Speaking up for frustrations of ordinary people

BY JYOTI PUNWANI| IN Opinion | 14/05/2018
Ravish Kumar chooses issues that affect large numbers of ordinary people in small towns. And the authorities are taking note.
JYOTI PUNWANI reports

 

HERE’S LOOKING AT  US
Jyoti  Punwani

 

The authorities in India rarely take action on media exposes, especially where no high profile personalities are involved. But it’s happened now, and with the most unlikely journalist.

His TV show is not topping the TRPs. Indeed, he takes pride in calling his show the ``Zero TRP show’’. It starts off with a long monologue by the anchor and throughout the hour-long programme, he keeps admonishing the viewer. What’s more, he repeats the same admonishments on every show.

Occasionally, one gets to listen to experts whom he invites, but that too becomes a one-on-one question-answer session.

To top it all, this anchor is obstinately determined not to feature the raging debates tearing the country apart - or at least tearing apart that section which reads newspapers, watches TV, is on social media and has the time to bother about the debates of the day.

Despite all this, the authorities are taking action based on his show.

Could that be because there’s one unusual element he brings to his show? Namely, ordinary people, not normally considered newsworthy? The kind of people not seen on prime time?

All channels spoke to the kisans who marched in their thousands to Mumbai in March. But long before that, Ravish Kumar had made it a point to speak to all kinds of people protesting on the streets, never mind the size of the protesting crowd.  

We thereby came to know about the bread and butter issues that trouble ordinary citizens enough to make them come out on the streets, knowing they may be roughed up by the police. These issues do not make page one headlines, though they might be featured in non-prime time programmes on TV.

 

Slow and deep journalism

Of late, Ravish Kumar’s Prime Time has adopted a unique format: taking up one issue for six weeks or even longer. He chooses issues that affect large numbers of ordinary people, particularly those in small towns, places which are always given secondary status by journalists. This in-depth coverage makes viewers sit up and notice the rot at the core of the institutions he focuses on. It also keeps the spotlight relentlessly on those responsible for this rot.

Interestingly, flouting all journalistic norms, the authorities are never approached for their response. Kumar proudly declares that his programmes are ‘one sided public hearings’. If the authorities want to contradict or respond to him, they are free to contact him.

The series started in October with the spotlight on universities, mostly in north India and wherever else he could send reporters. The 30th episode of this series, which exposed the unimaginably dismal state of universities, was aired on April 11, 2018, but the first 25 episodes ran continuously from October 3.

"Flouting all journalistic norms, the authorities are never approached for their response. Kumar proudly declares that his programmes are ‘one sided public hearings"

 

In January and February, he moved on to two other topics: the state of youth who have given exams for government jobs conducted by the Staff Selection Commission (SSC) and other state government recruitment bodies, and the working conditions in banks.

The bank series, which ran for 16 episodes, was an eye-opener for those in the metros. Who could have imagined that bank employees in small towns are forced to get customers to buy insurance and mutual funds? That they work in such oppressive conditions?  That miscarriages can result because of the distances they are forced to travel, or because of the denial of leave? That families are split apart for years because one spouse is posted far away from the other, with no effort made to alleviate this? That urgent leave for medical emergencies of old parents is denied?

The show made the pain of these bank employees come alive as staffers read letters in which they described their situation.  The lack of visuals didn’t really matter.

 

The heartbreak caused by delays

The second issue was the desperate plight of youngsters waiting for government jobs. Those who had given their exams were waiting for the results. Where the results had been declared, they were waiting for appointment letters. In both cases, court cases against the way the exams had been conducted were delaying appointments.

This was the generation that was raring to start earning, yet, the most productive time of their lives was being wasted, for no fault of their own. The callousness of the authorities, who raked in huge amounts in application form fees every time an exam was announced, cancelled and then held again, came out starkly.

"He would air their grievances, he told them, only if they took a vow never to become part of the Hindu-Muslim strife that politicians were bent on creating"

 

The deafening silence of the SSC in the face of desperate queries by the aspirants left the latter in a limbo. Through Kumar, we got acquainted with the thousands of youth left dangling in this fashion.

