EPW EDITOR ADANI VICTIM

OLD FRIENDS: Adani has friends in high places — including our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Allegations of favours granted and rules by-passed have been rife over the years. The recent letter against the EPW however, may backfire because the article, still available thanks to the Wire, has got more readers since the forced resignation of editor Thakurta

The editor of the prestigious Economic and Political Weekly (EPW),  Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, was asked to resign after he exposed the favours extended to Adani by the government. This makes him the second editor to have stepped down in the past 15 months. Here, C RAMMANOHAR REDDY, who was the editor of the EPW for more than a decade, until he stepped down in early 2016, discusses the legacy of the EPW and how it can be saved

There is a crisis in the governance of the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). If not attended to, it is certain to affect the reputation and the quality of the journal. As some one who was editor for more than a decade I hope I can offer some suggestions on what we can do.

Writing letters to the trustees of Sameeksha Trust signals to them that we are unhappy. But that is not enough. The only effective way is to directly engage with the trustees.

Before dismissing this as a weak-kneed response, please read on.

Which academic or journalist with self-respect and integrity will now want to be editor of a journal whose board can one day say (i) you can’t write under your name, (ii) we will appoint a joint editor, and (iii) we will draw up norms of behaviour (written?) between the board and the editor? I doubt if even [Rupert] Murdoch has such norms for his editors.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta has claimed that the trustees laid down these conditions, following which he resigned. That the Sameeksha Trust’s public statement does not refute this, tells us that this did happen.

CORPORATE BULLYING: When Subir Ghosh (l) and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (r)
chronicled stories of legal harassment by corporates of investigative journalists, and of the resistance against it, in their book titled ‘Sue the Messenger’, Thakurta probably little expected to be a victim himself

Much as I am unhappy about what has happened in the past week, I am more worried about the future. If we do not take corrective action now, there is good reason to expect the EPW to slide. And as anybody with a basic understanding of the media knows, once publications start declining it is almost impossible to reverse the trend.

The trustees can choose to ignore any letter addressed to them even if 500 readers and writers of the EPW sign it. The trustees may feel that after some time the letter-writers will move on to other things. This is what happened in early 2016, after the turmoil on the eve of my departure, and is more than likely to happen now as well.

Waiting it out is a good strategy when you have all the power. And the trustees do have that power. The Sameeksha Trust is a self-selecting board whose members have given themselves permanent tenure. So voting them out is not possible.

I therefore feel the only way to repair the situation is dialogue – polite, detailed and firm dialogue. A small group of readers and writers could meet the trustees individually and engage in a discussion about the future. The trustees may not be aware right now, but the responsibility for repairing the damage is theirs and we have to convince them as such.

There must surely be some doubt among them that after nearly 50 years of smooth functioning, two extreme events have happened within 15 months. Something must be wrong somewhere. It can’t be coincidence.

We must convince the trustees that they must quickly come out with a public statement that (i) affirms the independence of the office of the editor, (ii) states that in future the trustees will not issue any directions on either selection of articles or their removal from the EPW web site, (iii) asserts that the Sameeksha Trust will back the rditor and the team in any legal matter arising from publication of articles and (iv) insists that the editor will have full freedom in all respects other than in matters concerning the Sameeksha Trust where he should consult with the trustees.

This may seem like an admission that what they did last week was wrong. It is so. But there is more at stake here than personal pride. As eminent academics who have written for, read and even learnt from EPW, they know the value of the journal. They will not want to be remembered as individuals who oversaw the wrecking of EPW.

A statement from the trustees on the lines I have suggested may seem like nothing much but it will serve to rebuild some confidence in the EPW community that repair is possible. That will be a beginning. It will also allow the trustees to start on a clean slate.

Six of the eight trustees are in New Delhi and there are many members of the EPW community in New Delhi. It is easy for a small group of the young and the old, the learned and the learning, to go and talk with them.

Will it work? We have no choice but to try.

If it does not, we may well have to later say, EPW was one more Indian institution that was so difficult to build and so easy to destroy.

If it does work, it can be a beginning.

Ideas for change

A FRIEND and former colleague, Gautam (Navlakha) reminded me the other day about a letter I had written in February 2016 with some ideas for change in governance in the Sameeksha Trust.

Reading that letter again I think much of that still makes sense. Here are some extracts

Is it a public or private trust?

There appears to be a view that the Sameeksha Trust is a “private” trust and is therefore not answerable to the “public”, or “outsiders”. This is wholly incorrect, legally and substantively.

The Sameeksha Trust is registered under the Bombay Public Trust Act of 1950 which covers, among other things, trusts set up for charitable purposes including education.

