Women in News

Making News, Breaking News, Her Own Way brings alive through the pens of forty of India’s most outstanding lady journalists from all over the country

Reviewing this book containing stories by winners of the Chameli Devi Jain Awards by forty outstanding women media persons takes me down the memory lane. As a distinction holder in Civics & Indian Administration with three languages at the school finals and a university rank at graduation, my ambition was to take to journalism. But I ended up taking up accountancy, which the Americans term bean counting. My high respect and regard for journalists continues unabated.

The dramatis personae of this thoroughly enlightening book are all ladies who have distinguished themselves as journalists in no small measure. The eminent columnist-author MV Kamath says, “I have the privilege of personally engaging female students in conversation as an elder whose advice is sought, serving as I do, as honorary director of an educational institution (Manipal Institute of Communication) with almost 80% of the students being female.”

Making News, Breaking News, Her Own Way brings alive through the pens of forty of India’s most outstanding lady journalists from all over the country from J&K, the North East, Bihar, right into the heartlands to the big bad metros of Mumbai and Delhi. It tells what earned for them the prestigious Chameli Devi Jain Award, instituted in the name of another lady who was an outstanding freedom fighter who valued independence, courage and dedication above everything else, writing on such varied topics on rural and social development, tribal uplift, consumer affairs, wars, financial scams, stock markets, internet sex workers,  communal conflicts, foreign affairs, city news, the state of environment, investigatory analysis, less covered naxal-hit regions, photography, culture, slum women and kids.

BG Verghese in his preface, rightly points out that the awardees hail from all regions and belong to all classes of the media—their stories more than just a series of individual portrayals mapping two current sociological phenomenon: gender assertiveness and expanding definition of  front page ‘news’. He goes on to add that the jurors preferred younger and lesser known journalists from small town rural India who lacked access and backing of large city media houses, from all  remote parts of India representing several languages depicting the “coming-of-age of Indian journalism”. Young women have shown great courage in reporting from conflict zones in situations of danger, where mainstream media vacate the field.

 Neerja Chowdhury rightly reports that the proprietor of a reputed English daily, when interviewing her told her that they were “more interested in employing women” because they found them to be “more hardworking and conscientious”.     

Today in public life I find myself engaging with more ladies and very few men.  My experience at activism in public life has brought me in touch with media persons across the board both in the print and electronic media and most of them have been dedicated ladies and girl cub journalists of high calibre.

Barkha Dutt, writing Yeh Dil Maange More and looking back, writes of her mother Prabha Dutt who began her journalistic career in 1965. She had “to fight” to convince editors that women were good for more than reporting on the local flower show in town. Despite being denied an assignment to cover the Pak conflict, on being sanctioned leave made her own way to the war zone Khem-Karan Sector “to file dispatches from the front that Hindustan Times found too good not to publish.” Incidentally, when reading Khushwant Singh’s autobiography I noticed that Prabha Dutt is perhaps the only journo who finds a favourable mention!

Sevanti Ninan on rural reporting writes that the demand was for “everything that had a potential for becoming a story; and that papers were not looking for gobar gas journalism”.

Sakuntala Narasimhan writes of a beginning with civic and community issues, bad hospital services, “selling tomorrow’s milk today”. After writing about the customs department corruption at airports, the commissioner called to declare that he had checked with the staff on duty that particular day and none of them had confessed to taking the bribe. “I had got anonymous calls of course, on threatening to have my income tax records reopened.” She writes she had to pay bribe to get her father’s death certificate!  

Sheela Barse writes, “But, for me, the best stories were those that gave voice to the voiceless... oppressive governance confiscated from people their status as citizens.”

Usha Rai on hazards faced, “I was summoned by the Russians and browbeaten by the officials of the ministry of water resources to reveal my sources on the Tehri hydel project. Though I held my ground, I was rattled to the point that I almost met with an accident while tying to cross a road.”

 In A consuming cause, Pushpa Girimaji, who has the distinction of being the only Indian journalist to have written on the issues of consumer rights for the last 28 years, with her syndicated and exclusive column appear in six leading dailies. She was a pioneer in reporting on consumer-centric reports from Bengaluru in 1976 when she faced the ridicule of her colleagues who dubbed her columns as subzi columns. She writes “Consumers have no voice whatsoever; no one cares for them, not even the government, safeguarding laws passed but rarely enforced or implemented. Despite the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, sale of adulterated food is rampant... What kept me going was anger at the helplessness of victims of medical negligence. I remember being heckled and booed for my views at several of the meetings organized by medical professionals who wanted to be kept out of the Consumer Protection Act. It was a tough fight and finally we did manage to win. A friend who attended one such meeting jocularly told me that if I fell sick, I could be sure no doctor would treat me... We continue to be victims of unfair trade practices perpetrated by insurers... we are victims of ATM malfunctioning and ATM frauds.”

