There’s a lot in a name

A lane in Dharavi, Mumbai.

A lane in Dharavi, Mumbai. | Photo Credit: AP

Many years ago, I set out to write a story on Mumbai’s critical water supply issue, faced especially by slum dwellers. In central Mumbai, when I was surrounded by a group of slum dwellers, most of them women, one of them said, “He [name withdrawn] is a part of this slum’s water mafia cartel. All those tankers that come here are fully or partially owned by him. I am sure he bribes officials to ensure we do not get enough water daily. He isn’t alone.”

Due to lack of water supply, the slum dwellers depend on water tankers, which are run by a cartel of mafias who charge the daily-wage labourers handsome amounts. Those who control the supply also play a major role in that slum’s politics. For me, then a cub reporter, the woman’s quote about a person affiliated to a political party was a treat. I immediately imagined the headline in the newspaper and wondered how this politician-bureaucracy nexus could be highlighted.

“This is terrible. I assure you that I will publish this. What is your name,” I asked. “My name? Why do you want my name,” she asked in return. I stopped scribbling in my notebook. “How will anyone believe me? I need to say who is making these allegations. Don’t worry. It’s just a name,” I said. “Don’t write about this. Do whatever you want. I am not giving you my name,” she said and vanished. I stood there helplessly, wondering how my editor would react if I attributed her quote to a ‘source.’

For reporters, interesting and informative quotes are not hard to come by; the challenge lies in seeking the source’s willingness to be named. Often on the field, I have heard solid stories and insights from strangers, but when it comes to being named, they tend to walk away leaving me well informed but disappointed.

The reason is mostly fear. Some years ago, I had joined a veteran political leader on his tour to inspect a cyclone-hit coastal part of Maharashtra. When the leader took a lunch break, the villagers came to narrate their ordeal. I spotted a man speaking loudly and explaining how coconut and mango trees were damaged by the cyclone. “The government is not offering anything. A tree takes 10-15 years to become financially beneficial and all that investment has now come to naught,” I heard him say.

After a while, we approached him. Assuming that he had suffered big losses, we asked him about his situation. “Me? I don’t have a single tree,” he said. “But you were giving so much information there,” I said. He laughed. “I am a government servant. Don’t quote me. It is better you ask the tehsildar about the actual loss,” he said and made his way out.

Similarly, when asked whether they have received insurance claims, farmers have often given me plenty of information, but this is almost always accompanied by a request to not quote them. “If my name appears, I will be targeted,” they all say. The only exceptions are those associated with farmers organisations.

While we reporters seek stories, for people, providing information can have consequences. Sometime ago, I met an architect for a story on a redevelopment project. He had invited someone who had approached him regarding problems in the project. The person narrated his issues with the proposal. “This plan will benefit the builder, not us,” he told me. “Right. We can do a story. How should I attribute you in the story,” I asked. “You cannot,” he said bluntly. Both the architect and I were surprised. Looking at our faces, he said: “You are a journalist, you won’t have any issues. The builder will target me when the story appears.” I was indignant. “Then why did you meet me,” I asked. “Just so you know what builders are doing to the city,” he said.

The answer to this dilemma lies in the story being told. Sometimes, depending on the story, we persuade the person to go on record, sometimes identify them by profession, sometimes leave out their quote and go with what we have and sometimes even drop the story altogether.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2022 3:21:26 pm |