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Barkha Dutt, Group Editor, NDTV

BARKHA DUTT, Group Editor, NDTV, just got back from Pakistan but there’s no sign of fatigue. Her idea of journalism doesn’t come from books but from life. “I don’t follow a formula,” she admits.  “The day I stop feeling anxious, it will be my cue to step down,” she says. In an interview with Sumita Vaid Dixit of Careers360, Dutt talks about her Kargil experiences, elitism in school education and why coaching is a scam.

Q.1 What did you want to become while growing up?

A lawyer! In fact, I just found out that I can still do my LLB through correspondence but then I can’t practise. I want to be in court, litigate. It’s an unfinished childhood dream. This only shows that people want to do more than one thing.

Q.2 What were your early experiences as a TV journalist?

Like all journalists, I started with old-fashioned city reporting. TV was still new and I remember the weird things I did to get soundbites. Politicians weren’t used to TV so I would stand in front of their cars or traffic signals to ask for their soundbites. A spy had been brought home from Pakistan but the authorities weren’t letting us question him so I sat on the roof of his car and he gave me an interview!

Q.3 Being a woman, were your challenges of a slightly different nature?

I don’t want to be called a woman journalist, but having said that, to be equal to men you have to be better than them. That’s been my experience. There are assumptions about women which they have to continually break to prove they are better; being equal is not enough. When I sought permission to cover the Kargil war the Indian Army refused without blinking. Its concerns were ‘where will you sleep?’, ‘There are no bathrooms, ‘How will you manage?’. I told the officers that those were my concerns. So from relieving myself behind a tree to sleeping in the back of a car for 15 days to surviving on biscuits, I have done it all.

Q.4 What is still the toughest part of being a journalist?

Reporting death is the most difficult task for a journalist and I don’t get my balance right every time. I just follow my instincts. I don’t believe in this mantra of journalism that your job is only to observe; I report from the heart.
When the tsunami struck, my challenge was to make people care for the story. The English news viewers, many of whom were planning trips to Goa or other fancy places, wouldn’t have cared much for the deaths of local fishermen, so when we uncovered a mass grave of children in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, I knew this would make people sit up. My approach gets me both criticism and praise. But I don’t take either seriously.

Q.5 You took a break from work and went to Columbia. Why? 

I had this itch. I went to Columbia, a little snobbish, as I had had three years of experience already. But soon I realised how wrong I was as the quality of education was distinctly different. Not that what I learnt from Jamia Millia Islamia wasn’t good but just that the exposure at Columbia was phenomenal. I felt we were still far away from the international standards.

Q.6 Are we still notches below international journalism?

TV is still a young medium in India and we don’t have good TV training institutes. There aren’t enough people who have gone abroad, learnt and come back; enough hands-on practitioners as teachers because we are the first generation of TV journalists; and none of us teaches in any of the institutes.

Q.7 Media doesn’t give education enough attention. Your comments.

We can no longer cover education as a subject of a supplement or treat it as a feature story. But journalists take cue from strong political leadership and if that leadership wants to shake up the system, journalists get excited. For the lack of a better phrase, education is back in fashion as a subject of hard reporting. We have started doing exposés on corrupt institutes. For example, we did a series of investigative reports on scams related to private institutes in Maharashtra, mid-day meal scams in government schools. We are beginning to take up issues such as Right to Education, admissions, capitation fee, shortage of teachers, coaching scam.

Q.8 What about the coaching scam?

It’s disturbing that despite going to school and paying high fees, you still need tutors. It’s an utter failure of the school system. Coaching institutes take advantage of this gap. I don’t know of any student who doesn’t take coaching for boards or other examinations. We have created an industry around education; it’s a factory approach to education. This is killing young minds. If your school can’t teach you, your teachers cannot teach you then what are you going to school for? I am anti-tutorials!

Q.9 What do you think of HRD Minister Kapil Sibal’s ambitious plans to reform the education sector?

Kapil Sibal has shaken up the system. We haven’t had a good HRD minister in a long time. Arjun Singh, former HRD minister, had done a great disservice to the nation by politicising education. His quota policy was more of a political gimmick. Dr Murli Manohar Joshi had his own political view of how history should be written. So, finally we have signs of a minister who doesn’t want to make education a political issue. Education is back in the headlines! But elitism in private schools continues to worry me.

Q.10 Could you elaborate on that?

Schools are reluctant to block off seats for the less privileged. These private schools charge so much that they can easily admit poor but committed students on a subsidised fee. The elite cannot ghettoise private school education so the poor have no access to it. Elitism in education is one of the biggest crises of this country. 

Q.11 Your advice to aspiring electronic media journalists …

Many are joining TV simply to be in front of the camera. So I say to young people: come if you love news, if you have curiosity and if you seek adventure because it’s not an easy job; you would have to go without food, water, even bathing for days!

Q.12 What kind of issues would you like to see in Careers360?

Careers360 is already dealing with some of the issues in a passionate manner, such as questioning the practices of some of the (management) institutes. And I would love to see Careers360 encourage students to make unconventional career choices!  

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