The Trust also enjoys tax exemption under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act for donations made to its corpus; it is therefore answerable to the public. Public trusts cannot claim a privatised existence.

It is hoped that the Trustees of Sameeksha Trust will not make this argument to resist engagement with scholars, readers, writers and the larger body public itself, all of whom constitute the EPW Community. If they do hold on to this argument it is the responsibility of the EPW Community to convince them otherwise.

Towards change

MUCH of what EPW editorialises on and has stood for is for our institutions to be more democratic in their functioning. Indeed, a longstanding tradition at EPW, going back to the days of Sachin Chaudhuri, has been of openness. It is therefore time for the Sameeksha Trust to look at a way of functioning that is democratic and open to interaction with the public, the very people who have made EPW what it is.

It would be in keeping with the spirit with which EPW was set up that the rules drawn up in 1966 (as embodied in the trust deed) are re-examined and changes made where necessary to enable the Sameeksha Trust to perform its role in vastly different circumstances than in 1966.

(i) Consultative body

As one set of correspondents has suggested:

it could be of … value if the wider ‘EPW community’ of scholars were … given a platform to interact with the Editor and … Trustees … through the establishment of an ‘Interactive Consultative Body’, comprising a dozen or so members drawn from the community of scholars, and chosen by the Trustees in consultation with the Editor.

Such an advisory body could channel suggestions from the EPW community to the editor and trustees, listen to what the trustees and editor have to say, and respond to the editor’s requests on editorial and other matters. It could also interact more closely with the dedicated administrative and editorial staff of EPW, with whom the trustees rarely interact. How such a body should be constituted, how it should function, and whether it should be a purely advisory body or be endowed with some powers, should all be matters for discussion between the trustees and the EPW community.

Elsewhere in the world (The Guardian of the UK for instance or at home The Tribune) there are trusts which publish newspapers and magazines, and we can study their experiences in order to strengthen the Sameesksha Trust-EPW arrangement.

(ii) Constitution of Board of Trustees

(a)We need to have serving members of the academy, and also persons with experience in/knowledge of each of the following areas: academic publishing, media and the digital world,

(b)We need to give thought to having a Board of Trustees which is diverse in its composition,

(c)We must lay down the duration of each term of and term limits for the Chairperson and Trustees

There are other important areas where we need a discussion. One such is the process of selection of trustees. The consultative process needs to be much more widespread than at present, perhaps the selection process needs to be even formalised in some manner.

These are only ideas as we look ahead.

Somewhere I have been disappointed less with the Sameeksha Trust and more with the larger EPW community that after January 2016, it did not — until last week — care much about how to improve governance in the Trust. I hope there can be sustained involvement now.

The EPW community

WHEN I joined the EPW in 2004, I was astonished to see how passionate the legions of readers and writers of the EPW were about the journal. They were ever ready with suggestions, appreciation (and criticism) and offers to help in any way. I felt then that there was this “EPW community” out there which was so fiercely protective about the journal that they would not allow “their” journal to ever fade.

Yet, the EPW community seemed to have disappeared the past 15 months.

I am aware that former heads of organisations are prone to saying “it is no longer as good as it was under me”. Yet, the change in the journal for the worse was so obvious and happened so quickly that this was not a crotchety retiree seeing things.

I am not one of those who feel that the EPW is an academic journal and it should not be doing investigative stories. To remain relevant and grow, all publications must build on their strengths and refresh themselves. Maybe in this time of media-fear the EPW could do things nobody else was doing.

However, a major shift in editorial content first needs to be extensively discussed with the staff in the organisation, with the wider community and finally with the Sameeksha Trust. A focus on muck-raking that takes on the powerful requires a dedicated team (remember the team in the film Spotlight?) and a legal eye that highlights the potential weaknesses in stories. I am not aware if any of this happened.

On the investigations themselves, the few that I read were all based on either a single (anonymous) source or document. There was no cross-validation and no supplementary analysis of a primary or secondary nature ­— basic pre-requisites for investigative stories.

I do not want to be seen knocking Paranjoy Guha Thakurta the week after he was forced out of his editorship, and I may well be accused of being an “Adani stooge” (and even of writing a fresh job application!), but it has to be said: If I were editor of the EPW I would not have published most of the investigative stories that have appeared in the EPW the past year.

They were simply not good enough, which they had to be if you were taking on some of the most powerful in the land. I did not see any defamation anywhere, nor did I see any exposes.

