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Op-Ed

In her words

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By EMN Updated: Jan 04, 2014 12:38 am
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In this column we will be featuring the writings by award winning women journalists in India found in the collection of the book ‘Making News Breaking News Her Way. It is a publication by Tranquebar Press in association with Media Foundation, New Delhi which instituted the annual Chameli Devi Jain Award for an Outstanding Women Mediaperson in 1980.

Kalpana Sharma 

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]axmi used to live on a Mumbai pavement. Now she has a pucca house. Her pavement home was in central Mumbai, within walking distance from a railway station, even closer to several bus stops, schools, hospitals, shops, restaurants and a police station. Her new home is part of an emerging suburb where the poor and homeless have been shifted -a virtual jungle of multi-storied structures that has morphed into another of the many townships that make up the metropolis of Mumbai. Over the decades during which I have written, reported and commented about Mumbai, Laxmi’s story has come to exemplify the city itself.It was Laxmi who first made me understand why the vote matters to poor people. While writing about an imminent election to the Mumbai municipal corporation, I decided to spend some time talking to Laxmi. At that time, she lived on the pavement on Sophia Zuber Marg in Nagpada, opposite the police station and a stone’s throw away from the legendary Irani restaurant, Sarvi. The little eight feet by six feet patch she called home, was the only one she had known for well Pradesh. In that little lean-to, where a grown person would find it difficult to stand up straight, Laxmi had given birth to a son, educated him and is now proud that he has a job.
But the decades on the pavement of Sophia Zuber were ones marked with daily disquiet. At the end of the day, would her jhopdi still be there? Or would the municipality send its troops to demolish the pavement slums along all the lanes in the area, as it had done several times in the past? Each time it had happened, Laxmi and the others had rebuilt their homes, living in anxiety till the next demolition.
Life began to change for Laxmi when she met a group of middle-class women who expressed an interest in her life and others like her. Instead of lecturing them about what they should do, these women sat and listened to their views, played with their children, got a taste of their lives. Through these interactions emerged strategies. One of them was to devise ways to save some money every day so that at the end of several years, the women would have enough saved to eventually buy a permanent home. Laxmi knew well that even though she had survived on the pavement for almost twenty years, she would not be able to stay there forever. The city around her was changing rapidly and in that change, her life and her home would not remain untouched. But on that particular day, as we sat in her ‘home’ and talked about various things, I asked her if she planned to vote in the elections.
‘Of course,’ she said.
‘But why?’ I asked. ‘So many people where I live, who have pucca houses, are just not interested in the elections.’ She looked at me and, in all seriousness said, ‘Didi, if people like me don’t vote, no one will know I exist.’ That, I think, is one of the profoundest remarks I have heard in the course of my career as a journalist. It represents what many of us journalists who come from a different socio-economic class fail to understand -that the poor vote not because someone bribes them or forces them, but because that is the only way they will be counted, the only way their existence will be acknowledged. The high turnout in the poorest parts of Mumbai during successive elections is ample illustration of this truth.
Laxmi’s story illustrates an obvious, but often overlooked aspect of contemporary journalism in India -that a story, whether on politics, environment, development or disaster, comes alive only when we take the time to talk to people. But there is also another angle. Often women provide a dimension that is not always evident when you talk only to men, or to the ‘authorities’ who are also most often men. Gender mediates the impact of events differently on men and women. If journalists understand this, and it is not some complicated feminist theory, then they will catch an essential part of a story that could so easily be missed.
One incident that I covered that remains embedded in my memory is the terrible earthquake that flattened vast areas of Kachchh on 26 January 2001, and killed an estimated 20,000 people. I was part of a group of Mumbai-based journalists who got a ride on a Jet Airways flight that left the very next day with relief supplies.
When we arrived in Bhuj on 27 January, we were confronted with scenes of gut-wrenching devastation. There were thousands of people who had sought shelter in relief camps that were little more than open tents. It was bitterly cold and people had nothing with which to ward it off. All their belongings lay buried under the rubble. Worst off were the old and the children. None of us could file stories from Bhuj on that day, as there was no electricity and no phone lines. Our cellphones would not work. The only option was to spend the day talking to people and gathering as much information as was possible and then heading out, either to the nearest town in Gujarat with telecom links, or back to Mumbai on the return flight. That night, the only place to sleep in was the Jet Airways bus used to ferry passengers from the terminus to the aircraft and back.
Right from the start, it was clear to us that the Bhuj story would be incomplete if we only spoke to officials. We had to spend as much time as possible with the affected families, particularly the women. It is through them that we got a graphic picture of what had happened on that fateful day and it is through their words that we best conveyed it. We filed our stories only after we got back.
