Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bucking the trend?

The Hoot, September 22, 2011

Anubha Bhosle of CNN-IBN actually managed to interview Sharmila in her hospital room, something few journalists have done. On NDTV Jain looked at electric power generation in Jammu and Kashmir and unemployment and new entrepreneurship. Can one hope then that this is the beginning of a new trend on news TV in India, asks KALPANA SHARMA
Posted/Updated Thursday, Sep 22 19:10:44, 2011

It was a relief to see news television, or at least some channels, responding to the earthquake in ‘remote’ Sikkim on September 18 and covering it with enough of a sense of urgency to knock off the mindless discussions and coverage around Narendra Modi’s farcical Sadhbhavana fast. For once, lack of access to footage did not stop the channels from reaching people on the phone, showing the location of the epicentre on maps and discussing the impact. It would have been so much easier just to run a ‘breaking news’ ticker while continuing to discuss the Modi story. Can one hope that this represents the beginning of an acknowledgement by news television that there are stories waiting to be reported outside their studios and backyards?
If after the ‘Anna-mania’, as Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN called it, viewers have wondered why Indian television channels routinely fill their prime time with talking heads on the same subject for hours on end, there is some inkling available from a recent study of American television channels. Dave Marash, writing in the Columbia Review of Journalism, discusses the decreasing amount of time television news channels in the US are devoting to video footage of news events and the increasing amount of time on panel discussions, interviews and talking heads. “Interviews, panels, conversations among anchors, pundits, scholars, and ‘experts’ which, at best, produce intelligent but evergreen generalizations by people who haven’t ‘been there’ for a while, are preempting the current and specific observations available only from those who are there.

While more and more of the world is ‘speaking’ video, American TV news is ignoring it, in favor of cheaper but less informative ways to report the news.” Marash could as well be commenting about Indian TV news. 
One of the reasons, he suggests, is increased costs. Even channels like CNN that built their reputation through live coverage of the first Iraq war are increasingly cutting down on video packages – that is stories reported and edited by their correspondents on the ground – and substituting them with live commentary by reporters on the spot and talking heads in the studio. The problem with tying up your reporter to remain on standby during these talk shows is that she is then not available to record and report away from this spotlight. The one channel that continues to have many more “boots” on the ground, as Marash puts it, is Al-Jazeera, the only channel that gives you a real insight into what is happening in the Middle East. But even Al-Jazeera, Marash says, is beginning to fall for the now established routine in older news channels in the West of live comment from correspondents on the spot and the rest in studio. 

In India proximity, as news channel officials admit, determines live coverage. (Former NDTV staffer T. Sudhir’s article on this website about the coverage of the deluge in Delhi at the cost of coverage of the devastating floods in Orissa is a case in point.) This was more than evident in the case of the saturation coverage of the Anna Hazare fast and protest. It was in Delhi, where the major channels are located. It required little effort to cover it. Only after criticism about this obsession with one fast to the exclusion of other protests – especially of the decade long fast by Irom Sharmila in Manipur – have some channels invested in sending their correspondents to prepare video packages from Manipur. 
Both NDTV and CNN-IBN telecast two half-hour long shows on Sharmila’s fast against the background of the repression in Manipur. Anubha Bhosle of CNN-IBN actually managed to interview Sharmila in her hospital room, something few journalists have done. As a result, viewers heard the voice of this remarkable woman, saw the expression in her eyes, felt her vulnerability as well as her determination, and got a glimpse of the reasons why she persists. It was exceptional. 
What would be even more exceptional is if this is followed up with other stories from the northeast, ones that give Indian viewers a sense of what daily life is like for people living in that region. And if other protests, such as the on-going standoff over the Kudankulam nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu that has finally caught media attention after many weeks when thousands sat and protested, are also recognized as worthy of coverage. Surely, such protests are as much the voice of Indian ‘civil society’ as the Ramlila ground protests led by Anna Hazare.
Indeed, stories on life lived in places like Manipur, or Kashmir, will educate Indian viewers that people living in these conflict-ridden areas suffer more than just the fallout of conflict; they live with developmental neglect of the most basic kind. Srinivasan Jain’s attempt on NDTV to convey another story from Kashmir should be commended on that count. Jain looked at electric power generation in Jammu and Kashmir as well as unemployment and new entrepreneurship. Although the documentary was patchy in parts, you did get a sense of other issues of concern that do not detract in any way from the dominant issues of ‘azadi’ or autonomy.  

