In her words
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 Chamei Devi Jain Award for an Outstanding Women Mediaperson in 1980.
[dropcap]J[/dropcap]ournalists are privileged, they lead interesting lives.
Thirty years after I was given the Chameli Devi Jain Award in its second year (for lack of too many nominations, I suspect), the stories which one worked on that year, and the people who made news then, have an uncannily contemporary resonance.
It was a year that took me to Bastar where Maoism had only just begun to infiltrate its jungles from across the forested border in Andhra Pradesh. Alas, it was a single-source story as far as I remember -from the police who had seized Maoist literature in the villages. The Indian Express front-paged and headlined it ‘Red Star over Bastar’. I was mighty pleased, but that was long before I began to critique the media and knew better than to do conflict reporting sourced from just the police. I had joined the Express barely seven or eight months before, with the job description of development correspondent. Clearly I had a lot to learn.
From Jagdalpur, one went to Dalli Rajhara where Binayak Sen had just set up the Shaheed Hospital for the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh led by Shankar Guha Niyogi. It was a hospital for workers, run by workers. Binayak was not exactly looking for newspaper publicity, but we knew each other from our college days in Madras and Vellore and being a .1 good soul, he found it difficult to snub this pesky quest for a 1 second story from the region. He told me dryly later that I had not quite understood what he and Niyogi were trying to do with the Shaheed Hospital.Either in 1983 or early the following year, wandering around Maharashtra looking at government and non-governmental development projects, I landed, along with a local Express colleague, the late Prakash Kardaley, at Ralegan Siddhi where a diminutive former serviceman called Anna Hazare had greened his village, begun a movement against liquor and intimidated his fellow villagers with novel methods of punishment for the errant. I don’t remember for what offence, but vividly recall Hazare’s assertion that in his village they had begun to hang offenders in the community upside down from trees. Again, it made a wonderful story, and possibly that was the first time the rest of the country heard of Anna Hazare.
Being a development correspondent at The Indian Express was a follow-on from doing rural reporting for a Gandhi Peace Foundation journal called Voluntary Action. George Verghese who was editing it, would dispatch me to produce articles from village locations where rural NGOs were running projects. I would come back spotted red with bedbug bites, and ask him, ‘But where am I supposed to stay?’ (Or, for that matter, bathe or use the 100 -was the subtext not quite articulated.) There were NGOs who had campuses with guesthouses, but elsewhere Gandhian rural workers would point me to a cowshed and suggest I bathe there with a bucket and mug after the cow had been duly led out (since one tended to blanch at the green ponds where the women would go to bathe).
I was no P Sainath*, but in my four years with Voluntary Action, one got around to enough states, including Manipur and Assam, to produce copy that qualified later for this then year-old award. It’s easy to shine when you are the only one doing a certain kind of reporting. For my pains I got the award for rural reporting and I shared it with Prabha Dutt, my former colleague at Hindustan Times who got it for urban reporting. So the citations read.
The thing about rural reporting in those days was that everything had the potential for becoming a story. But, The Indian Express was not Voluntary Action and, in the years right after Arun Shourie’s blazing first stint in investigative journalism, the paper was not looking for gobar gas journalism, as my efforts were dubbed by uncharitable colleagues. Swaminathan Aiyar, a colleague who sat across a partition in the Express once said, ‘This is a new definition of exclusives. Go to places where no one else is going to go and everything you write becomes an exclusive.’
Another year down the line, economy measures at The Indian Express took care of my brand of journalism. The budget for rural travel was withdrawn and that was that. Time to have a baby and turn to more city-based ways of making a reporting career.
George Verghese was succeeded as editor of the Express by Suman Dubey, and Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister was in his first flush of idealism. Bhaskar Ghose, a bureaucrat who has just written his memoir, was plucked out of Darjeeling in West Bengal and brought to Delhi to redeem dreary, sarkari Doordarshan. We all dubbed it Operation Credibility. ‘Go interview Bhaskar,’ said Dubey, and thus my next specialisation was born: reporting on media.
Television had gone colour a few years before and was set to become a medium to be watched. That was in 1986, and one had no inkling of just how much media would flower in another five years. Or how journalism would be transformed, as the earnest plodders on two-wheelers, going from the venue of one ministerial speech to another, were replaced by bright young things in cars once EMIs (extended monthly instalments) became the currency for upward mobility. Now it was not about merely covering speeches, but about producing more featurised reporting on beats one never imagined could be beats.