The EPW was always as much about how the journal was produced as about what it published. An open, collegial and as democratic a way of working as was possible was what gave it strength, This is also what gave its dedicated staff a sense of pride. Again I was not sure if the new EPW realised the importance of maintaining this work environment that was so important for Krishna Raj (Editor 1969-2004).

It seemed not to be so. The result was apparent. The journal continued to appear with clockwork regularity but it seemed to be drifting. It seemed as if what was published depended only on what came in. Not many articles seemed to be commissioned. Care seemed to be no longer given to ensuring a mix of discipline and author diversity, and most worrying, it seemed as if some articles had been published without prior review or evaluation.

The EPW seemed to be turning into a platform for acquiring API points for promotion and meeting PhD requirements of publication. It was no longer a forum of ideas.

All good publications can see the editor’s imprint in every issue. Here the editor was absent other than in the investigative stories.

There remained the occasional decent article like one by Krishnan and Hatekar in the June 3 issue of the EPW on the size of the Indian middle class. These were the exceptions. At a time when we needed the EPW more than ever before in helping us understand India, it seemed to have disappeared.

Where was the EPW community when all this was happening? Some did tell me that things were not good, but this was never publicly expressed. There was only silence.

(I was also silent. Well, obviously I could not and should not have immediately commented on my immediate successor. Now I can.)

This was so different from the early 1990s when a group of senior scholars sharply criticised the EPW of the time for “the turn” it had taken. The letters columns of the EPW saw a passionate debate over months on what was wrong and what needed to be done. As a reader at the time, I felt the critics were wrong but what I admired was the involvement in the journal everyone displayed.

The passion has been re-energised the past week. It has taken the form of outrage, accusations and counter-accusations. It can’t begin and end with social-media activism and letter writing. There has to be sustained involvement and eagle-eye monitoring.

If a rapid slide in EPW after the current crisis can be averted on the basis of some of the suggestions I have made (or with other and better proposals), a beginning will have been made. However, in the long run as the environment around us continues to remain dark, the EPW community must watch over and protect the journal on a regular basis. I hope some institutional structure can be devised to facilitate an interaction with the community.

I would only say to the community, “It is your journal. If you do not look after it, the journal will fade. The responsibility to prevent that is yours and yours alone, not of the editor or the Sameeksha Trust”.

THE STORY SO FAR…

ECONOMIC & Political Weekly (EPW) editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta became the first top-level editorial casualty of corporate India’s increasing tendency to file multi-crore defamation cases as a means of countering critical reporting, resigning after the directors of the trust which runs the storied journal ordered him to take down an article on the Adani group.

Last month, Adani Power Ltd. sent a letter via its lawyers to the EPW, the article’s four authors (which included Thakurta) and the Sameeksha Trust, which owns and runs the journal. The lawyer’s letter demanded that immediate steps be taken to “remove/delete and unconditionally retract” an article ‘Modi Government’s `500-Crore Bonanza to the Adani Group’ (June 24, 2017) that they said was defamatory and harmful to the reputation of their client. The letter also objected to the publication of an earlier article,‘Did the Adani Group Evade `1,000 Crore in Taxes?’ (January 14, 2017), but did not specifically ask for it to be removed.

The letter said that unless this was done, “our clients shall be constrained to take such action as they may be advised”.

On Tuesday, the Sameeksha Trust board, met in Delhi. During the meeting the board criticised Thakurta and said he had lost their trust because he responded to the letter without consulting them. Thakurta acknowledged is was a procedural lapse and apologised immediately. From his point of view the legal response would have been required anyway, and as he kept trying to clarify — the best defence against a charge of defamation is the truth, and he was willing and eager to stand by everything he had written. However the board told him he couldn’t leave the room until the article was removed and ordered the editorial department to take the article down (alongside which Thakurta had also posted a copy of the Adani letter and a legal response by EPW). They also discussed various measures to presumably restrict Thakurta’s scope. Thakurta resigned soon after the meeting.

The Adani letter is an example of what media analysts and lawyers call ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation’ – or

ADANI IMPACT IN AUSTRALIA: The Adani Group has been trying to get permission to dig one of the biggest coal mines in the world in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. If it goes ahead, burning coal from the megamine would generate billions of tonnes of pollution, fuel global warming and irreversibly damage the Great Barrier Reef, one of the most incredible sights on Earth. The Australian government planned to hand over a $1 billion of public money to Adani for a coal-carting railway from the Galilee Basin to the Great Barrier Reef. However protestors seem to have the climate-wrecking project stalled for now

SLAPPs.

What is notable about the Sameeksha Trust’s decision to pull the plug on the two articles is that Adani had only sent them a lawyer’s letter and not filed an actual case despite the expiry of the 48-hour deadline mentioned in the letter.