Can one hope then that this is the beginning of a new trend on news TV in India? If it is, then it really is about time. Instead of complaining that weekly ratings are forcing channels to become more competitive and virtually imitate each other (note the string of ‘exclusives’ on Anna Hazare on the same day on practically all news television channels), should they instead re-evaluate formats and content to figure out what would appeal to their worn-out viewers? Just as the longer format is now gradually seeping into print – with Times of India leading the way with Crest and Mint with its Saturday Mint Lounge as well as the revival of Caravan magazine -- news television might be able to attract more eyeballs if it devised format and content that are distinctive and different. In the long run, surely this is a better way to keep the gaze of viewers rather than the current frenzied attempts to be the same as the competitor.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Only pretty girls can fly

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, September 18, 2011

Behind the glamour: It's a hard grind... Photo: Rajeev Bhatt
The HinduBehind the glamour: It's a hard grind... Photo: Rajeev Bhatt
Why is it that our national carrier continues to have separate rules for men and women who work as flight attendants?
“AI may go for younger cabin crew to lure flyers”, read a headline on September 12 (Times of India). The first paragraph of the story could not have been more blatantly sexist: “Flight attendants on Air India could soon stop reminding you of the elderly and portly headmistress who rarely smiled at you in school. And they could be more nattily dressed.”
So while the rest of the world moves ahead, our national carrier remains stuck in a time warp. At a time when it cannot pay its 30,000 employees their salaries on time, when the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) has castigated it for going ahead and ordering additional aircraft when it carried an incredible Rs. 40,000 crores debt burden, Air India believes that nicer looking ‘air hostesses' — a term that Air India continued to use long after the rest of the world had adopted the gender neutral term, ‘flight attendant', will somehow make thousands of passengers rush towards the floundering airline.
Persisting story
The story of the ‘Maharaja' and its women employees is an old one.  Ever since Air India became India's national airline in 1953, when the airline owned by the Tatas since 1932 was nationalised, women flight attendants have had to fight against the different set of rules applied to them.  From a time when they could be employed only up to the age of 35, and would have to quit if they became pregnant, it has been a long and tough journey to get the airline to acknowledge that there is something called gender equity. The legal battles have raged over decades, making their way up to the Supreme Court. Some were won. Some lost.
Whatever one might think of Air India, its service, its performance or its crew, the gender battles in the airline illustrate the struggle women in the service industry have to wage to be recognised as equals. For instance, in Air India, while women had to be a certain weight for a certain age, the same rule did not apply to the male employees. Why? Women, regardless of the years of service they put in, could not be promoted beyond a certain point. Men could. Why? Women had to retire at a certain age or take up ground jobs while men could continue to serve in the cabins up to the age of 58. Why? These are some of the questions that were at the heart of many of the battles fought within Air India.
Performance, not looks
And most of all, why do those who run airlines believe that their airline will be considered more attractive if they have pretty women serving the passengers? People's choice — and now in India we have a choice — of the airline they fly depends most of all on the airline's safety record, then its on-time performance, the cleanliness of the craft, the comfort of the seats, the quality of the food served and, of course, the quality of the service on board.  Is the crew responsive, efficient, kind to older people and children and trained to deal with emergencies? How they look is the last on this list.  These criteria apply equally to the men and women who work as flight attendants. Yet, only women's looks are constantly emphasised. 
What are the attributes needed to qualify for the job of flight attendant? Here is a description posted on a job website:
“The aspiring candidates should have a few exceptional qualities within them — sense of responsibility, pleasing personality, presence of mind, initiative, good physique, patience to work long hours, systematic approach towards duty, good appearance, communication and interactive skills, language proficiency, pleasant voice, team spirit, positive attitude, sense of humour and so on.” And, “Apart from the physical and other attributes mentioned above, the candidate should also have a lot of stamina, patience, common sense, presence of mind and the strength to keep her poise in the face of a crisis. An outgoing personality and a bit of luck always help.”
The majority of the requirements have to do with attitude and with qualities such as “patience”, “systematic approach, “positive attitude”, “sense of humour” and “pleasing personality”. In the middle of all this is also “good physique” and “good appearance”. In fact, behind the glamour, the job is a hard grind and requires a high level of fitness. But should this be translated into every candidate for the job, particularly if she happens to be a woman, looking like an aspiring model?
In 2004, when Air India decided to recruit 400 new flight attendants — and 32,000 people applied — those with pimples or scars on their faces were turned away and not given a chance to prove that they might have “a pleasing personality” or even common sense and patience. Two years ago, when Air India dismissed 10 women flight attendants for being “too fat to fly”, according to a newspaper headline, one of them, who had worked for 27 years with the airline pointed out, “This is not a modelling job; we are not working a catwalk” and added, “weight is not an infectious disease”.
Furthermore, no matter how good-looking your staff, your company cannot survive just on that. This too should be obvious, particularly in the case of Air India. It is not the weight or looks of its cabin crew that have steered it into this current crisis; it is the quality of management that has. Indian Airlines, before it merged with Air India, had the same rules for men and women. And regardless of the age of its crew or how they looked, the airline remained afloat.
Looking smart and having a “pleasing personality” are necessary requirements for anyone who is in the service industry, including those who manage front offices and have to deal with people. But none of this means there should be separate sets of rules for men and women. Air India needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Unearthing the truth