In twenty-six years of reporting media, one has seen its landscape transform. Newspapers spread to small towns, then kasbas, then villages. They went colour and grew heavy with supplements. Television grew out of its Doordarshan straitjacket and blossomed via an illegal cable industry. And in 1995, came the internet bringing possibilities we had never dreamt of.
When newspapers began to come to district headquarters and then to villages from about 1989 onwards, with Eenadu in Andhra Pradesh being the pioneer, they used stringers. Stringers were the original citizen-journalists -schoolteachers, local lawyers, farmers and shopkeepers -who made village- level journalism, and the nature of their reporting changed the nature of the newsmaker. If newspapers had to sell editions in rural India, they had to become, at least in some measure, a chronicle of rural life, a daily bulletin board which people read to see if their names were mentioned.
The post-liberalisation era, whatever its other sins, has made possible the tremendous growth in television and print by generating a level of advertising growth unheard of before. The reason India’s rural newspaper revolution was becoming possible was because products, multinational or Indian, needed a rural market and a media vehicle to push them through. At Dainik Jagran, they showed me a power-point presentation they had done for Coca Cola to persuade the multinational that rural newspaper editions would open up the market in Uttar Pradesh for them.
When I returned to Bastar and Binayak Sen’s home-base in 2002, the fledgeling Maoist movement was far more entrenched than before and Sen had begun his work on rural health. He sent me to meet a PUCL (People’s Union of Civil Liberties) colleague of his in Jagdalpur who would fill me in about the state of journalism in Bastar. But the real education was en route.
Along the highway connecting Raipur to Kanker to Jagdalpur, a roadside shop’s signboard proclaimed: ‘Come and give your news here.’ The shopkeeper, it turned out, was a stringer for one of the Hindi newspapers in Chhattisgarh. He told us that he did not have to go out to look for news – people who wanted to be written about came and gave it to him -handwritten reports on local functions, mostly. An STD-booth owner encountered along the same highway was also a citizen-journalist of sorts. Along the same highway, we came across a media family -two brothers who between them functioned as hawker, correspondent and advertisement- procurement agent. Rural journalism had been democratised, and become totally male.
Exactly twenty years after attempting virtuous development reporting from India’s villages, one was learning that doing rural journalism was no big deal -it was just a question of how you defined it.
How did journalists fare through two decades of media boom? The tribe has evolved or regressed, depending on one’s point of view. After cable and satellite television conquered India, journalists have never had to look back. Rapidly multiplying news channels began to swallow up print journalists as well as spawn a new breed of journalists, like the Chameli Award winner Barkha Dutt, who cut their teeth on television.
Liberalisation brought competition in the media as anywhere else and, thanks to job-hopping, journalists today command prices they never did before, at ages unheard of before. At the same time, subject-knowledge in a majority of the members of the tribe is at an all-time low. The internet teaches you to cut and paste, and television only expects you to stick a mike in somebody’s face while someone from the back-end of the studio is feeding into your earpiece what questions to ask. If you are in the studio you can sound wonderfully clued-in as you read off the teleprompter.
Career progression is far more rapid today than it was in my time when one spent years in reporting, then years as a special correspondent covering the government, and then retired. But someone who climbs too fast misses out on the learning, traveling, getting to know beats -a process which also helped one discover what really interested one. Today, not only do supremely self-confident reporters not know where to place commas in their copy, many will also rise two or three levels in their careers without having traveled through, but rather parachuted into, district India. And thanks to television, which brings accessibility, they will be on first- name terms with the politicians and businessmen they are expected to cover.
Then there is the new media’s gift to writing on current affairs: the blogger. A breed that thrives on anonymity and opinion, creates its own snazzy cyber platform and is sought after by the mainstream media which, to fill time on twenty- four-hour television and space in hundred-page newspapers, is forever looking for someone to quote.
The Chameli Devi Award is still around because women lead the charge in a new media age. But the journalism it sought to encourage has been transformed. Perhaps its time the award went to a blogger.
Savanti Ninan was news paper reporter at the Hindustan Times and The Indian Express before she began writing a media column for The Hindu in 1991. She is a media researcher, and author of Through the Magic Window, Television and Change in India (penguin Books India, 1995) and Headlines from the Heartland: Reinventing the Hindi Public Sphere (Sage Publishers India, 2007). In 2001, she founded, for the Media Foundation, the Media watchdog, the hoot.org (www .thehoot.org), which she continues to edit. She won the Chameli Devi Jain Award in 1982. She shared the award with Prabha Dutt.
*P Sainath is rural affairs editor of The Hindu. He is a recipient of the Magsaysay Award for his reports on farmers suicides in Vidarbha and other stories.