Such legal letters threatening expensive and time-consuming litigation are increasingly being used by large corporations to intimidate editors, proprietors, journalists and writers and prevent them from shining a light on allegations of wrongdoing.

In India, companies with deep pockets can not only resort to filing for civil defamation and seeking crores of rupees in damages, they are also free to invoke the law of criminal defamation, under which an accused person can be imprisoned. Last year, a petition to strike down criminal defamation as unconstitutional was rejected by the Supreme Court, making India one of the only democracies in the world to still retain the draconian law on its statute books.

THE FIGHT AGAINST ADANI IN GOA

GOANS have been fighting the Adani and Jindal groups for some years now. Time and again, the Goa State Pollution Control Board (GSPCB) has pulled up both these agencies by issuing show cause notices for operating in a manner that has been causing environmental pollution in the vicinity. In reply these companies have tried to implement some preventive measures to control coal dust pollution, but pollution level in port town has not been reduced, and some of their preventive measures are back-firing.

Due to improper coal handling/stacking, residential areas in Vasco get severely affected and whenever the wind blows towards Vasco city the situation gets even worse. Wagons and trucks used for the transportation of coal are covered with tarpaulins which offer little protection. Currently at a little over 12 million tons, Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) in Vasco is planning to push for expansion of four berths and capital dredging as it envisages a four-fold expansion at over 50 million tons of coal import by 2030. The authorities aim to position Mormugao as the strategic choice for the growing steel industry in north Karnataka. Current plans of expansion of the port will mainly benefit a Jindal steel plant in Karnataka and electricity production by Adani. MPT have drawn up contracts for 30 years, risking the lives of not only the people in the vicinity but all along the transportation belt. These plans were undertaken without a thorough assessment of the environmental impact and without consultation with the people who will be most impacted.

In fact the public did not know of the expansion plans until Union Road Transport and Highways and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari came to inaugurate the capital dredging project in January 2016 — Gadkari had, in the first place, removed these projects outside of mandatory public hearings.

When public hearings were finally scheduled, after persistent public outcry, various speakers including housewives, fisher-folk, marine biologists, ecologists, engineers, former mining employees, priests, activists, lawyers, senior citizens, students, businessmen, members of various political parties, including the ruling party, and cancer patients, among others, came together to oppose what they call a plan to convert Goa into a coal corridor. Speakers pointed out that the entire EIA (environmental impact assessment) report the port put out was misleading on various fronts and had multiple discrepancies. Officials seemed to have no answers for any questions raised.

At present, even though the activity is on a lesser scale, the consequences are already very grave.

Health concerns — People report having every surface of their house, school, and even clothes covered with a layer of coal dust. Coal in your lungs —> increased respiratory issues. Coal on your body — > skin problems. Coal everywhere —> things you grow or things you buy in the market already have coal dust on them and unless you want to buy frozen fish imported from other places, the “fresh” fish you consume has already been feasting on coal.

Environmental concerns — The shoreline is disappearing and the illegal dredging is causing fears of landslides. Additionally, mangroves, lands and hills will be sacrificed to enhance the facilities to handle more coal in the form of road and rail expansions. Several plans to widen certain roads have come under fire as Vasco citizens claim that these plans are only in order to benefit the coal transportation companies.

Indirect consequences of ‘solutions’ — Speak of coal dust during unloading and coal-project supporters suggest using water so that there is less dust. The consequence? The large amount of contaminated water that has been discharged into the sea after being used for dust suppression has resulted in dark patches in the sea, killing the flora and fauna.

Thanks to sustained pressure, the state government has said it will write to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) urging it not to allow expansion of coal import projects in the state, unless the pollution level declines. In the meantime, Adani Murmugao Port Terminal Pvt Ltd and South West Port Ltd which are importing coal at Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) have been directed to reduce their capacity by 25 per cent for failing to control dust pollution.

However, scarred by the government’s previous u-turns, many activists are taking these steps with a pinch of salt. Abhijeet Prabhudesai, one of many Goans who has stepped forward to lead the movement against coal, said, “Words are empty and there is no action and thus we cannot believe him (Parrikar) at all. We have made it very clear that the citizens don’t want any coal handling. Being the chief minister of Goa,  he’s got Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s support, so why did he fail to stop the coal operations completely? He could have done it in 24 hours if he wanted to. We actually don’t believe in words or promise given by any political leaders. They keep breaking their promises for political gains. When they are in power they say one thing and when they are in the Opposition they change their stance, so it is hard to believe such political statements which might change anytime.”

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