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, September 4, 2011
Will justice be done? Living in hope. Photo: AFP
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 Photo: AFP
For thousands of ‘half widows' and families in Kashmir whose members have gone missing, the SIT report confirming the presence of mass unidentified graves may finally bring some kind of closure…
Imagine a day when your husband, brother, father steps out of the house and never returns. Imagine some member of the family being taken off by the police or army for questioning, and they never return. Imagine living for years not knowing — whether they are alive or dead, whether you should mourn or live in hope, whether you should give up or fight for the truth.
This is the reality to which thousands of families in Kashmir wake up each day — families of the estimated 8,000 individuals who have disappeared since the beginning of militancy in 1989. This is not a new story. It has been told, and retold many times. Yet, despite the retelling, nothing seems to change.
Glimmer of hope
Today, there is a small glimmer of hope that the truth might finally come out. Despite ‘civil society' — yes, that same ‘ civil society' that kept all our media busy for over two weeks to the exclusion of all other news — producing reports and investigations that suggested that literally thousands of unidentified bodies lie buried in unmarked graves across Kashmir, that these graves might hold the key to the mystery of the thousands who have disappeared, the state government took no action.
Last month, a special investigation team (SIT) of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) produced a report that confirmed much of what was already known, but not accepted. The SIT's 11-member team took three years to follow through on information that had been placed in the public domain by groups like the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and the Indian People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir (IPTK). Its findings, made public through the use of the Right to Information and released to the local media, are explosive. They confirm that in 38 locations in four districts — Bandipora, Baramulla, Kupwara and Handwara — there are 2,730 unidentified bodies in unmarked graves. Of these, the SIT has already confirmed that 574 are local people and not the ‘foreign militants' as the gravediggers, ordered by security forces to bury these bodies, were told. That still leaves 2,156 bodies to be identified. The SIT has concluded that “there is every probability that these unidentified dead bodies (2156) buried in various unmarked graves … may contain the dead bodies of enforced disappearances”.
The SIT report confirms what the IPTK 2009 report, “Buried Evidence: Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves in Kashmir” revealed through photographs and eyewitness accounts. It surveyed 55 villages in three districts and identified 2,373 unidentified bodies in unmarked graves. The SIT figure is higher. It reports that many of the bodies were disfigured beyond recognition and several were charred. The majority were men and most had bullet injuries. This horrific secret lay buried in graveyards that local people knew existed but could not report for fear of reprisals. Now finally the truth is out. Or at least a part of it. A thorough survey in all districts would probably reveal many more such graves and unidentified bodies. And if they were matched with the DNA of the 8,000 or so who have disappeared, it is possible that after decades there would be a closure to the terrible and lingering loss that thousands of families in Kashmir have had to bear not knowing what has happened to their loved ones.
The worst off have been the women, whose husbands were pulled out for questioning, or just picked up, and who never returned. These women, ‘half widows' as they are called, are stuck in a unique situation in Kashmir. In July, APDP came out with another report that reveals the gender dimension of this tragedy. Titled “Half Widow Half Wife? Responding to Gendered Violence in Kashmir”, the report documents the plight of the estimated 1,500 such women that APDP has identified. The number might look small but it represents just a small part of a larger problem in the state.
The individual stories in the APDP report are heart-rending. Most of these women are ineligible for pensions or government relief because they cannot produce a death certificate. There is confusion about whether they can marry again after four years or seven years. Many of them face problems with their in-laws while they wait for confirmation one way or another about the fate of their husbands. They live with high levels of mental stress and have to deal with children who also have deep psychological problems.
Insurgency, militancy, separatists, ‘stone-pelters', India, Pakistan — these are the words that get repeated in reportage from Kashmir. Yet another reality is what thousands of ordinary families suffer when their loved ones literally vanish into thin air. How can there be closure to the grief you experience when you have no idea whether the person you love is alive or dead? How can you mourn?
If, once the SIT report is handed over by the SHRC to the state government, action is taken to deal with the unidentified bodies buried across the state, perhaps there will be some kind of closure to this terrible story. Families can then, through DNA sampling, confirm whether the person they have been looking for all these years lies in one of these graves. This must also be followed up with steps to prosecute those responsible for these extra-judicial killings.
Yes, we need an India without corruption. But this violation of human rights, this terrible travesty of justice where people are picked up, killed and buried without anyone knowing about it is a more hideous form of corruption. It represents the misuse of powers granted in the name of fighting militancy. This type of corruption must also be addressed.
Indians in the so-called ‘mainland', those who filled the Ramlila grounds in Delhi, for instance, are only too ready to assert that Kashmir in the north and Manipur in the northeast are an ‘integral' part of India. If this be so, then the concerns of these half-widows, of the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters of the 8,000 disappeared persons in that state, should also be an ‘integral' part of our concern for a just and democratic society.
(To read the original, click on the link above)