Notebook Comment

The dilemma of a witness

 The dilipidated workers quarters of the Nadia Jute Mill in West Bengal.

The dilipidated workers quarters of the Nadia Jute Mill in West Bengal. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

What happens after a news story is published? This is a question that bothers journalists spend their time jumping from one news story to another.

After more than a decade of reporting, some stories remain etched in my memory. It is particularly difficult to forget images — more precisely, the faces of the people who made that story. These include the face of the old woman on a remote sinking island in West Bengal who was picking through the rubble after her house was devastated by a cyclone; the worker of a closed tea garden who was lying ill with tuberculosis; the trafficking survivor who was battling HIV and had been reduced to a bag of bones; the jute mill worker who had been out of work for months and had no money for food; and the tribal couple who had been denied ration under the public distribution system because they could not link their ration cards to Aadhaar in Jharkhand. When we encounter people in severe distress, the first thought that often strikes us is: what can we do to make a difference to their lives?

The people in the story on the faulty PDS in Jharkhand were victims of a cruel experiment by the state to push technology in one of the poorest parts of the country. Soon after the story was published, I received several emails from people who wanted to help the families with money or in other ways. It has been three years since I reported that story, but I find it difficult to forget the victims. When social workers took us to their homes, which had practically nothing, we felt overwhelmingly sad. “Should we give them some money,” the photojournalist accompanying me asked, when we entered the house of a mother and young son. Both of them looked ill; they were probably suffering from tuberculosis. They had been stripped of their PDS entitlement. I suggested that we could buy some food, but then wondered if they needed to be hospitalised and if we should take it up with the authorities. But despite taking up the issue with the concerned Minister the next day, it was only after the story was published that the mother and son were hospitalised.

During a recent visit to the West Bengal State Legal Services Authority, I was greeted by a smile from a trafficking survivor. “You had come to our village,” she said. I recalled the story she spoke about, from four years ago. What struck me was that nothing had changed: the survivors were still waiting for compensation, which is their legal right.

I also often wonder what happened to Ali Hussain Mansuri, whose shop in Barrackpore was burnt and his home ransacked in the communal riots of May 2019. I’ll never forget the sadness on his face when he described how politics had vitiated centuries of coexistence of Hindus and Muslims. He has stopped calling and asking whether he will get any compensation.

In such instances, reporters are often conflicted on whether or not to help these people personally or through a collective effort. The instinct to do so when you see such misery is strong, especially when you wonder whether being mere witnesses to their stories is enough. But how sustainable can such aid be? And how many people can we possibly reach out to when the state is failing?

As journalists, our job is to report stories. We hope to make a difference to their lives through those stories. But the question of whether we could have done more haunts all reporters, and there is no easy answer.

The stories we reported may have given people living on the margins a voice. We can only hope that they brought some change for the better to their lives. These experiences push us to reflect on the lives of the people, their challenges in accessing even bare necessities and their long fight for justice.

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Printable version | Sep 9, 2022 2:12:11 am |