June 28, 2007


They're on hunger strike: will you listen to them?

  • In Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh, many people displaced by the Indira Sagar and Onkareshwar dam projects on the Narmada River have staged a protest for over three weeks now (since June 4). Four of them began an indefinite hunger strike that day. (One is someone I am privileged to call a friend, Chittaroopa Palit, who figured in a peculiar episode a few years ago that I wrote about here). What do they want? Here's a quote from one of their press releases:
      "[A]longside providing the cultivator oustees and their adult sons and daughters their land entitlements, the landless families must be given rights over the draw-down land in the submergence, which will open after the monsoons. [T]he thousands of houses which have been excluded arbitrarily [from the lists of dam-affected houses must] be acquired as per law, along with villages that will become islands or unlivable. [A]ll the required life-amenities [must] be provided at the R&R sites and ... all the outstanding cases of complaints of the oustees about failure to provide the entitlements [must] be immediately resolved."
    So far, they have had no response from the Government of MP. Remember, that's three weeks.

    (More details and a petition here).

  • In Gangtok in Sikkim, members of the Lepcha community, the indigenous people of that state, have staged a protest for over a week now. Under the banner of the "Affected Citizens of the Teesta" (ACT), they
      "are demanding that all hydel power projects at Dzongu in North Sikkim be scrapped. Dzongu is a protected area for Lepchas, the indigenous inhabitants of Sikkim, protected under Article 371 (f) of the Constitution." (This report, among others).
    They have also:
      "demanded restoration and protection of the true identity of Dzongu and protection of the environment and ecology and the Khangchendzonga National park and Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve [and] protest[ed] against the decision of the State Government to go ahead with the Teesta Stage III project in Chungthung in North Sikkim." (Weeping Sikkim).
    (More details at Weeping Sikkim. Don't miss the pointed request to the protesters to put out worthwhile data, and the subsequent response).

    In both cases: they're not abusing people, not burning buses or destroying hospitals, not picking up guns and shooting people. They are simply asking you -- you -- to listen. Will you?

    Michael Deibert said...

    I must say, I have found the silence of the Indian media on the struggle of the Lepcha of Sikkim rather deafening. Has there been a single article in the Indian press on this controversy? If so, I have not been able to find it, and, of course, forget about the foreign press. It's a shame, because this seems like exactly the kind of story that gives us journalists a reason to exist in the first place, giving a voice to the suffering and powerless.

    Anonymous said...

    Why is it surprising? All media - whether state-owned or private - are subject to two types of biases. One, out of the nearly infinity of possible stories available, which ones to report. And two, "how" to report the selected stories, viz., how to treat the differing viewpoints associated with the people involved in the story. I guess the second type of bias is what most people have in mind when talking about the "bias" of the media. But as your complaint illustrates, the first can be much more devastating: after all, if you are reported - good or bad - you have a voice. If you are ignored, you have none.

    With regard to the English language media of India (I assume that is the "Indian media" you are talking about) and the first type of bias, it has always been the case that the coverage has typically focused narrowly on issues which are perceived to be of interest to the middle and upper middle classes. Let alone the Lepcha, even Dalits have complained about how stories of concern to them have been ignored. Check, for instance, the columns of Chandrabhan Prasad (in "The Daily Pioneer") who is one of the few Dalit journalists writing in the English language media.

    There is a problem here where stories like those of the Lepchas get ignored. I am not sure how to address it. Such problems are present everywhere - how much coverage, for instance, do the "overseas" French (in places like Tahiti, Pondicherry etc.) get in the "mainstream" media of France? Or for that matter, how much coverage do the smaller states of the USA get in their media?

    But, I suppose, more importantly this story shows up the weakness of Indian democracy. We Indians - including myself - take pride in our democracy by which we mostly mean that people get to vote...Yet, clearly this is not enough. When decisions affecting the lives of entire groups like the Lepchas or of the "tribes" in Madhya Pradesh are made without the active participation of those groups, then something is very very wrong. (Yes, I know that our beloved government if questioned will throw up some obscure committee or the other to show that there was "consultation.") This is a hard problem - I don't think there are easy solutions but a fightback is the first step, I suppose.

    Dilip, would you let the readers of your blog know if there is something we can do other than extend "moral sympathy"?


    Michael Deibert said...

    Yes, I was referring the English-language media, as I feel that would be the media that would have the greatest international impact in getting this story out.

    As to what we can do more than extend "moral sympathy" on this issue, for my part I have been contacting foreign journalists I know in India attempting to encourage/cajole/shame them into covering this story. Thus far the only story I have read in the English-language media is the following piece from Asian News International:


    As a working journalist who has covered economically disadvantage, politically tumultuous countries in the past (Haiti, Guatemala), I grow weary of the excuses of my colleagues excuses that editors and the like won't "let" them cover certain stories (though I have encountered the hubris of desk-bound editors decided what stories are and aren't worth covering myself in the past). I think my colleagues in the international media need to show a little more enterprise and a little more backbone to make sure the stories of people like the Lepcha (or the rural peasantry in Haiti, or the indigenous communities in Guatemala, etc) are given some kind of a platform in the international dialogue. It's something worth fight for.

    Michael Deibert said...

    To further elaborate on my above posting, as I am contacting the sources most relevant to my experience as an international journalist who has covered India (i.e. those in that realm), I think it would not be a bad idea for concerned Indians to contact the editors of national publications like The Times of India, the Hindustan Times, the India Express, DNA, etc and ask them why they are not covering this very important story.

    Anonymous said...

    Excerpt taken from your (Dilip) post on Dharavi:

    But, as with any large project, there is opposition. On June 18, Dharavi shut down and many residents joined a procession to the Slum Redevelopment Authority office. They were not consulted about these plans, and they are unhappy with what they hear about them. For example, that they will be rehoused in 225 sq ft flats: for many, smaller than what they have now. It’s an old fact of life that people here run small businesses — from tailoring to workshops — out of their homes. How will that happen in 225 ft?

    A decision affecting lots of people taken without consultation of the concerned people right in the heart of Mumbai. Any wonder now about what is happening to the Lepchas?


    Dilip D'Souza said...

    Michael, it's good to see the concern you clearly have for the Lepchas, and I wish more of us shared it. I feel like there are so many groups like that that are struggling for their rights and to be heard, and I'd like to be concerned about them all and write about them all, but clearly I can't do that. Ideally I'd like to make a trip out to Sikkim and find out about this issue for myself. Maybe I should work on that idea.

    I also think your advice to (international) journalists is spot-on. What do we write for if not to search for the stories worth telling, tell them well, and then fight to make sure they see air (that last, as surely a part of our jobs as anything else)? And surely this Lepcha story is worth telling.

    Suresh, I'm at a loss to answer your last question. I've been down the road that Michael details -- urging press contacts I have to cover certain issues -- but I often wonder, is it enough? You quote my Dharavi piece, and thank you for that, but even today when I was wondering in Dharavi and listening to what people say, I wondered, is this enough? I have to wonder, because people I speak to often ask me, what will you do for me? It's a dilemma journalists face, and I don't know the answer.

    (Though I did attempt an answer about a year ago).

    Sorry for going off on that meta-tangent.