For three years, Ashutosh Agarwal studied hard at home for an agriculture exam. To sit the test, he had to travel from Patna to Kota, a 24-hour train ride away. Knowing how unreliable the trains can be, Agarwal planned his trip so he would reach the city a full day early. But the Patna-Kota express train was two days late, so he missed his exam. On prime time television, filmed by news channel NDTV, he was shown weeping over his three wasted years of study.
Normally, Agarwal’s bitter experience would have remained a private story. News channels in India very rarely report on the daily hardships of the poor, or show interest in why the trains used by the wealthy run on time while those used by the masses routinely run late. Most news shows restrict themselves to broadcasting studio-based political slanging matches.
But Ravish Kumar, anchor of NDTV’s Prime Time show, is pioneering a new form of public journalism. Giving a voice to the poor and to smalltown India, every night at 9pm he chooses an issue that affects millions of Indians, broadcasting their personal stories.
“I realised that ordinary Indians are not represented in the media, or hardly. What meaning does freedom of expression have if their voice is never heard and they are never seen on television news?” says Kumar.
He is currently exposing the horror of train journeys. When poorer people travel, they pack food from home because they cannot afford to buy meals. When the train is delayed for days, their food runs out. Often, there is no electricity or water. People miss exams, job opportunities, funerals and weddings.
Migrant labourers who take precious leave to visit their families waste half their time waiting on station platforms.
“Show me a plane that departs 24 hours late!” shouts an angry young man, filmed for the show, whose train still hadn’t left the station a day after the due departure.
The programme relies entirely on viewers providing information. Every day, Kumar gets thousands of messages, photographs and videos on Facebook and WhatsApp. “My viewers are my newsroom. They have realised what journalism can mean to them,” he says.
Previously, Kumar has taken up the working conditions of female employees in state-owned banks. “They are posted to places without their consent, separated from their families for years on end, and they don’t even have their own toilets,” says Kumar.
He has highlighted the misery of about 40,000 people who had passed an exam for government jobs but, five months later, were still waiting for the appointment letter. Having left their previous jobs, they had no income to support themselves. Through his show, Kumar told the authorities that, if they did not send out the letters, he would continue to highlight the issue every day “for a year if need be”.
A couple of weeks later, thousands of people started receiving appointment letters. His tenacity in exposing the callous insensitivity of the state to the needs of huge numbers of Indians has paid off elsewhere too. One bank has ordered an audit of all its branches to see how many have toilets for women. And two trains that carry thousands of passengers every day are now running one to two hours late instead of 24. Grateful passengers on the trains have sent him messages and videos.
“My media friends ask me why I go on and on about this kind of stuff instead of doing ‘big’ new stories. But this form of journalism energises me. It has changed my focus completely. We are betraying the public if we don’t make space for ordinary people in the media,” he says.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010