A story of how we tried to cut through the red tape (and failed hilariously) for a news report as naive journalism students.
Why We Needed to do the Story:
It was the Reporting module week in my first term at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. We were told to come up with three news stories.
The MRTS trains are to Chennai what the Metro is to Delhi and the Local Trains are to Mumbai. They are an affordable means of transport connecting nearly the entire city.
The Indiranagar MRTS station near my college is an architectural marvel to behold. There are several steps jutting out of the outer walls that lead to blank walls. The only thing you could get by climbing those steps are drops of questionable liquid from the damp green patches of the ceiling overhead.
Entering the Bat Cave
Entering the station is like walking into an underground caves – dark, desolate and creepy.
There was no route map anywhere, just timings written in a haphazard manner.
I wandered around clutching my ticket, clueless where to go next. The station inside was cavernous – there were numerous stairways and no sign boards anywhere. I could hear my footsteps echo as I made my way across the mammoth station. So much empty space in a metropolis baffled me. Surely there could be a better use of this space, perhaps a vendor selling cold water to give all Chennai-ites some respite from the omnipresent sweltering heat.
The Reporting Adventure That Was
DATE: August 12, 2015.
I decided the story would be on the possibility of commercial outlets in the empty spaces in the MRTS stations. I had read that there were several proposals and some of them were even sanctioned, but the empty stations clearly proved that nothing had been done. So with two of my classmates, we decided to do a ground report. Oh, the idealistic journalism students that we were.
We took the train several times, visiting station masters at every station we got off at. All of them said they had heard rumours of the stalls being set up but then shrugged and said no work had been done. They were all quite pleasant and ended with the same advice – why don’t you ask those in-charge at the Railways Headquarters near Chennai Central Railway station?
So we got onto another train and made the long journey hoping to find answers. Now that I look back, all I can say is LOL.
Cutting through the Indian Red-Tape
We walked around the main office building next to the Railway Station, asking those passing us by who we could talk to. They first asked us to go to the first floor and enquire there. We trudged up the stairs, pausing to admire the ancient chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
The woman sifting through papers at the counter barely glanced up and told us to go to the ground floor. We enthusiastically ran down the stairs, armed with our questions. We spent a good ten minutes standing outside the flapping curtain framing the open door until we were finally ushered in. ‘Oh the person you are looking for has an office on the third floor, ask him’ one man said.
This time we didn’t look at the chandelier or the busts adorning the staircase.
The stairs seemed to stretch on and I could feel the sweat dampening my kurta everywhere, leaving damp amoebic patterns.
When we finally reached the third floor, we wandered around like rats in a scientist’s maze, scampering around when we found we hit a dead end. When we finally saw the name of the official we had to meet hanging near a door, we almost high-fived each other in relief.
There is something to be said about government offices. No matter which one you go to in India, you are always soothed by the sounds of the fans slowly whirring, gently lifting pages from the stacks of paper seem to cover every inch of the office space. There is no point of wondering “Why isn’t everything computerised yet?”.
The piles of paperwork give the impression that there is much work to be done and they simply don’t have the time for anything else.
We asked a man passing by if we could meet the head official. He said, “Oh he’s just gone for a meeting. He’ll be back only at 5 pm”. It was 3 in the afternoon. We’d have to wait another 2 hours for 2 lines in our report. But he was the official and we had to get his side in.
As we fanned ourselves with our notebooks, a woman kindly asked us if we wanted to talk to another official instead. We leapt up and followed her into the air-conditioned office.
He was a nice enough officer, patiently responding to our questions. He told us how plans to set up food stalls failed because of the high prices of the licenses and how they were working on fixing it. I had more follow-up questions about the stations themselves. He said the 5pm official could answer them.
It was nearly 4pm and we could have left with what we had. But we lingered on. I had so many questions for the 5PM Official, scribbled furiously in my sweat-drenched notebook.
- Why were the MRTS stations built in such a way?
- What were the measures taken to improve security?
- Was there a possibility of opening commercial outlets to encourage foot-traffic in these stations?
My list went on. And I’m glad we waited for the 5PM Official because it turned out to be one of the most hilarious interviews I’ve ever done.