 

Weaning youths away from hate 

While doing the universities series, Kumar had started talking about the ``Hindu-Muslim’’ issue that dominates the media today but he tackled the subject within the framework of the ‘naukri’ series and how youths should react to politicians inciting communal hatred. He went full tilt against what he described as the ‘trap’ being laid for young people, to divert their attention from their own hopeless situation.

As letters from SSC aspirants began to pour in, Kumar found a creative means to get these youngsters out of this ‘trap’. He would air their grievances, he told them, only if they took a vow never to become part of the Hindu-Muslim strife that politicians were bent on creating. Many youths  sent this vow to him in writing.

Their vow and Kumar’s doggedness worked. A little more than halfway through the series, aspirants began to receive appointment letters that had been held up for months, even years. At the last count, more than 11,000 aspirants had received them. Their letters of gratitude to Kumar were read out, just as their letters of despair had been.

The university series brought no response, nor did the bank series. So why did the SSC decide to act? All through March, thousands of youths protested outside the SSC headquarters against an alleged paper leak in an exam held by the Commission in February. These protests were beamed into people’s homes at prime time. Thanks to Kumar, even the press began to give space to these protests.

 

The horror, the horror: train travel

On May 2, he began another series, this time on trains that routinely run 36-44 hours late, especially in Bihar and UP. Two days of coverage accomplished what months of complaining hadn’t: the Swatantra Sainani Superfast Express actually left Jaynagar in Bihar’s Madhubani district for Delhi on time on May 4. 

Kumar had made it clear that he would carry on reporting on this particular train till it started running on time. He didn’t have to do this for very long.

From the Swatantra Sainani Express, he has trained his sights on other trains: the Seemanchal Superfast Express from Bihar’s Jogbani (in Araria) to Delhi, which these days runs 36 hours late and the Patna-Kota Express which has run on time just twice in the last year.

"Shortage of field staff doesn’t hamper him: he gets news, including videos shot inside compartments on mobile phones, from travellers"

 

In the first week of May, when the train series began, the Patna-Kota Express started from Patna between seven to 25 hours late. On October 29, 2017, it reached Kota 68 hours late. On April 27, this year, a student travelled on it hoping to give an exam he had been preparing for over the last three years. He had kept a day’s gap to travel to the exam centre from Kota. Alas! He couldn’t make it. He spoke on camera, trying hard to not to break into sobs. The railways should give him a job, said Kumar. 

The train series encapsulates everything that is unique about Ravish Kumar’s Prime Time. “TV has made ordinary people invisible,” he said, during this series. His show brings them back into the limelight.

Shortage of field staff doesn’t hamper him: he gets news, including videos shot inside compartments on mobile phones, from travellers. He often refers to a friend called Shivang who gives him information from rail websites.

Simply by talking to passengers waiting at platforms, the show depicts how a callous state can reduce your life’s dreams to nothing. The student mentioned above faces an uncertain future. A father wanted to accompany his daughter in Kota, the IIT coaching class hub, for her exam, he couldn’t.

For those who have to travel, tickets must be cancelled and new tickets booked as the train doesn’t show up for a day. The poor run out of food.

The show also brings out the class prejudice of our public institutions. Bihari labourers travel from Darbhanga to Amritsar on the Jannayak Express which has only general bogies. The day the programme was aired, it was running 57 hours late.  

On October 13, it had reached 71 hours late. Half the leave taken by the labourers to return home would be spent in the train, pointed out Kumar. His visuals showed passengers fanning themselves. Said one passenger: “There’s often no electricity, no water in the train. It just comes to a halt for hours.’’  What else is this but transporting labour like cattle?

Through this series, Kumar has mounted a sharp attack on both the Railway Minister and the PM. The media describes Piyush Goyal as ‘dynamic’, Kumar  repeats throughout the shows. Will the dynamic minister take up the challenge of making these trains run on time?

