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Ironic? Called development sector, NGOs 'don’t want' a buoyant development media

By Rajiv Shah* 
A couple of days after I did a story in Counterview titled "Why Gujarat Dalits want huge brass coin placed in new Parliament building base" (April 17, 2022) the person who had conceptualised the unique 1000-kg brass coin idea, Martin Macwan, a well-known human rights leader, phoned me up to find out why dominant newspapers had “ignored” the event.
Indeed, none of the two major papers which come out of Gujarat, “The Times of India” and the “Indian Express” wrote a word about it. The big brass coin has been prepared with the help of three Dalit artists – one from Odisha and two from Delhi – who have been involved gold plating the Somnath temple.
Lord Buddha on one side, and Baba Ambedkar on the other, along with the big coin, a large number of small one foot coins have also been minted – all from about 2,700 kg brass utensils donated largely by Dalits in Gujarat’s around 750 villages, as also a dozen other states across India. Embossed is the writeup on each of them: Will India end untouchabily by 2047?
The coin is proposed to be taken to Delhi in August first week, and is proposed be handed over to the Prisident of India to be placed in Parliament building -- the earlier demand to place it the foundation (part of Indian religious tradition cited by Macwan by quoting a myth regarding removal of untouchability) has been dropped.
Be that as it may, I found it a little hard to give an explanation. But this is what I told him: The media houses that received the invitation for the event for the release of the brass coins at the Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK), about 20 km from Ahmedabad, perhaps didn’t understand why so much effort was being made to collect brass and then come up with the huge coin, when the new Parliament building as part of the Re 20,000 crore Central Vista itself was in question.
What I didn’t tell Macwan, though I said to this to another top Gujarat-based voluntary sector leader, was this: Top newspapers not taking a story suggests their priorities are very different. To them, business, finance, crime, lifestyle and politics in corridors of power are more important. Even if they happen to take stories related to Dalits, which they usually do when a major event, such as atrocities, take place, these are usually buried inside columns.
So, I asked this second person: Why do you have to be so dependent on the corporate media today, when alternatives are beginning to exist? Why not instead depend on and encourage alternative media in every possible way so that stories on untouchability, Dalits, Adivasis, human rights and so on are highlighted and propagated?
Indeed, my direct involvement with NGOs over the last about a decade after I retired from the Times of India as political editor suggests, they have been complaining as to why their stories and views are not covered in what they consider as dominant media. What I have found is this: While some of the NGOs do think it may “necessary” to have their “own media”, there is little, or no, concerted effort to have development journalism.
Indeed, NGOs, while insisting they are the development sector, clearly do not want development media to reflect their news and views. In fact, most of the time I have found their volunteers approaching me not for getting their articles published in Counterview, for instance, which is readily available, or for that matter any other development media. 
A top NGO leader wrote a column in a corporate-owned paper, now closed down, for quite a while, after getting it meticulously edited, but, I know for sure, didn't even respond to requests to write a column in a blogging site supported by an NGO. 
More recently, a top activist based in Bhuj, Kutch, doing exceptionally good work, approached me to get a series of articles published in the Times of India on environmental degradation of the unique Banni grassland. He even forwarded an initial article, which he told me was published in a Gujarati local Kutch daily. 
I forwarded the article to the Times of India, but I know, they don't entertain outsiders' articles. A reporter from the daily even got in touch with this activist. Finding that nothing has happened, he told me that he would hand over the series for Counterview "very soon." A fortnight passed, after repeated query on what has happened, this activist replied, "We are not publishing the articles now as we are in negotiations with the government."
Indeed, embarassing officialdom remains a major reason (or should I say hurdle?) why NGOs do not support development media. To them, advocacy means convincing officialdom why their development work is very crucial; alternative media doesn't seem to exist in their advocacy drive.
And if they at all seek media "support", most of them just seek "contacts" in the Times of India or the Indian Express, two top corporate media with presence in Ahmedabad, for publication of their articles. They appear to be little concerned about getting things published in what have been known as development media.
Worse, hiding behind the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which the present government is using to attack NGOs, what these NGOs don’t understand is this: Huge possibilities today exist, unlike in the past, to give a helping hand to what is called development journalism. They hate FCRA but to them it's a necessary evil without which they would have to close shop. 
Mohammed Yunus predicted, ICT would make the world free of power brokers and knowledge brokers
Let me recall here what I learned way back in 2007 from a book presented to me by a senior Gujarat bureaucrat, titled “Bankers to the Poor”, first published in 1998, and republished by the Penguins in 2007.
