Home > Election > Diary
No better beat than the North-East
Reporting out of India's North-East has its rewards as well as challenges.
The biggest challenge stems from the sheer ignorance/indifference that exists among both the readers and media bosses. This lack of knowledge means a reporter has to be extraordinarily persuasive to sell 'story' ideas to the boss.
But this challenge, as a Shiv Khera or a Dale Carnegie would tell you, is also an opportunity. Once the boss is convinced, almost anything one writes is new for the readers.
Having said that, let me illustrate how different, and difficult, reporting from the North-East can be from the rest of the country. Let's first take travelling.
Over here we measure the distances in the time taken to travel, not in kilometres. For instance, till December 2002 if I needed to travel to Tripura's capital Agartala, I had two options: one, I could take one of the thrice-a-week flight from Guwahati; two, travel the 600km by road. So where's the problem, you may ask.
There is not one but several. To begin with, one either had to book a seat on the flight at least a fortnight in advance (which is not possible for a newsperson) or do a lot of string-pulling to get on.
Then, you had to be sure of getting back three days later. And I am not even talking about the number of flight cancellations that takes place since Indian Airlines and its subsidiary Alliance Air believe in deploying only the worst of their aircraft in the region. After all, the logic goes, all north-easterners pay a subsidised fare, so they don't deserve the best.
So if one were to be stranded in Agartala the only option is to travel by road. Which is a nightmare, to say the least. For, the bus journey from Agaratla to Guwahati or vice versa takes a minimum of 24 hours.
Surprised? Don't be. The road is hilly and dangerous. On two long stretches, armed policemen escort all vehicles. There are dacoits and insurgents in the jungles, you see. The same applies to journeys between Guwahati and Imphal and Guwahati and Aizawl.
Things are changing, though. From this month, Agartala has a daily air connection with Guwahati. We hope the same will happen with the rest of the state capitals.
But air connectivity between, say, Agartala and Aizawl, Imphal and Agartala or Itanagar and Kohima or Guwahati and Aizawl (all these cities are state capitals in the North-East, in case you did not know) is a far cry. So for someone who has to cover three elections simultaneously in Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland, the only course open is to get back to the base in Guwahati from one state capital and then go back again to another.
The other big hurdle is telecommunication. For all those used to SMSing, MMSing and emailing on their cell phones, it will come as a big surprise, if not a shock, that throughout the seven states of the region cell phones work only in Guwahati and Shillong. Internet, thankfully, is now available in even smaller towns but connectivity is erratic and extremely slow. So attaching photographs, why, sometimes even sending news reports becomes simply impossible.
Add to this the fact that on Sundays all the hill state capitals like Kohima, Aizawl, Shillong and Itanagar shut down for holiday. Which means all cyber cafés shut down, too. If you are lucky you might find a couple of public telephone call offices open. For a reporter facing a deadline, there cannot be a more troublesome situation.
But there are compensations. All the North-East politicians -- bar none -- are easily accessible and courteous to a fault, even to a newcomer. It is perhaps only in this part of the country that one can walk into a chief minister's office and get an appointment within hours if not immediately.
But it is wise not to travel with politicians in their vehicles or convoys since most of them are under threat from militants who try to ambush them wherever possible. Another no-no is travelling with the security forces, as men in uniform are prime targets of the 52-odd insurgent groups active in the North-East. You never know which group will attack a security force convoy where.
So the next best thing is travel on your own. But as I said, travel is something that takes its toll. It costs the earth and most journeys are backbreaking, tedious and extremely long. But if one is prepared to slog it out, the rewards are extraordinary. There is no better beat for a reporter looking for adventure than this region that is yet to get its rightful place in the media world.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh