I am a 36-year-old journalist based in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, writing on politics, policies, human rights, conflict, environment, religion and culture – with extensive use of data and history – since 2005. I have two books of socio-political non-fiction published from HarperCollins India – Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment (2020) that documented the functioning, ideological and structural spread of rightwing Hindu organizations, and Lalgarh and the Legend of Kishanji: Tales from India’s Maoist Movement (2016) that dealt with Left-wing insurgency. Both of these books have been described as ‘must-read’ in reviews that appeared in India’s major media outlets. After working with the Hindustan Times in different capacities from June 2007 to June 2020, lastly as a special correspondent, I decided to become a full-time freelancer to pursue journalism with greater freedom, scope and flexibility. Since July 2020, I have been trying to bring out the fullest potential of my contribution to the society through journalism, having a special focus on combining investigative, field reporting with work on data. As a freelancer, my reports have been published in Mongabay India, Nikkei Asia, The Wire, Huffpost India, Caravan magazine, Outlook magazine, The Times of India, Deccan Herald, IndiaSpend, Newslaundry, Article-14, Live History India, News-18, The Print, Firstpost and News 9, among others. I am also serving as a ‘mentor’ in the IDP-Newslaundry Data Journalism Fellowship for Bengali language. Despite the financial uncertainty involved in a freelancer’s life, this period of working independently allowed me to pursue some stories that took from weeks to months. At the end, many of these in-depth, narrative pieces, investigations and data-oriented reporting were able to trigger debates and discussions, bringing new information to the fore. Going by the standard freelancer payment structure in the Indian media, the remuneration almost never compensates for such time-consuming investigations and data analysis. It’s the passion for doing some meaningful work that keeps me going, like many other freelancers around the world. The series of two reports that I am submitting here converged analysis of a large amount of data on human trafficking with field reporting. It took several months. But the satisfactory thing is: my report resulted in the government acknowledging the data discrepancy on record by way of a ‘disclaimer’. I have been a believer in the sanctity of objectivity as against being neutral. A spade must be called a spade, but first it needs to be ascertained if it, indeed, is a spade. The journalist has to keep asking and searching for till she/he gets the clear picture, all loopholes blocked. No amount of pressure from political, economic, religious and social powers should deter the journalist from leaving her/his task unfinished/ compromised. Speaking of the state of affairs in the Indian media, India’s rank in the World Press Freedom Index has remained between 136 and 142 out of 180 countries between 2013 and 2020 – it stood at 80 among 139 countries in 2002. According to Reporters Without Borders that is behind this rating, “India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly.” That being said, There are so many journalists who can be named for having produced exemplary work. But I draw my strength from the thoughts of the great cultural polymath Rabindranath Tagore, who inspired the mankind for a world ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free… that heaven of freedom.’ Will not getting the award discourage me from doing what I think I am supposed to do? No. But getting it would allow me to aim
Description of portfolio:
This is a series of two long-form, data-driven reports exposing how India’s annual data on human trafficking was getting underreported by three times since 2017 and how this data gap impacted the fight against modern forms of slavery. They appeared in Article-14, one of India’s prominent independent media organizations.
It was at the end of 2020 that activists working towards the prevention of human trafficking told me how they felt India’s annual data on human trafficking did not reflect the ground reality. This prompted me to study the country’s voluminous annual publication on crime data, titled Crime in India and published by the National Crime Records Bureau, from its 2013 edition to the edition for 2019. This took more than three months, as the volumes run into hundreds of pages, sometimes exceeding a thousand.
Till then, every media outlet and even Indian parliamentarians and ministers were quoting figures from the summary section for human trafficking in the Crime in India publication to refer to the scale of the problem. I decided to verify the figures given in the summary. Therefore, I started checking for the details of every penal provision that deals with human trafficking – six sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the special law of Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, or the ITPA.
A thorough study revealed that the Crime in India publication made a change in its reporting format in 2016: it stopped adding the number of cases filed under ITPA in the summary. ITPA is among the most frequently used penal provisions, further studies revealed.
There were more discrepancies: even the total number of cases filed under the six IPC sections did not add up to the total given in the summary. The data was in absolute mess.
Following a fresh look at the entire data set and extensive conversation with people engaged in activities to prevent trafficking, I deduced that the mismatch was because the publication, from 2016, was giving in its summary for human trafficking data only the number of cases registered with anti-human trafficking units, a special policing unit that neither had presence all over the country nor received all the complaints in places where they existed.
When I informed the National Crime Records Bureau of this discrepancy and sought their response, the NCRB director initially said they would “examine and revert” but the reply never came, despite repeated reminders from me.
My report, titled ‘The Govt Assumes 3 Times Fewer Indians Are Trafficked Than They Actually Are’, was published in August 2020.
In September 2021, the publication of the Crime in India’s 2020 edition validated the points I raised when they added a disclaimer to the data set in the summary section – the data reflects only the cases lodged with the anti-human trafficking units.
This resulted in my second report, published in September 2021, titled ‘How Latest Crime Data Set Back The Fight Against Modern Indian Slavery’. It explained the data discrepancy, its implications and consequences, with greater detail. It also gave a clear picture of what India’s human trafficking data actually looks like.
This is the only set of reports that the global community has in getting a clear picture of the scale of human trafficking in India.