Authored by Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus, the Grameen Bank man from Bangladesh, a doyen of development sector, in 1998, when information and communication technology (ICT) was still nowhere to be seen, the book said, ICT was going to “change the world in the immediate future far more rapidly and fundamentally than any other technology so far in human history.”
 The following words in the article “Poverty Free World: How and When” are prophetic: “The most attractive aspect of this spread of ICT is that it is not in anyone’s control. Neither government, nor big business, nor anyone of any authority can restrict the flow of information. The next best aspect of it is that it is becoming cheaper every day.”
Yunus continued, “ICT is raising the hope that we are approaching the world which is free from power brokers, and knowledge brokers”. He predicted, this ICT revolution was “particularly exciting for all disadvantaged groups, voiceless groups, and minority groups.” He insisted, “Any power based on exclusive access to information will disintegrate. Any common citizen will have almost as much access to information as the head of government. Leadership will have to be based on vision and integrity, rather than on manipulation of information”.
It may not be fashionable to quote Karl Marx, as was in 1970s. But what Yunus said is only a reflection of Marx’s views enunciated way back in 1859 in “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”: “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”
Despite the fact that Yunus is essentially an NGO – or development – man, NGOs have, unfortunately, never paid heed to what he said. I doubt if anyone has even read Yunus.
Complaints apart, what is not understood is, human rights is, apparently, isn’t quite respected in most corporate-run media houses, though they occasionally do cover human rights, or take articles by human rights leaders, but only when major events take shape.
Even the semi-Left media, in which I worked ("Patriot" and "Link") between 1979 and 1993, before I joined the “Times of India” rarely took up untouchability issues, for instance. Of course, when atrocities on Dalits and Adivasis were committed, all covered them, but only as news -- or as parachute journalism, to quote a professor of journalism. Communal riots were of course covered more prominently.
After I joined the “Times of India”, Ahmedabad, as assistant editor, I not only met BJP and Congress politicians but also began interacting with some prominent experts in the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, Gandhi Labour Institute, Sardar Patel Institute of Social and Economic Research, Centre for Environment and Planning, and so on. In the course of my interactions, I also came across activists who are considered part of the development sector – Prafull Trivedi, Achyut Yagnik, Martin Macwan, Gagan Sethi, Indubhai Jani, Madhusudan Mistry and Sukhdev Patel.
Leaving politics to my colleagues, I began doing stories based on what these experts and NGO activists would tell me – such as mining around Gir forests and its impact on environment, impact of collapse of textile mills on Gujarat workers, Gujarat’s poverty, Narmada dam and its impact on the the tribals, children’s plight etc. The Gir story, given to me by a senior activist, created a ripple -- the matter went to the Gujarat High Court!
Be that as it may, I recall doing my first story on untouchability in 1996, covering a strike by manual scavengers in Ranpur, the home town of prominent Gandhian poet Jhaverchand Meghani, against the despicable practice which Gandhiji called “shame of the nation.” My bosses took what I had written more as a news story than an untouchability issue.
Handed over by Martin Macwan, and carried on Page 1 a lead, I didn’t realise the importance it carried. Based on this story, a public interest litigation was filed in the Gujarat High Court, and manual scavenging caught national attention, as it soon reached the Supreme Court. I was awarded a human rights award for journalism two years later by the NGOs run by Martin Macwan and Gagan Sethi.
Ironically, none of my colleagues in the "Times of India", including the then editor, Kamalendra Kanwar, thought it necessary to attend the function. They made fun of me. A colleague sarcastically asked me: What human rights job have I done that I got this award?
Be that as it may, after I was shifted to Gandhinagar to cover the Gujarat government, untouchability got pushed to the backburner, though I kept in touch with Martin Macwan, finding out what all he was doing, continuing to do some stories on issues that he told me – like atrocities on Dalits – after talking about it with government officials. Travelling across Gujarat on holidays, I would invariably do ground stories related to environment, school education, tribal rights, and so on, but back to my duty, my job was to cover the government.
The only major story that I did on untouchability, let me recall, was in 2007 – a report on a book carrying Narendra Modi’s speeches in front of top government officials at Chintan Shibirs, or Study Camps especially for them. In this book, “Karmayog”, Modi states that those cleaning up gutters or involved in cremation duty experience spirituality. 
The story, carried in an inside page, wasn’t noticed immediately, but after several months, top Congress politicians sought the book from me – which I no longer had – to raise the issue in Parliament. While I am unable to find online version of the story,  details of the story can be found here.
