Off India's beaten path
Photo by Margaretta Soehendro

Off India's beaten path

Dayamani Barla reports on the concerns of rural people in India, while enduring sexism and financial hardship

By Margaretta Soehendro
Managing Editor

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sometimes it takes Dayamani Barla three days to collect news at a village and return. She must cover her own transportation, food and lodging costs -- spending a hundred times what she earns for providing news in Prabhat Khabhar newspaper.

"The reason why I got into journalism… [was] to get the voice of the people out," Barla said in an interview with AsiaMedia. "If you're thinking of change, you have to deal with these issues and not run away."

Still, Barla describes rural journalism as "full of sour experiences." News-gathering can be difficult because the stories she seeks out are often ones that powerful people and advertisers don't want told. Her home state of Jharkhand, in eastern India and once part of the state of Bihar, is rich in natural resources such as iron, coal, copper and wood. The abundance of resources has led the government and corporations to displace "adiwasi," natives, who have lived and cultivated the land for centuries. Her comments came at a Nov. 28 talk at UCLA. Amarjeet Singh of the L.A. chapter of the Association for India's Development (AID) interpreted for Barla, who speaks Hindi.

Although media in India is thriving and speech goes generally uncensored, the plight of the "adiwasi" still goes unheard. Barla said local and national outlets, both print and electronic, are owned by the rich. And because most journalists in India come from the middle class, she said, they can't easily relate to the issues of poor people.

Her case is different. Barla's father, like other "adiwasi," was cheated out of his property because he could not read and lacked paperwork to show his rights to the land. At the talk, Barla said that the "adiwasi" assumed that centuries of living on and cultivating the land was their proof. Her father became a servant in one city, and her mother a maid in another. Barla remained in school in Jharkhand but worked as a day laborer on farms from the 5th to 7th grades.

"All through life, I saw how illiteracy was exploited by people. I focused on education to fight exploitation," Barla said.

To continue her education through secondary school, she moved to Ranchi and worked as a maid.

As a woman, Barla said, she had to overcome her family's misgivings about working as a journalist. She continues to struggle against widespread prejudice against women in the industry, not to mention harassment on crowded buses and in villages at night. Around politicians, she needs to keep her senses "always open."

"You have to give away comforts in life as a woman journalist," Barla said.

Barla owns and runs a tea shop that effectively supports her journalistic desire. She chose the business consciously because tea shops are gathering places where social issues are discussed. She is also an activist with the Koel-Karo movement, a group working to gain compensation for people displaced by the Narmada River dams in her home state.

Barla said that while she sometimes feels covering rural issues has no impact, she believes it impacts society and the government. She said she sees tribes in other regions mobilizing to also fight for their rights. And not only did the government pass a right to information act, but government officials have also adhered to it and provided the requested information.

"The pen is the way to fight against exploitation nowadays. It's my way to fight," Barla said.

Traveling around and meeting the activists involved in AID as a sponsored guest, Barla spoke mostly about her role in the Koel-Karo grassroots group and the negative effects created "in the name of development." She, in turn, asked activists what they were doing in their everyday lives: making the rich richer or helping to enrich everyone? Singh, the translator at the UCLA talk, sheepishly admitted that her questioning made him feel a bit uncomfortable as he considered what to do upon finishing his doctorate in electrical engineering.

Barla smiled and said she asked these questions to get people to consider "the end result of what they're doing."

There are two paths in life, Barla said. There's the easy path that is all about the individual's benefits and perks. Then there's the difficult path filled with struggle; it benefits society, not the self.

"You can see in history, only those people who have made a change, left a mark on society, have taken the hard way," Barla said.