A week later, I went back to write about the relief efforts underway. Only one hotel was still standing in Bhuj and that too was covered with frightening cracks. The room I stayed in was connected to the rest of the hotel by a staircase that l looked as if it would collapse any minute. Every night, aftershocks threw Bhuj into a state of panic and we had to scramble out of our rooms.
The devastation on the outskirts of Bhuj was much worse. Once again, it was the women who were able to describe most accurately what had happened. The men were more interested in knowing whether we could give them some contacts for relief agencies.
A year later, when I went back to see what had happened with resettlement, once again I got a different perspective when I spoke to the women. On the face of it, everything looked great. Neat rows of houses had been built on resettlement sites and everyone had been allotted one. They had water and electricity. Schools had reopened. There were health facilities available.
Yet a closer look revealed that the women had built makeshift kitchens outside their houses. Why, I wondered, were they not using the kitchens inside? I understood when a woman led me to her indoor kitchen. She pointed to the platform that had been provided to cook on. It came up almost to her chin! For women used to squatting on the floor to cook at a chullah, the platform built at chin-level was useless. The kitchens had been built without taking into consideration the cooking modes of the women.
In the aftermath of another earthquake seven years earlier in Latur, Maharashtra, I had watched the legendary architect, Laurie Baker, sitting with a group of local women and discussing the houses that would be built for them. He held up a small cardboard model of the house, explained the different rooms and asked them where they would like the kitchen. The women had definite opinions and were not shy of stating them. And Baker was willing to incorporate them into the final plans for the houses. Clearly, nothing of this kind of consultation had taken place before the houses were constructed in Kachchh.
One could argue that taking the trouble to get the women’s perspective is just an add-on, something that is not integral to the story. I would argue that indeed it is. Because without it, you will not understand why so much of what is planned with the best of intentions goes so wrong and is so very dysfunctional for the very people it is supposed to benefit.
This applies not just to the resettlement and rehabilitation efforts post a disaster, but also in the case of displacement caused by infrastructure and developments projects. You see it in the planning for water and sanitation, a classic example of where a gender perspective would ensure more effective planning. For more than anyone else, women pay the price for the lack of sanitation, and yet, they are rarely consulted. But when they are, the results are dramatic, as we know from Haryana where women have taken the lead in the anti-open- defecation campaign.
There are hundreds of such stories that are waiting to be told. For me, the real pleasure of journalism has been the opportunity it has given me to travel, to talk to ordinary people, to get a sense of what their lives are like, and to find ways to conveying this through my writings.
Fortunately, I have been able to sustain my column, ‘The Other Half’, that has looked at developments through a gender lens for over twenty-five years, with a break of a few years in between. The column began in Express Magazine, the Sunday section of The Indian Express, in 1985 and continues today in The Hindu’s Sunday magazine.
This space, in particular, has afforded me the opportunity. l of writing about contemporary issues from a specific angle, that of gender, although I have expanded the meaning of ‘the other half’ to also include the poor, the voiceless, those in a minority and children. It is fascinating how the same story looks so different when you stand it on its head and view it from a different perspective.
In the course of the four decades that I have been a journalist, the nature of the media, in India and elsewhere, has changed dramatically. I am part of the typewriter generation. For years, my blue Olivetti portable was my companion. With it I had to carry paper, carbon paper, correcting fluid, and the like. We filed copy in post offices sent by telex or telegram. For some stories, the telecom department of the local post office became the unofficial press adda, and the telex operators would even let us type our copy directly on their machines.
Today, people are filing stories on their laptops and Blackberries. The dissemination is faster, but the space available in all media has shrunk. It is a challenge to convey basic facts, bring in some colour as well as a perspective when you have only five hundred words or less. But it has been done and is being done by journalists who believe that people’s voices must come through their copy.
Technology, I believe, should not change the focus of ‘” journalism. Whatever the form -print, television, radio, internet -what matters is the perspective of the practitioners
of the trade. If, as journalists, we think our job is merely to relay bits of information to the general public, we are only a little better than ‘stenographers’. If, on the other hand, we believe that what we write can make a difference to people’s lives, then regardless of the technology we use, we can find ways of doing just that.
Kalpana Shanna, in her four decades as a journalist, has worked with Himmat Weekly, The Indian Express, The Times of India and The Hindu. Currently, she is an independent journalist, columnist and author. Her books include Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum (Penguin,2000); Whose News? The Media and Women’s Issues co-edited with ArnrnuJoseph (Sage, 1994); Terror Counter Terror; Women Speak Out, co-edited with Arnrnu Joseph (Kali for Women, 2003); and Missing: Half the Story, journalism as if Gender Matters (Zubaan, 2010). She won the Chameli Devi Jain Award in 1986.

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By EMN Updated: Jan 04, 2014 12:38:41 am