Not that the “Times of India” didn’t carry stories on untouchability – we had a socially conscious editor in Bharat Desai. After all, individuals do make a difference. The previous editor, Kingshuk Nag, ensured that no stone was unturned in covering the 2002 Gujarat riots.  Desai got done a series of stories on untouchability in Gujarat, based on a 2009 survey, carried out by Martin Macwan’s NGO Navsarjan Trust with the help of US experts, who came down to Gujarat to help with the methodology. 
The stories created ripples in the corridors of power. A parallel government survey was ordered to counter the claim of Navsarjan that in 90% of Gujarat villages untouchability existed – though its contents were not made public for long.
Before I retired in January 2013, I went around several sympathetic experts, including two well known academics, and activists seeking their support to have an online alternative media that would reflect what they say or do -- as they are full with facts and figures of ground level realities. I had already prepared a prototype of what I was planning. Most of them seemed not interested, a few just didn't listen to me. 
One of them, who used to be very friendly till they found I was to retire from the Times of India, began showing complete disinterest in me -- even though this person was the first one to whom I showcased, way back in 2012, a year before I retired, what I was considering.
Martin Macwan and Gagan Sethi were, of course, exceptions. They asked me why didn’t I join them – which is what I did in May 2013 as a consultant. I started a blogging platform for the NGOs, counterview.org. 
Before I joined, I was told, I couldn’t be “newsy” with the online platform, which I had proposed to start, as NGOs are “not allowed” to carry news stories, as it violates their terms and conditions, especially FCRA. Hence, I decided to start a separate news blog, Counterview. In contact with the NGOs run by these two activist-leaders, I realised the significance of untouchability.
In Counterview, which I handle without any support from any quarter, except in the form of articles and information of ground events, over the last nine years, we have done an umpteen number of stories on atrocities on Dalits, casteism and untouchability. 
Existence of manual scavenging in Gujarat, as elsewhere, has been one of my favourite subjects. We have also carried articles on and by several prominent activists and experts,  human rights defenders and socially-conscious journalists, apart from stories based on communiques by Dalit groups and human rights organisations based in in India and abroad.
I have always wondered whether these stories would be considered part of what is now called development journalism. What one of my academic-journalist friends, who has been teaching media in Pandit Deendayal Energy University, Gandhinagar, Prof Pradeep Mallik, said surprised me. 
Forwarding me a "Guardian" article, "What is Development Journalism", he told me, he would give my example to his students whom he taught what development journalism was like. “A lot of your stories were related with development journalism when you were in the Times of India, and you continue to follow the same even today”, Mallik, who studies media trends in depth, opined.
I belong to the generation which has never had any formal training in journalism. So, to people of our generation of journalists, development journalism remained an alien phrase for long. 
One of my former colleagues in the "Times of India", currently in Mumbai, Gajanan Khergamker, said, we used to talk about “human interest stories” – which is what they call development stories today. One of the seniormost Indian journalists, Anand Sahay, qualified anything related with policy issues and social change as development journalism. 
I asked one of India’s topmost human rights leaders, Medha Patkar, what was development journalism. She took me back to the days before the Narmada dam was being built. In her representation before the World Bank commission, which had come to assess the possible impact of the dam, she said, the proposed dam was anti-development, as it would destroy the life and livelihood of the tribal people.
According to her, any effort to report on how the underprivileged people are affected by projects was development journalism. She said, today, alternative media – and she named thewire.in, scroll.in and newsclick.in as examples – had taken up development journalism. 
There are development journalists with established dailies, too, she asserted, giving the example of a Mumbai scribe who always reported whatever struggles were being waged by the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao movement, but "they are very few", she insisted.
There is a section of activists which considers constructive work carried out by NGOs – building checkdams, constructing ponds, helping out organic farming, “empowering” women through economic efforts like micro finance, and so on – alone as development journalism. However, to Medha Patkar and others, this is just one part of development journalism. The other, related to human rights issues, is even more important, as it shows what’s lacking in human development.
The examples of NGOs’ “constructive activity” as development journalism can be seen in two online journals – India Development Review (IDR) and Civil Society Online (CSO). They are quite unlike The Wire and Scroll, for instance, which carry not just political stories but also the impact political policies of the government on the underprivileged.
Both IDR and CSO have NGO heavy weights and elite journalists on board. I know for sure, even when they commission articles from NGO people, they edit out those portions which may be uncomfortable with the establishment – I have been involved in preparing draft of such articles for top activists myself.
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*This blog is based on Rajiv Shah's online lecture at the Association for India's Development (AID)-Boston, USA