As for the ‘kaamdaar’  PM (during the Karnataka election campaign, Modi described himself as ‘kaamdaar’ in contrast to Rahul Gandhi, who he said was a ‘naamdaar’), can’t he ensure that trains for kaamgars (labourers) run on time, asked Kumar. Should only trains for ‘maaldaars’ (wealthy people) run on time? He also made it a point to tell viewers that trains from Gorakhpur, the UP CM’s constituency, were running between seven to 29 hours late. Yogi Adityanath was away campaigning in Karnataka; meanwhile, the Gorakhpur-Yashwantpur (Karnataka) train was running 42 hours late.

Unusually for Prime Time, this show has already interviewed Rail PRO Rajesh Bajpai. 

“We run 13,000 trains, If you make a national issue out of four or five trains that run late, we will never progress,’’ he said. The delays, he added, are due to the decision to implement the backlog of track upgradation and other maintenance measures. This decision was taken after the Kalinga Utkal Express derailed in UP in August 2017, killing 23. How come the Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains run on time then? “Well, we have our priority schedules and we stick to them,” was the reply. Kaamgars and maaldaars.

Waiting for the Patna-Kota express to depart, one young man yelled at the camera: “Show me a plane which departs 23 hours late! Will the rail minister wait 26 hours for a train to depart?” 

This series, like the university series, is visually stimulating in that it shows passengers waiting on crowded platforms or crammed inside its compartments…a slice of reality rarely shown on prime time.

 

The public are his editors

Kumar remained unavailable for questions, but some insight into why he does these programmes can be gleaned from his blog. In a recent post, he wrote that the messages he gets on his phone every day, have forged a new model of journalism.

All the series he has done have been possible because of these messages which give him vital information. He spends four hours every morning going through these messages. They constitute a public newsroom. He stands amidst all of them and feels he is surrounded by reporters, each vying for his/her story to be carried.

Addressing his viewers, he wrote: “You are not my fans, you are my editor.”  This is what the newsrooms of old were like, he recalls - people in contact with  reporters. Today, neither reporters nor stringers are used; only the anchor is the star.

This new format has helped establish something TV journalists seem to have forgotten - prime time news programmes need not be sensational to be popular.

After his bank series got underway, bank employees started sending WhatsApp messages to one another, asking that his programme be watched. “It is true that TRP is required to sustain any show on TV. So it should be our responsibility to stand in support of Ravish Kumar. .. by tuning to Prime Time.’’   

But Kumar requested them not to watch it for that reason: “I am not doing this series for TRPs. I am the first and only Zero TRP anchor in the world, and want to remain so. I only do those stories that I find suitable, and which I am capable of doing.”

Whether TRPs are rising or not, these series are attracting viewers by the hordes. And by doing so, they are achieving Kumar’s oft-stated desire to take viewers away from the communally toxic prime time shows of other channels.

The Hindu-Muslim debate is avoided, yet, Kumar’s series focus on the burning issues of the day. He started the bank series in the wake of the Nirav Modi scam and talk about bank privatization. The employment series came amid reports of reduced jobs. In the very first episode, he gave figures to show that jobs in the eight key sectors had reduced by almost half in 2014-2016, as compared to 2011-2013. 

Finally, Kumar’s programmes achieve something that every journalist wants.

He continuously exhorts viewers and victims of state indifference, be it students and their parents, bank employees, government job aspirants, or rail passengers, to speak up and question the authorities.

The authorities must share information with the public, he says, and the public must demand this as a right. By diverting your attention to fake Hindu-Muslim issues, your ability as a citizen to question and demand solutions is vanishing, he tells viewers.

By depending on his viewers to send him information, Kumar is forcing them to demand answers of the state. The train series now has viewers involved in tracking whether trains that have started running on time thanks to Prime Time continue to do so. Even viewers not directly affected by his topics realize how the state has abandoned the people.  They end up asking: how can the state get away with all this?

Isn’t that the aim of journalism - to question those in power and get people to ask questions too?  

 

Jyoti Punwani is a Hoot columnist and senior journalist based in Mumbai.

 

 

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