The Thar Desert that Wouldn’t
Right off the bat, he was very courteous and insisted we have tea with him in his office. I’ve always been very awkward about official teas. How do I avoid slurping? Should I hold my pinky finger out? How do I eat the munchies without crunching too loudly? How would I know if I had a tea moustache from drinking it? I tried to put my apprehensions at rest by gulping it down as quickly as possibly. (Terrible idea, roof of mouth got scalded)
Swallowing back the pain, I started off confidently with my first question, “Sir, there are vast, empty stretches in the MRTS stations, why is nothing being done about it?”.
He looked me straight in the eye and said, “But there are vast empty stretches in the Thar Desert also”.
My hand which began taking notes of his sentence stopped writing. I first looked at him and then at my friends to make sure I had heard him right. The 5PM Official was smiling condescendingly. One friend snickered into her tea cup while the other one looked at the floor trying to keep a straight face.
I was thrown off, not expecting such a vague and strange response. “Er.. yes sir but the Thar Desert isn’t maintained by the Railways. So could we focus on the MRTS stations?”.
He went on a never ending monologue then – something about frogs jumping from the ponds into the well and then how it is similar to running from pillar to post. It was hard to keep track of his filibuster moves. It was like trying to swim through sand (Oh, he kept throwing in that Thar Desert reference repeatedly).
He also blamed expensive licenses. So I asked, “What about tiny tea stalls? That would work since a lot of tired office-goers take the trains back home”. He tutted patronisingly and said, “But what about security issues, ma?”.
I pointed out that there were ZERO security checks at the station. I could literally walk in with a bag full of guns and nobody would stop me because there were no metal detectors or security guards.
“That’s a different issue, ma. These tea stall vendors could be criminals, you know”.
Ha! The gall!!
My friend stepped in to diffuse the tension in the room. He asked sweetly, “Sir, what do you think could be done to improve station infrastructure?”. He smiled happily as if it were a pet subject and continued his monologue. He went on to blame the architect of the stations, saying no one wanted to set up stalls in buildings set next to the “Big Drain” (a.k.a The Buckingham Canal a.k.a. one of the stinkiest strips of water I have ever come across). I pointed out that sanitation work had started, so shouldn’t the Railways get ahead and work on the stalls too?
“Oh all the MRTS stations are over-designed you see” he responded. I waited expectantly for more. He just cocked his head and smiled at me. So I decided to go down the utopian route.
“Sir WHEN the canal is cleaned, and IF the price of the licences become affordable, WILL the Railways THINK of setting up ANYTHING?”
“Oh things like a Shopping Complex and all that comes under the State Govt purview, you’ll have to ask them”.
HA! Another endless wait for an interview that went around in circles? No thank you.
As we walked back to the MRTS station, hungry and parched, we wondered what the point of the story was. Would it make any difference, us publishing this report? What was the point of this wild-goose chase?
The Protests that Made It
Suddenly we saw a crowd gathered outside the Railway Station. Hundreds of women, all of them wearing the same red and yellow sarees. We excitedly pulled out our phones and started taking videos of the human chain. In my broken Tamil I asked them what they were protesting about. “We want the TASMAC shops to be closed down. We don’t want the govt selling alcohol to us anymore. It ruins our lives” they shouted back.
They were workers of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) political party. They were forming the human chain, awaiting the arrival of their party head, Vijayakanth, former popular Tamil Actor. We found it pretty ironic since Vijayakanth is known to fond of the bubbly. “Oh no, he has stopped all that. He also wants complete Prohibition in the state” they vehemently told us.
I was eager to see their reaction when he arrived, and even more curious to listen to the man call for prohibition in the state. He who is famous for his drunken antics. We were told he would take another hour. We decided to let it go – it was already the end of a long day.
We had the FIRST visuals of the protest. We were there before any of the news channels made it. For us young ‘uns, it was a pretty big deal. We set out in search of one story and we got two.
Sitting in that rickety train back to college, and sipping on a Pulpy Orange, I couldn’t help but feel a sigh of contentment. It may have been a physically tiring day, with a lot of sloth-like bureaucracy to deal with. But the fact that you get to ask the questions you need to, to get to speak to people who matter – be it a protestor or a Department Head – oh, could there be anything more satisfying?!
This is the final report that came from all that hustling. It’s so easy the blame “The Media”. I hope this gives an insight into the amount of perseverance it takes to carefully carve out 600 words on something and hope it makes a difference.