Comments

OEHNI said…
Very good article. Thank you, Rajiv for sharing your experiences and explaining what development journalism is, the priorities of major newspapers, the priorities and dilemmas of the NGOs and so on. A lot to learn from this. I agree with you that still NGOs lack confidence and trust in the alternate media. Together they can make an impact if they choose to.
Pankti Jog said…
This article is very straight foreward and narrates how organizations perceive online alternative media. Very thought provoking. when i talk to activists and ask them why dont they write on platforms like counter view? Basically either writing skill, language barrier or time is the reason given.. but there may be one calculation that how much is the reach of alternative media? so mainstream media attraction is always remain becoz of of it's reached.. Though most of the time.. edited news item does not carry same message as original press note. Also every one writes in fb, insta, twitter. However alternative media is powerful Media , it's like saathi of your cause. We need to seriosul
y discuss / think on this.
Good article--ideas are clearly stated without frills like stastics which only confuse the issues.

If anyone says gutter cleaning is uplifting I would ask if he or she has cleaned any and how uplifting the experience was.

You have worked hard and been long in this game--which makes your article sound sincere.

Roshan Shah said…
Brilliant Rajivbhai.

We need alternate media that tells absolute truth and has space for critical views as the truth may not necessarily be right for society. And that will open up debates and reforms but truth is the starting point

The leading mainstream media has somehow missed the crux of journalism both print and TV and it is not just India.

In India it is worse because of political and corporate interference in what can get published, how and when and it could be twisted truth, not true or manufactured and fabricated story around truth.

Regardless you have been peristtently giving platform and voices to activists.

There are people like me who make mistakes and would want to know where I made mistake so I can correct and improve and there are Indian politicians who make intentional mistakes, encourage corrupt practices and then pressurize media not to report this
Democracy itself worldwide is going through churn with new tools of globally connected masses, constant surveillance and absolute government control on every movement.

Tech is has its good and bad depends on whose hand it falls under.

When automation takes away more jobs it will be interesting how universal basic income will emerge and new election models, crypto currencies will bring new governance models which will give sigh of relief to honest journalism

Days are not far away

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