Alka Raghuvanshi, wearing many hats as an arts writer, columnists, art curator and artist said, “I wrote like there was no tomorrow! Did investigative stories of art institutions, fearlessly blew the lids off their skewered functioning, met and interviewed artists, dancers, theatre artistes that had just seen on stage and revered as great performers, and discovered their clay feet... They hated me and loved me, but couldn’t ignore me! I loved every moment of it.”

Manimala writes, “There are many vivid stories of social injustice that are routine to the powers that be, as a result of which the perpetrators roam free and with impunity... And I paid the price. One of bones was broken when I tried to save the life of my colleague, Milind Khandekar. There were attempts on my life and a bid to kidnap me. My sister was mistakenly abducted in my place!”  

Sheela Bhatt writes of her visits to police stations, asking why they were not handling law and order effectively. In 1985 she began visiting the income tax department to report on issues of black money among Gujarati and Marwari traders; in 1980 on the saffron brigade’s mass movement to send bricks to Ayodhya... Put simply, the journalists writing in English touch only a miniscule minority. But their perceived sense of ‘power’ remains in tact... you realise what a failure the Indian media has been in understanding, reflecting and empathizing  with the “other India”... How it contributes to making India a safer, functioning and stronger country, Sheela rightly demands!

Annam Suresh says that she focused on questions normally swept under the carpet in order to sensitize people to addressing issues proactively... Many stories elicited positive results.

Anita Pratap, in The Answer will find me is bang on when she writes very aptly—“Collusion between lobbies and media has always existed. The crucial difference between then and now is that this collusion, which once was marginal has moved mainstream, big time. Media is now widely seen as being cahoots with big business and big governments.” The massive 2G scam, with corporate lobbying for direct involvement of top honchos of leading business houses, with a media journo dramatis persona of this very book drawn in, that has just happened not long ago proves this right.          
The inclusion of  Sabena Gadhihoke’s write-up on and the best known photographs taken by exceptional Lifetime Achievement Awardee Homai Vyarawalla, India’s oldest, best-known and most admired photo journalist and chronicler of post-independence India who passed away at 98 in January this year has added tremendous value to this book.
It is just co-incidental that I have met and now actively interact with two distinguished ladies—Sucheta Dalal and Vinita Deshmukh—in matters of common interest in the matters of RTI, financial literacy awareness, civic, financial, banking, insurance and corporate concerns advocacy and redressal. Both of them have been very extensively writing on matters of contemporary interest.

Sucheta in Exposing Business unusual writes about 1991-92, “companies like Reliance and Essar Group were powering ahead by any means.” Early in 1992 doing a report on a secret meeting of leading industrialists that hatched a plan to lobby the PM against rapid liberalization and competition that they perceived would adversely affected their so far protected interests, that Sucheta dubbed Bombay Club that continues to date. This followed financial scandals—“soaring stock prices, outrageous corruption in corning public sector shares, misuse of public funds in public sector banks and investment institutions... Since I was not sold on Harshad Mehta as a market superstar, it was easy to believe the informant who walked into The Times Of India on 22 April 1992 to say that SBI’s top brass had discovered that Harshad Mehta had siphoned a whopping Rs5,000 crore.”  This expose got her the Padma Shri as well. She also reported on Rajan Pillai’s brush with the law in Singapore when the rest of the media was singing his praises. Then came the collapse of the CRB empire and the Bansali’s reach with the Times group chairman. Enron followed thereafter. She goes on to write—“Corporate India, the government, the regulator and even stock exchanges have blatantly used their financial muscle to suppress independent voices. ‘Placing articles’ and columns by CEOs and intermediaries in newspapers (who could not possibly be independent) was a norm.”  Writing post Anna Hazare, she wonders “whether the switch from investigative to campaigning journalism will be for the better or worse!”   I for one strongly feel that they supplement each other and no way substitute the other.

Vinita in her Right to Information - A formidable Tool has demystified RTI (Right to Information), this latest weapon that arms the aam janata to tackle corruption, even without Lok Pal, neither Sarkari nor Jan Lok Pal! She writes of her experiences in Maharashtra beginning with environmental degradation of Mahabaleshwar, Dow Chemicals abortive attempt to set shop at Chakan, trees felling, toll charges on the Pune-Mumbai Expressway, most memorable at helping out a beleaguered prisoner in Yervada Jail. She also assisted a slain IPS official’s widow in unraveling 26/11 shoot-out and the President’s attempt at the Pune land grab that had to be aborted.

 Much as I would have liked to write about others but space constraint prevents me from doing so. My profound apologies to the writers.

(Nagesh Kini is a Mumbai based chartered accountant turned activist.)

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