The other thing about this job is the hardening and having to watch out for it.
Last month, while making calls to some contacts in Madhya Pradesh, I found myself mouthing the words 'It is serious...? Did anyone die?' Even before I'd finished saying it, I was awash with shame: that I should be measuring a potential story against the number of lives lost?
But that is how we sell our stories, don't we? Not just to our editors but also to readers; in short, to ourselves - the literate, newspaper/magazine-buying middle-class. Who died? How many hurt? How many of them were children? And if nobody died, what's the noise about?
So, this is my current quandary: how does one sell starvation?
How do I sell it as an important piece of information that must be communicated to the world at large? How do I sell it before it actually kills some kids? How do I sell it if nobody certifies that hunger is, indeed, hunger? How I sell it if there are no compelling pictures of toddlers with protruding bellies and fading eyes? How does one photograph a starving adult?
How do you wear down an adult's self-esteem to the point that he admits to you - 'Yes, I am starving. I've been starving for a whole year. I have tuberculosis and I am going to back to work in the stone quarries because dying of tuberculosis or silicosis is easier than starving.'
The situation, you see, is serious. People have died. Children have died too. And if they are not dying this very instant, at the time of writing this, I am grateful, but I am not relieved.
I went back to Shivpuri this year. I've been going to Madhya Pradesh over the last two years, covering hunger in tribal villages. At first, I went after reports of kids' deaths filtered out, from Patalgarh. Then I went back, and found that things had improved marginally in Patalgarh - an anganwadi has been set up, and a school with mid-day meals. But in another village nearby, I heard of more deaths. And after that, more hunger on yet another trip.
This year, I went to visit another set of villages where there have been no deaths so far. At least, no children's deaths that are directly attributable to malnutrition. The state has been trying to introduce all sorts of schemes and programs to prevent starvation deaths. But hunger seems chronic, almost inevitable. This time, I began to understand - in part - why this was so. this time, I encountered displacement afresh.
Displacement is a funny word. A very inadequate word that conveys nothing of its meaning.
Displacement is not about moving. It is not about packing up and saying goodbye to the trees and the dust and saying hello to other people, other dust in a new place. It is not about losing touch with old friends, old customs. It is not about losing beauty and calm, mist and dew, wilderness and privacy.
Displacement is about losing a river. Losing access to clean, safe drinking water. Losing water for the fields. Losing land that is watered richly. Losing the fields that gave you grain. Losing the land that your herds grazed on. Losing your cattle. Losing the milk that came from the cattle. Losing the meat the goats ensured. Losing the sheep that gave you wool. Losing access to mud and wood that gave you shelter. Losing firewood. Losing the birds and the bees. Losing honey and herbs. Losing leaves that could be either plates or smokes. Losing hygiene. Losing legality. Losing the right to protest when somebody in a uniform and a jeep shows up to set fire to your home. Losing your walls and roofs.... what is left to lose?
No, really, what is left to lose?
With one stroke, with a single order, with a few meetings of committees formed in the state capital, all this is lost.
I had gone this time to visit displaced villages - villages that have been cleared out of forests we want to protect or 'reserve'. In this one state, there are 29 such areas that require people to move out. That require them to lose all the above-mentioned.
And they did. They lost all of that.
"Many changes over the past decade have pushed villagers who once had enough to eat into a spiral of food insecurity and the uncertain arms of the public distribution system (PDS).... Take Balharpur village. About eight years ago, its residents, most of them belonging to the Sahariya tribe, were moved out of the Madhav National Park and dumped upon a stony, non-irrigated tract of land near the highway....
While moving, the villagers set their cattle free near the Balhar Mata temple in the forest; they were certain they would not have access to grazing land in the New Balharpur village. And they were right."