Credit: Shalini Nair, the Indian Express

Winners of the 17th Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism were awarded last month at a ceremony in Reuters, London (17 October).

The awards honours journalists that are working, often at personal risk, to report conflict, corruption and injustice around the world, and are named in honour of American freelance journalist Kurt Schork who was killed in Sierra Leone while on assignment for Reuters in 2000.

A $5,000 cash prize was awarded to three people from the following categories: a freelance journalist covering international news, a reporter living and working in the developing world or a country in transition, and – newly introduced in 2017 – one to recognise the unsung work of news fixers.

Shalini Nair of the Indian Express won the Local Reporter award that recognises the often over-looked work of journalists in developing nations or countries in transition who write about events in their homeland.

Her stories, covering gender-based violence, caste discrimination and unequal development were described as 'compelling, interesting and well reported, which tackled important but under-reported topics deftly and thoughtfully.'

We caught up with Nair to find out about her career at the Indian Express and to take a look behind her award-winning stories.

Tell us about your work at The Indian Express

I have been a journalist with The Indian Express for 12 years now. Much of my career was spent in Mumbai where I reported on the financial capital’s short-sighted urban planning policies, the mass displacement in cities and villages, as well as land scams involving top politicians and heads of states. I have told stories of the living and the dead in the aftermath of terror strikes in Mumbai in 2006, 2008, and 2011.

In 2015, I moved to Delhi to report on social sector policies with a focus on gender and social justice. In the last two years, in addition to my regular new breaks, analyses and op-eds on developmental issues, I have written several long-form in-depth pieces on crucial gender concerns such as gender unjust religious laws, child marriage, child sexual abuse, marital rape, female genital mutilation, and a story on contribution of women in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, as also issues of social justice such as manual scavenging, transgender rights, and caste discrimination.

My story on how an elitist new rule, by the governments in two of India’s lowest literacy states, making formal education a prerequisite for those contesting the local village polls disenfranchised tribal, Dalit, and religious minority women was awarded the National Award 2017 for Excellence in Journalism (Rural Journalism and Development Reporting) by the Press Council of India. Likewise another story, on laws that do not criminalise marital rape, was awarded the RedInk Award 2018 under the Gender Equity category.

What challenges did you face in reporting on these issues?

I have always believed that the media needs to consistently highlight stories of the invisibility that plagues those with multiple subordinate group identities such as gender, class, caste and race etc. For long the media coverage of these issues has been limited to reporting on the sporadic incidents that occasionally shock us, but rarely in our stories do we address the unequal structures. We have failed to give these the sustained focus they deserve.

One story of mine that dealt with historical oppression was on the caste-based child prostitution among certain tribes of central India. While reporting on stories such as these, the hurdle that I had to overcome time and again is the shrinking space in the media’s national discourse for such issues that have been so long-standing that its persistence no longer pricks our conscience.

Tell us about your award-winning articles, and how you found the stories

The Swachh Bharat (Clean India) and Smart Cities stories combine policy analysis and data with field-notes from different parts of the country to present a ground report on the glaring acts of omission and commission in two of the much-hyped urban missions of the Indian Government.

My story “Swachh Bharat’s forgotten soldiers” is a scathing indictment of the Indian government’s much-hyped cleanliness mission, the policy blindness towards manual scavenging. The story began as an investigation into the deaths of sewage workers while cleaning manholes in cities across the country. What emerged from spending days with the workers and from the government records was a story of how their dehumanising lives and deaths do not even figure in official statistics.

The story set off a few reactions at the union ministerial level but it is profoundly sad that till date the practice has not been eradicated entirely despite India’s renewed focus on sanitation.

The story on Smart City is one of the first detailed analytical reports on the ground reality of Narendra Modi government’s Smart City Mission which claims to be aimed at transforming 100 Indian cities. My story shows how the Smart City mission is, instead, all about further gentrifying small already-developed pockets within these cities thus exacerbating socio-spatial inequalities.

I discovered that of the trillion plus rupees proposed to be spent on these cities in the five-year mission period, 80% will be spent on tiny well-developed enclaves within the city, pockets that account for less than 3% of the cumulative area of these cities. The report highlighted a Smart City development model that doesn’t take into account concerns of social equity in Indian cities where gleaming luxury high-rises are as much as reality as large slum sprawls.

How do you feel about winning the Local Reporter award?

It goes without saying that it is truly humbling to receive an award that was instituted to honour the life of Kurt Schork, an outstanding and inspiring journalist. More than anything else, this award is for me, an acknowledgement that if an issue is under-reported, it doesn’t mean that it is not worth reporting. It only means that we have failed as journalists to heed to our calling.

The award will serve as a constant reminder that it came my way not because of my merit but largely owing to my privilege, the privilege of growing up in an environment that has provided me with relatively better opportunities than the marginalised millions in my country. It will always remind me that I owe it to that privilege to ensure that my journalism is always meaningful and does justice to issues that really matter.

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