What made you take up rural journalism?
To be honest, it kind of happened automatically. Reading “Everybody loves a good drought” by P. Sainath made me feel I could do something like that. But didn’t know where I’d be able to do it with not many media houses investing in reporting from the ground and from faraway places. The ones who did were in senior positions who had established themselves.
After I did my mass comm and journalism, my teacher recommended me to my current boss who is the South Asia Chief of LA Times. And he picked me and I joined as the India correspondent for LA Times. That gave me the chance to travel with him occasionally and I thought that this is something I should do consistently. It also gave me a lot of time to freelance with others, so whenever I got a chance, I would on and off report from Marathwada, Uttarakhand, Kashmir, UP, Bihar and etc for other online portals. I cover elections regularly. But only after I got the PARI fellowship have I been able to go to the hinterland consistently.
However, I pursued it because I thought the ground reports from rural areas are missing. And on a selfish note, it does not need a lot of PR.
Can you describe your work in Rural India?
The majority of my stories have been from Marathwada when it comes to rural areas. The others from Bihar, UP, Punjab, Gujarat and elsewhere have been election coverage. But the Marathwada series from PARI is about documenting everyday lives of everyday people, as PARI’s tagline goes. I have been going back and forth since April 2017, and it has allowed me to look at how life unfolds in Marathwada. The idea is to look at how the region functions across different seasons.
So for example, their problems in summer would be totally different from the ones in monsoon. Which is why, in April-May, I did stories related to water. Since fetching water is usually done by women in the house, I did one story by following various women and documenting how much time they spend just to collect water. One story was about desperate farmers drilling deep borewells trying to find some water when water bodies dry up.
As we move towards June, farmers are busy raising capital for the cropping season. That was one story I did. They also have to pay crop insurance, so I did one story on what it takes to merely pay the crop insurance. So I have just been moving with the cycle of seasons.
Which, in your view are the three most important stories you have reported from Rural India?
One would be women fetching water. I don’t think we really understand what it takes to spend 8 hours a day in 40 degree temperatures in the quest for water. It can be frustrating spending your energy on something that we so take for granted. That story was quite important and I personally learnt a lot from it.
Second would be the story on demonetization that I did 10 months after the decision. The focus of the media had waned as cities started functioning smoothly, and banks over here were remonetised. But rural banks continued to struggle for 7-8 months after demonetization. Also, there is a lot of ignorance in urban India about how rural India functions. I cannot claim to know it either, but at least having reported from there, I have an idea. Demonetization really had the worst effect on farmers and labourers and I thought that story of mine managed to convey that it was not a temporary suffering like it had been portrayed but it slashed the purchasing power of farmers because there is hardly any infrastructure to enforce cashless economy in rural areas. Farmers cannot do without cash and when you withdraw cash, farmers were forced to sell off their harvest at throwaway prices. It had a lasting impact that we PayTM users cannot comprehend.
And the third story would be a series I had done on Tribal schools in Maharashtra for Firstpost. I managed to source the comprehensive report TISS had done on tribal schools across Maharashtra. The five part series was divided into health, hygiene, quality of education, security and political interference. I used case studies of Thane and Nasik tribal schools and backed it up with TISS findings to broaden the problem.
What are the broader patterns you have come across in your work that you believe need more attention?
In general I see that rural India is not adequately represented. Agriculture and labour should be covered a lot more. We only notice the health issues when 100 babies die in Gorakhpur. Lately, with new online portals like Wire and Scroll, such issues are being covered in detail but the news channels have a breaking news for a fire in Delhi, but it takes over thousand casualties for Kokrajhar to be noticed. The disproportionate coverage is rampant, which is why websites like PARI matter.
In your view, what are the most necessary interventions in rural India right now?
Rural India is a very broad term so I don’t know about that. And I don’t think I am qualified to talk about that. But having covered a bit of agriculture in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab, the most important intervention is to emancipate farmers. Each region has its own problems but farmers everywhere are struggling, and that is why we have the Swaminathan Commission Report lying with the centre. Well meaning people are trying to contribute in their own way but there has to be a systemic change. The Swaminathan Commission Report’s most important recommendation is to provide farmers with the MSP of cost of production plus 50 percent. It would go a long way in encouraging them. I am not one of those who insists on farmers’ kids continuing with farming. But the problem right now is that farmers’ kids are choosing working as drivers, chauffeurs, construction workers and so on over farming. The trend merely helps rich people get cheap labour. Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations would empower farmers and would help in curbing this ominous trend. We must also remember that farmers are not the only community to be dependent on agriculture. The village carpenter or cobbler is also dependent on agriculture because farmers are their consumers.
When you empower farmers, you strengthen the rural economy.