What’s it like to be an independent journalist?

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BHARAT DOGRA writes about The life and times of an independent writer. He is a freelance journalist who has been involved in several social movements and initiatives. Nearly 8000 of his reports and articles have been published in India and abroad during the last 44 years. This article first posted On THE HOOT.

 

One of the lesser explored aspects of the media in India is the role of an independent writer and reporter – someone who is not attached to any media house but reports and comments on a continuing, sustained basis for several media over a long period of time.

As I have been in this role for over four decades, perhaps my experiences can be of some value in having a better understanding of this neglected but high potential aspect of the media.

As a student I was lucky to contribute regularly to the Patriot and occasionally to the Times of India. When a cover story was published in the Times of India Sunday Magazine and another cover story was picked up by Atlas – the Review of World Press published from the US – I began to have grand notions of leading a life as an independent writer and reporter, ignoring very real economic and other difficulties. Leaving my post-graduate studies in the middle, I opted for this highly uncertain life at the age of 20 in 1976.

The post-Emergency situation saw a big opening of reporting possibilities and I was fortunate to be published regularly in the Indian Express, apart from theTimes of India. In retrospect, the prospects were more encouraging then for a hard working young independent writer and reporter willing to travel to trouble spots.

One important advantage then was that most leading newspapers replied more or less promptly. If a contribution was not accepted, you were informed about this in reasonable time so that the report or article could be used elsewhere. So what the new writer had to do was relatively simple: write a good piece and post this with a stamped reply envelope to a newspaper. If the contribution was accepted, fine. If not, the writer was informed and he could try it elsewhere. The only rule that had to be followed was not to send the same article to two places at the same time. This was fair enough and easy to follow. This simple rule enabled young talent to emerge.

The second aspect for which I remain grateful to this day is that senior editors did not discourage anyone who was new and unknown and from a relatively humble background. I cannot forget the encouraging letters I got at a very young age from Darryl D’Monte of the Times of India. Words of encouragement from such legendary editors as Nikhil Chakravartty, Ajit Bhattacharjee and Romesh Thapar became a source of strength in the difficult times ahead.

Bharat_DograThe fact that I did not have any telephone in my early days was not held against me. When the Illustrated Weekly of India needed something urgent from me, instead of complaining about my not being contactable on the phone, they sent telegram upon telegram to me to contact them. I would contact them on the phone from a public booth.

Now with all the advances in technology it is much easier to encourage independent writers but in fact many struggling new writers have told me that their first and foremost hindrance is not getting a reply at all about their contribution being accepted or not. In many cases they keep asking if the e-mail address at which they sent the article is the right one.

This is happening because there is not an adequate realization of the important contribution which independent writers can make. I now myself realize that it is more difficult to find a new opening than it was about 44 years ago when at the age of 16 I sent my first contribution to the Patriot and got an acceptance post card within a week.

Choosing your area of expertise

Although in my student days I had written mainly on cinema, I soon realized that a lifetime in this difficult profession would be rewarding only if one carefully selected the most relevant areas of work. Poverty and ecological ruin appeared to be the most urgent issues and I decided to devote the greater part of my attention to these issues. I started visiting remote areas and villages to cover issues relating to these subjects. Some of the earliest issues taken up by me related to the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand, the struggles of iron ore miners in Chattisgarh and drought-related distress in Bundelkhand.

I soon realized, however, that the decision to concentrate on grassroots reporting was going to be very difficult to sustain. As I had travelled very little in my student life, I was caught up in all sorts of problems due to my lack of experience in travelling to remote areas. I remember reaching remote Himalayan hamlets at night without any pre-arrangements about where I was going to spend the night or taking a bus to curfew-bound riot-affected areas with no idea of the difficulties of working in such areas without even a proper press card to help me.

A bolshie bus driver at night: In the flood-ravaged areas of Uttarkashi, as a novice traveler, I had all sorts of problems in negotiating the treacherous journey, particularly when the private bus operator threatened to stop the bus at a small village citing lack of adequate passengers as a reason for not going to the destination.

Entering the house of the enemy: Once, Sundarlal Bahuguna had been given the task of settling disputes relating to the grabbing of Bhoodan land in Bijnore-Pauri-Garhwal border areas by a Gandhian organisation and I decided to travel with him so that I could report on this. The village was very difficult to locate and as darkness descended rapidly on the extremely cold winter day, we learnt that we had walked into the wrong village which housed mostly the land grabbers and not the victims. Some Muslim families sheltered us for the night, and before the violence-prone land grabbers found out about us strangers, they put us on a bullock cart at 3:00 am to leave for the correct village. My detailed story on this land-grab was published in Link magazine and led to action against the land grabbers and the policemen who were in collusion with them.

Bandit pleads innocence:  While visiting several villages in the Patha area of Bundelkhand to investigate reports of rape, I got a message that the dacoit gang which had sought shelter in this village wanted to meet me. The meeting with the dacoit gang leader (who in subsequent years surrendered and emerged as a successful local politician) was very different from the way such meetings are depicted in films. It turned out that the dacoit gang leader was keen to convey to me that his gang was not involved in crimes like rape and that is why he called me.

