Batting for the environment

Jaideep Hardikar, 2013 Prem Bhatia Award recipient
Jaideep Hardikar, 2013 Prem Bhatia Award recipient

By his own account, Jaideep Hardikar, is simply a chronicler of the times around him. His foray into writing and reporting was neither easy nor his first choice. Like many children of his time, he dreamt of being a cricketer but stumbled into journalism and in it, found his true calling. 

He has been both the mute anguish of a widow whose farmer husband was driven to suicide and also the defeated tone of a migrant labourer who ekes out a living in an inhospitable, alien place. He has celebrated the jubilant success of Vasant Kohle, a farmer from Maharahtra who satiated his arid, parched land thanks to an initiative by students to build a bund. For Jaideep, it is these stories that are worth reporting. 

Jaideep Hardikar talks about his journey in this candid interview

Who was your biggest influence?

P. Sainath’s book ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought ’. In the introduction, Sainath writes that he did not look at his stories as events, but as processes. That thought has had a deep influence on me.

Very often, we forget the issue and simply write about an event. It is easy to do this, and today's dominant media does just this. They are simply engaged in covering events and opinions, but not the processes that explain the issue.

For instance, it's easier to write a story on the suicide by a farmer, than to write on the processes that led him to take that tragic step. That would require a reporter to go beyond the 400-word story; it calls for reseach and leg-work on everything: from understanding policies to exploring our social, economic and cultural spirals.

Why did you connect with the book?

It helped me understand why poverty is such a policy-driven issue and how it shows up in different parts of the country in different ways. It also made me realise how important it is to tell that story and Sainath's writing is a great example of how to connect and communicate with a reader.

Why is 'displacement', an important focus in your writing?

Displacement in itself is inherently unjust, it is some thing that is completely thrust on you. Nobody wants to be displaced, or thrown out of their homes, but you are. And that's because, you are part of a process that stems from a development regime that is both unsustainable and unjust.

I see the issue of displacement in line with the issues of structural injustice, be it farmer suicides or water riots.

But to travel so long and hard for the sake of one story?

I simply love to travel. People pay to travel and I get paid for doing something I truly enjoy.

My work is like an open university, a process of learning something new everyday and nurturing my knowledge bank. The reporting is simply a by-product of all this travelling, and I can't thank my editors enough for giving me this freedom.

Why so many stories on food and farmers?

Because agriculture is the economic centre of our country. Everything begins with it- if there is no food, there can be no life. It‘s science, sociology, politics, economics, culture – in short, just about everything. And when you enter into it, you know there's a vast universe to explore. Some of the gigantic concerns of our country, and perhaps the world, are agrarian, so unless you engage with it, how can you understand the country?

And on a more practical note, there' s no competition for such reporting, so you get a free-way.

Are development and environment mutually exclusive ?

Is there really anything exclusive? I don't think so.

Great mystics and philosophers have always said it - the whole world is interconnected. So how can development and environment be separate, independent pillars?

When you talk of agrarian crisis, you are talking of both development and environment, along with all other disciplines. We often simplify things, so that we don't have to struggle for complex solutions. Hence solutions too, are based on the simplistic understanding of complex issues.

Issues are often multi-layered, complex, and beyond two-dimensional understanding. What you see as an outcome, is that the solutions fail to provide respite.

As a reporter, I feel we need to go as close to the complexities and the multi-dimensionality of any issue. We may not unfurl all aspects, but should we not at least make an attempt?

Why is water a recurring theme in your writing?

Feuds over water are now assuming alarming proportions, there are fights within an apartment, within a family, within villages, intra and inter-regional feuds, inter-state water issues are flaring up, and then there are international disputes over water (like we have with China, Pakistan and Bangladesh).

All in all, water has become a central issue in the country, though surprisingly it is still not an election issue. Yet water gets so little space in our media debates. We argue over it, but don’t debate.

Water is life itself! And today we see it getting commodified. To me, it's the issue of our time with far-reaching consequences, and hence important. 

So can it be a reporter's muse?

Hundreds of reporters write about it, Sainath, Atul Deulgaonkar, to name a few. Several others are writing on it untiringly, like the Portal. Why would there be an India Water Portal, if water was not such an important issue to all of us?

Any incident that made you rethink your writing?

Not that I remember of. But I have faced brickbats of friends from my own tribe- journalists.

What keeeps you going?

My strength is the people, all those who stand up for their rights and continue to struggle despite all odds. We lead a cushy life, comfortable life and don't really know what struggle means.

I'm deeply grateful to those who allow us to be part of their gigantic struggle, who allow us to write about them. They are the true heroes, and we are simply the biographers of their struggle.

What are your plans for the future?

I need to improve my writing and story-telling ability. I think there's huge scope for non-fiction narratives in India; I wish I could write a few books too. Let's hope for the best.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

No advice, but a suggestion to my friends in the media- listen to the affected people. They are not voiceless, they have interesting solutions and suggestions to offer, they do speak, we need to listen more.

Journalists are a highly-glorified tribe in India, when in fact, we are among the most ignorant.