Wednesday, October 03, 2007

that spiral of moving and losing

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."


small talk said...

Oh you have not hardened. Not if you can write in a matter that can bring a lump to one's throat. How is it that we don't see this kind of news story in newspapers in Mumbai?

Deepa J said...

You are right in wondering how to sell a story on starvation. Yes, poverty is way too common in India. People don't want to read about such miseries if they can help it. They are interested in scandals and sensations, (no matter how badly they are written.) But I believe that journalists like you, who are talented writers too, can make a great difference by the way you write a story. It is all that takes to bring about a silent revolution.

Opinionated said...

It's really disgusting, the state of affairs in our country. And to think that we're not doing anything about it. Maybe what we need is a Fidel Castro for a few years. Maybe 20 years should bring about a change.
But on a serious note I'm very disgusted.
Vikram's refusal to stand up to the national anthem comes to mind. All of us should refuse to stand up, if this is the state of affairs. What is there to be proud of? What is there to respect? Maybe next time Vikram can give the aggressors this story & ask them whether they still feel respect. And he should ask them why they're in a movie hall, doing nothing about the state of affairs in the country; instead they're roughing up people who rightfully feel little pride in rituals.
Pseudo-nationalist @#$%^&*ds!!!

Opinionated said...


Writing about it may not make any difference coz 90% of our populace doesn't/can't read.
Maybe Annie can get together with some of her movie-making/scriptwriter friends and do something. Actually approaching Ekta Kapoor may be a good idea. Instead of dishing out Saas-Bahu crap or contorting contemporary pseudo-issues like siamese twins or "India Calling", she can make a serial about the plight of a village that was displaced in Madhya Pradesh.
Any thoughts?

Anil P said...

You can't sell starvation. Those who don't want to buy it will anyways turn a deaf ear whatever your pitch.

To those whom it matters will seek it out whether or not you're 'selling' it.

bhupinder said...

I am sure you are not the first one to feel so.

Deepa J said...

@ Opinionated: Ekta Kapoor? Good joke! But I agree, short films and documentaries have a long way to go in India. And I believe they can hit right, when made by and targeted at the right people. But how is it possible when the mainstream media is absolutely profit-oriented and are in the hands of power-crazy people who don't care two pence about poverty! It is a vicious circle, isn't it. We come back o the same standpoint.

Opinionated said...

I agree Deepa. But having said that, we must continue to try.
I SMS-ed a very close friend of mine yesterday who is in Media & asked him if he was interested in a socially relevant story for a serial. (Was just checking for viability). He SMS-ed me back saying, "No social crap. I just want massala"!!!
Despite these buffoons, there're film-makers like Govind Nihalani & Sudhir Mishra & Gowarikar. And we must try & get them to do our stories. If not we must become them. I dunno how far it will go, but if lots of us try, maybe a few will make it. It's like sperms trying to fertilize an egg. Not all will make it, but try they must!

the mad momma said...

no you've not hardened. and are not likely to. but i know what you mean. it used to be my first question too - how many died? is it worth putting on the ticker?its just a heartless business sweetie and it needs you to give your heart as you do right now.

dipali said...

Heart rending. When will our policy makers shed expediency and seriously follow things through? As in ensuring, that if displacement is really 'necessary' for the greater good, that the displaced do not suffer, especially to the extent that they have in recent years.
Sometimes toughening up,(though not hardening-perhaps a very subtle differnce) becomes a survival issue:)

pappu said...

How can one help?

Deepa J said...

annie said...

small talk: because the owners/marketers of the newspapers believe that most of the English-speaking middle class doesn't want to know.
deepa j: to tell the truth, they are not even interested in scandals. not the really big ones.
opinionated: i too refused to stand up during the national anthem recently (in loins of punjab) and got into trouble for that too. that's another blog post, another day.
anil p; one tries, nevertheless.
bhupinder: I'm certain I'm not.
mad momma: sigh!
dipali: i don't know. when it starts mattering enough to enough of us, i guess.
pappu: am doing a follow-up post on that too.

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