Slum Jagattu: Of, for and by the slums

Through the magazine Slum Jagattu, Isaac Arul Selva has helped transform slum dwellers of Karnataka from producers to consumers of news.

Location: Junction between 8th cross and 6th main, Sampangiramnagar.

I have been asked to wait here to be led up to the office. I recognise the face through photos in earlier interviews. He notices the look of recognition on my face, and waves in confirmation. After I cross the street, we walk up to the office on the first floor.

The room we are seated in has one computer and a few plastic chairs. Just as we settle down to talk, a colleague asks him, “Sir, nimma oota”? “Later”. I offer to wait so that he could have lunch. “No, later”, he says again.

He has a meeting to head to in about half hour. We must start.

I am at the office of Slum Jagattu, a Kannada monthly that has provided a voice to the slums of Karnataka for ten years now, talking to the editor and founder of the magazine – Isaac Arul Selva. The magazine is special for more reasons than one. It has survived without any advertisements – public or private. It has no paid employees. It sells for Rs.5 a month. So, how does the model work?

Isaac Arul Selva. Pic: Savitha

“Ten years ago, the magazine became possible because the printer agreed to give us a month’s credit”, says Selva. He was paid after revenue from the month’s sales came in. The system continues. There are news teams of about 20-25 people in different slums. “These are not paid reporters. They are just people in the slum who write what they see around them.” A three member team edits and publishes the magazine. The magazine now circulates in almost all districts of the State, via the news gathering teams itself. