doing so, it has not only afforded profile to deserving individuals, groups and projects, but hopefully catalysed a new wave of activity as viewers, either moved by the plight of those suffering from such problems, or inspired by those attempting to address them, seek to become change-makers themselves. As Shoma Chaudhury has forcefully argued, it also has handled complex issues with a rare dignity and attention to complexity.
For these reasons, neither Khan nor the show’s producers need to unduly worry about an unfinished project with an undefined legacy. The primary concern should be to maintain the momentum the show has created (especially in the absence of a second series in the foreseeable future).
How should it do this? By capitalising on the show’s enormous web following, and to use this to promote more entrepreneurial approaches to social problem-solving. On the official SMJ site, it self-consciously measures its impact in the number of “connections” it has enabled, the Twitter and Facebook “impressions” it has generated, and the number of text messages received. The show clearly recognises that its strength lies in its capacity to bring people into communities of interest, and by doing so, to generate a critical mass of change-makers.
Where it could extend this impact would be to encourage this community to move beyond the philanthropic-charitable model it has understandably championed. There are, for example, numerous match funding schemes for the organisations featured in the show’s various episodes. But there are other opportunities it can seize to engage its following in more creative ways. By doing so, it could enhance the scope and scale of change in India. This involves engaging its self-generated community to move beyond the cult of individual heroes and philanthropic patches to promote entrepreneurial and ultimately sustainable solutions to social problems.
This need not involve everyone abandoning their jobs to start their own social enterprises. Not everyone is or should be a social entrepreneur. What everyone should be is aware of their ability to contribute to entrepreneurial approaches to social issues. There are already many credible socially entrepreneurial responses to some of the critical issues raised in SMJ – including organic farming, waste management and clean energy solutions. Many of these could benefit from business support, human resources, and technological input. There also many which are good ideas but need expert knowledge to make the leap from good ideas to working models with long-term, consistent impact.
Community time-bank models have been immensely successful in many places around the world. Why not link SMJ’s sizeable following to volunteering organisations in major cities (the “metros”) to enable the kind of skill and knowledge transfer to improve, diffuse and scale social innovations? If time is an issue, organisations such as Milaap allow individuals to make loans to the working poor in India. These loans go towards providing primary social goods like clean drinking water, sanitation, renewable energy and enterprise development. Such enterprises often go under the radar. Bigger, brasher charity operations hog the media limelight but they don’t necessarily have the greatest impact.
There are many facile criticisms of Satmayev Jayate that need to be dismissed outright. If it is to have a lasting impact on India’s social economy, however, it cannot afford to stand outside sustainable circuits of change-making. This involves the encouragement of a shift away from a reliance on philanthropic and heroic charity to more entrepreneurial approaches. No-one denies that the former two do not have a role to play in India. Social entrepreneurship should not be seen in competition to traditional modes of change-making, but as a viable, sustainable alternative which can complement the truly inspirational work being done in the charity sector.
On its own terms, Satmayev Jayate has been an unqualified success. It is a welcome tonic to the claustrophobic, thought-choking smog of the sass bahu soap opera, bringing uncomfortable realities into the Indian home with clarity and purpose. It has also cultivated a huge online following with the potential to unleash an incredible wave of social action. It is its success in galvanising this wider movement, which will define its contribution to solving the chronic problems facing India today.