2020 Shortlist

Somesh Jha

Category: Young journalist

Country/area: India

Organisation: Business Standard

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

When I started my career as a 21-year-old journalist in Business Standard, India’s most credible financial newspaper, I had a fair idea that I would be dealing with a lot of numbers, especially since I was given the responsibility to cover statistics. The knack for digging out numbers was an inherent quality in me and I realised it just in six months of b when I reported on India’s rising inequality amid falling poverty ratio by getting access to the official data, which was not released in public domain, through a right to information law. My quest for data was not limited to the economy. While one day I wrote on fundraising tactic of India’s most successful political startups, the Aam Aadmi Party, the other day I exposed how the government had put private data of citizens online without checks and balances. More than six years in journalism, I have covered a range of subjects from politics to statistics to government policies, especially in the area of labour and banking for two leading general and business newspapers. It was a life experience during my teenage that put me in awe of what journalism was capable of: holding authorities to account. Not being allowed to play my favourite sport cricket due to a rule by residential administration disallowing children from playing in the park came as a big blow to me as a 14-year-old kid. More so because the New Delhi government had gone into overdrive to convert public playgrounds into parks and gardens, barring any sports activities there too. Dejected, I decided to write a letter to one of the leading national dailies The Hindustan Times, which my family had subscribed to. I dug out as many reporter contacts as I could from the newspaper and wrote my heart out. It was a child’s plea. It must have touched someone’s heart as the newspaper decided to carry a lead story in their local coverage, quoting me. Soon, all the major dailies latched on to the news. It turned out to be a big issue that found resonance across the city. The kids wanted to claim their parks back! Today, I am recognised a journalist who brings out in public the uncomfortable truth, often rugged under the carpet by the authorities. My work got recognition in the national press pretty early in my career and in over six years, I became an assistant editor, a feat achieved at a young age of 27 years. After being a financial journalist for more than two years when The Hindu, one of India’s biggest and oldest English dailies, offered me to cover the transportation sector in 2015, I took on the challenge of writing on policy for a general newspaper. But my love for data lured me back to Business Standard, when the opportunity to cover financial services – a prized beat in a business paper – came my way in 2017. Since then, I have put all my efforts into investigative journalism which has often shown the growing discomfort of the Indian government with statistics. I broke one of the biggest banking crises in 2017 – ATMs drying up in various parts of the country – that was followed up by both national and international press and drove the government into action. My news reports became a source of research paper on the state of India’s labour market by prominent researchers based out of India and abroad. Today, I can say with some confidence that my spirit has continued to be that of a 14-year-old kid who holds the authorities to account.

Description of portfolio:

It was early 2018 and the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was under immense pressure to prove that it had been successful in creating millions of jobs, especially since it came to power in 2014 promising to create 10 million job opportunities a year. All the estimates were presenting a grim picture on the state of India’s job market. Days before Mr. Modi was supposed to address the World Economic Forum in January 2018, an independent survey claimed 7 million jobs were created in India in 2017-18. The government was quick to endorse the survey. However, my investigation report established how the survey was secretly commissioned by the government to two independent economists, giving them unauthorised access to private data of citizens only to establish ‘robust’ job creation. Since then, working on the politics of statistics has become my pet project. A year later, in 2019, my investigative journalism was reflective of how politics has officially crept into India’s renowned statistical system. Before the national elections in 2019, the Indian government held on to an official survey report on the country’s labour market that eventually prompted a top government statistician to quit in protest. Following months of investigation, I managed to get my hands on the whole report, based on which I wrote that India’s unemployment rate touched a 45-year high in 2017-18. For three months, I wrote a series of articles on the Indian labour market at a crucial time when the national elections were going to take place. No other journalist could get access to the report. The government, which denied the news initially, was compelled to release the same survey report after it was re-elected to power in May 2019 – re-affirming how India’s data architecture is under a political threat. My news report, published in January 2019, was followed up by the likes of The Economist, The New York Times and The Washington Post. I faced several challenges going forward while reporting in the power corridors as bureaucrats didn’t want to be seen with me and my access was restricted in the government offices. To make matters worse, the government had officially set up a committee to find out the source of the leaked unemployment report. Though the committee wasn’t able to discover the whistle-blower, it was enough to intimidate the bureaucratic system. Did a curb on my access to government officials become a deterrent? No. I continued to dig deeper and 9 months later reported on the findings of another withheld official report which showed consumer spending falling for the first time in over 40 years (ever since India started collecting the data). It revealed fears of rising poverty levels. Since India’s independence in 1947, the official poverty ratio had only declined. The day my news report was published in November 2019, the government decided to scrap the survey report – an unprecedented event in the country’s history. My work found a place in research papers written on India’s state of economy by prominent authors whom I helped with access to the data for their studies. The impact of my story was momentous. Over 200 economists, including Nobel laureate Angus Deaton and French economist Thomas Piketty, wrote an open letter demanding autonomy over India’s statistical institutions. This prompted the government to release five survey reports, most of which were withheld, and set up an expert committee to look into the data credibility issues. My work became a missing piece in India’s statistical puzzle, helped fill a void in its economic story and presented a grim picture of the demise of statistical autonomy.

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