Oops..wrong house: In Chambal, my interview with surrendered dacoits took place in much safer surroundings, but when walking to some villages in the scorching heat, I developed a heavy nose bleed and had to seek shelter and cold water in the nearest house. This turned out to be the mansion of the biggest exploiter against whom I had been collecting a lot of information. I was lucky to get away.

Busted teeth and a rickety bus: I fell off a motor cycle in a remote village of Udaipur district while reporting on the deaths of villagers from drinking contaminated water. The 18 hour bus journey back to Delhi with cut lips and broken teeth was a most painful experience, but the story was prominently published in the Hindustan Times Sunday Magazine.

Paralysed by the police: While covering the crackdown on Dall-Rajhara miners in Chattisgarh (then in Madhya Pradesh) and the arrest of Shankar Guha Niyogi, there was police everywhere and the civil liberties activists whom I had accompanied for preparing a report were under surveillance all the time. It was difficult to get the facts but I could write some useful reports for the national media.

In my younger days, one plus point was the physical ability to undertake long and tiring bus journeys in difficult conditions. This become more difficult as age caught up with me. I starting needing taxies for my travels and my costs started increasing beyond what I could earn from the publication of such field reports.

Finding other supplementary work

One way out was to apply for a fellowship. Normally fellowships are not available for the coverage of any movement but rather for certain issues like drought, forest-protection etc. However, while writing on these issues, one can at the same collect information on social movements in these areas, as I was able to do in the context of movements for protecting forests.

Secondly many voluntary organisations also need documentation of their work, and this can also provide an opportunity for visiting many remote areas and reporting on the problems there.

By using whatever few opportunities were available, I was able to report from some areas on a more or less regular basis. The tragedy of repeated adverse weather situations in Bundelkhand required repeated visits to many remote parts of the region. In some villages I was told that I was the first journalist to have a detailed discussion with villagers. People living in the vast desert of Rajasthan also often said this. I found it a very useful experience to visit villages experiencing very serious distress conditions and then reporting on this in detail.

However I also had my share of disappointments when such stories, even when accepted, were not published in time because they were not given priority. Over the years, one had to live with such disappointments. It was very difficult to speak to villagers on the phone and tell them why what I had written about them could not be published at the proper time.

In instances like the Khalistani upsurge in Punjab, the villagers who hosted a reporter like me were also exposing themselves to some risk. So I was even more keen to report their genuine problems when visiting such high risk areas. Sometimes I was very successful in my efforts and sometimes I was not because the issue was often not a priority for the media.

Nonetheless, what appeared to me to be inadequate coverage was nevertheless appreciated by many villagers. In Bundelkhand, villagers in remote areas would remember and appreciate my writings during my subsequent visits. In an early phase of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Medha Patkar took me to several meetings where I was asked to speak on the issue of large dams in general. Many villagers from these meetings would greet me whenever I later met them at dharnas in Delhi and thus friendships evolved in many remote parts of the country. The Right to Information movement provided similar opportunities for establishing many close friendships, particularly in Rajasthan.

In retrospect, concentrating on grassroots reporting was a sound decision which enabled me not only to appear frequently in journals like the EPW andMainstream but also to win a few journalism awards as well. But this was not enough to ensure financial stability and I had to do additional work, including a press clippings service, publication of booklets and some consultancy work to meet family and professional expenses. I was also able to get a few short-term fellowships over the years.

I was careful to ensure that my main centre of work related to journalism and all my other work was only of a supportive part-time nature. My wife Madhu played an extremely helpful role, particularly in starting an initiative to establish community libraries at a low cost.

However as I got more and more deeply involved in various struggles related to fighting poverty, injustice and ecological ruin, I found it increasingly difficult to get my reports and articles published in newspapers.

Some relief was provided by the opening up of some opportunities outside India. The Ecologist, published from the UK and the Third World Networkfrom Malaysia, carried several of my articles. My reports released by IPS were published in several countries. I got the Statesman’s awards for Rural Reporting and Environment Reporting several times.

A new window of opportunity opened up with my increased writings in Hindi.  Here again, I owe a heap of thanks to the most prominent editors of those days for their encouraging support. I realized that working in the two languages together can be a big help when one is struggling for survival in difficult circumstances.

In recent years, it has become clear to me that that it is going to become extremely difficult to earn my livelihood as an independent writer and reporter in future owing to a spike in expenses, particularly when, reaching the age of 60, some comforts have become a necessity.

Nevertheless, as a senior citizen, I’ll continue in this profession because with all its difficulties, it has enabled me to establish a bonding with so many highly relevant struggles and initiatives in many parts of the country. I met so many good people and several of them became my lifelong friends. Isn’t this reason enough to carry on?

At a broader level, my experiences can be seen as the experiences of an independent writer who is committed to certain ideas and values and will only work in keeping with these ideas and values. These are linked to an understanding formed over years of studies and thinking about what basic changes are needed to reduce distress and protect the environment.

An independent writer has an important role in the media, more specifically in efforts to make the media more democratic, broad-based and inclusive. Here I am not speaking, of course, of the writer who is guided merely by commercial or monetary considerations. I have in mind the socially concerned writer, eager to report on the most relevant issues, in an independent manner.

Hence the overall conclusion of my experience has been that more efforts should be made to increase and expand the role of socially concerned, independent writers honestly devoted to reporting and analyzing the country’s social reality.