On January 2, 2012, I didn’t think rural journalism would be something I could come to like. Being a science nerd, amongst other things, I always thought my heart would lie with the urban side of things: huge laboratories smashing the smallest things together, guilt-spasmed corporations funding obscure research, the grand designs and the fervent pursuit of knowledge, and essentially all things developed. However, meeting with the fishermen, farmers and salt pan workers of Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, shook the foundation I took for granted enough to have me reconsider my options. At first, at least.
The first sensation that becomes apparent is that, in rural journalism, public participation is much greater than on the urban side. In India, that’s just because government policy is conspicuously biased toward the urban populace and urbanization, leaving the rural and the poor to fend for themselves in an economic environment that takes more than it gives. When the journalist shows himself, he finds that his place has already been clearly marked out: adversary to the government, darling of the masses, assumed to be sacrificial and, in many cases, leftist.
For the uninitiated, i.e. me, that’s the sort of attention I’ve to really fight to get when working in science journalism. When reporting science stories, I don’t have the assured readership of thousands of people, I don’t have the constant reminder that if I goof up somewhere, actual lives and livelihoods will be rattled with it, and most of all, I don’t have a fresh crop of stories day after day, week after week. Fortunately, and disregarding all these terrible thoughts (that have only the effect of bogging me down), what reportage in rural India will do best is reinforce your purpose as a journalist. That at the lowest level, journalism is as pertinent and life-changing as influencing economic policy is at the highest level.
At the same time, it becomes very easy to get lost in a sea of the micro: micro-political issues are rampant and most of them are self-limiting, and micro-economic issues often restrict the penetration of “urban goodness”. With such regular and close contact with the deprived, most journalistic remediation focuses on the micro-issue of mitigation of the effects of resource theft. What IMHO it should focus on is the mitigation of the effects of improper deployment and administration, which is the root cause of all the theft.
For instance, the Sterlite copper smelting plant situated on the coast, next to Tuticorin’s harbour, has been accused of severely polluting the neighbouring waters, depleting the water of the Thamirabharani, and undermining the significance of local and more traditional industries. I don’t think that’s what Sterlite has done. I think that’s what all copper smelting plants do when the government can’t step up and do its bit: modify policy perspectives to prevent abuse in the face of demand and have a hand on long-term evolution characteristics, broadly speaking.
However, because of a queasy and money-mongering government, Sterlite operations everywhere will take a hit. People will quote the damage the corporation has wrecked in south Tamil Nadu even if a plant is coming up somewhere where the necessary safeguards are in place. Industrialism is not all that dispensable, if you didn’t know, and toying around with it for personal gains is only going to delegitimize its already-pocked facade. This is one of the most important perspectives of rural journalists that needs to be emphasized: that stories extend far beyond the interface of the deprived and the depleter, that just because they’re not visible to the naked eye doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
All in all, I had a wonderful time talking to the people in Vagaikulam, Aalanthalai, Rajapandinagar, Nattaathi, Periyakulam, Subramaniyapuram, Srivaikundam, people employed in paddy-farming and banana plantations, raking salt in the salt pans, fishing, pearl-diving, weaving, and trading, people generous with their food, cynicism, homes and opinions. For a change, it felt strangely good to travel vast distances just to solicit the petitions of a few men and women under the grating January sun simply because there was someone waiting for a listen. That was the moment of (selfish?) pleasure that made the trip worth it.