On May 5 this year, Tarun Sehrawat, a photographer with Tehelka, sent me a link to his most recent photo-essay on Abujmard, a Maoist-controlled area in Chhattisgarh. Tarun and I met on assignment in Dantewada in summer 2010 and had stayed in touch.
A month-and-half later, last Friday, I attended his funeral after a fever he contracted in Abujmard proved fatal. Tarun died of cerebral malaria; he was 22.
I came to Chhattisgarh as The Hindu's correspondent in January 2010. Reporting the Maoist conflict was the most important part of my brief. My aim was to document every casualty in a war that had claimed thousands, and question why a particular individual — be it policeman, informant, Maoist, or civilian — had to die that day.
Today, when one of our own has been irrevocably lost, I feel we — as reporters, photographers and editors — must turn our gaze inwards and ask ourselves why a 22-year-old photographer with access to the best health care in the country, was claimed by a disease that was demystified in 1897.
In Tehelka's May 26 issue, the magazine described how Tarun and reporter Tusha Mittal spent a week in Chhattisgarh's forests with little to sustain them but for a few bottles of drinking water and packets of biscuits. Neither Tarun nor Tusha was on malaria prophylactics, nor did they carry mosquito nets or even chlorine tablets to treat their drinking water.
Tarun and Tusha were not scatterbrained tourists — they were meticulous professionals who frequently worked together and took great care over the stories they produced. They weren't foolhardy adventurers either; the thought that they could contract a fatal illness simply didn't occur to them or, it seems, their editors.
I was equally unprepared when I first came to Chhattisgarh. Fortunately, one of my first stories was on how the State had among the highest malaria prevalence rates in the country, but the government and administration were under-reporting fatalities to avoid tackling the problem.
Over two years of reporting, everyone I met had a malaria story: Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers warned me against travelling in short-sleeved shirts and told me sleep fully clothed; Maoists told me not to trust the water in most villages, Yogesh Jain — a doctor in Bilaspur — handed me a special mosquito-repellent that his community health initiative had developed, and everyone in Dantewada insisted that if you drank mahua liquor in the evening, mosquitoes didn't bite you in the night. “Or at least you don't notice if they do,” said an old man over a drink. But no one handed me a simple list of dos and don'ts.
Jamal Khan, a CRPF deputy commandant in Dantewada, gave me the best advice when he told me to get a malaria test even if I came down with a fever in Delhi. “Malaria stays in your system,” he said, “And doctors who haven't seen malaria before rarely detect it.” That, by all accounts, is what happened to Tarun.
“I met Tarun in Raipur when he got out of Abujmard,” said Anil Mishra, a Raipur-based journalist and a mutual friend of ours, “I had never seen him look so beautiful and grown up. His cheeks were flushed; he had a proper ‘Delhi-type' haircut and his body had filled out.” Tarun told Anil he had been ill in the jungle, but felt fine. In an obituary, Tarun's colleague, Revati Laul wrote that he continued to come in to the office and go on photo-shoots.
Malaria has a very complex multistage lifecycle — upon infection, the parasite makes its way to the liver, where it incubates for days before re-entering the bloodstream and infecting, before ultimately destroying, healthy red blood cells. Thus, several days may pass before its symptoms manifest. By the time Tarun was diagnosed with malaria at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), he was already in critical condition.
India's journalists tend to nurse a healthy disregard for institutionalised frameworks, arguing that it is impossible to take all risks into account. But a few basic measures could help eliminate entirely predictable and avoidable tragedies like the one that claimed Tarun.
It is the responsibility of senior editors to assess the risks that junior, inexperienced journalists take in search of a story. It isn't enough to tell a 22-year- old like Tarun to ‘Be Careful.' An organisation should be in a position to direct its journalists to information on possible health hazards and the corresponding vaccinations, inoculations and precautions. Reporters working out of conflict zones need specific training; all of us in Chhattisgarh operate in the hope that “everything will be okay,” but sometimes that isn't enough.
In January 2008, I sat by a bed at AIIMS, in Delhi as malaria almost claimed another young photographer. Ishan Tankha, a close friend, had spent a few days on a story in Chhattisgarh before he was struck down by a raging fever. I met Ishan at Tarun's funeral on Friday. “I never met Tarun,” Ishan told me, “But, I just felt I had to be here.”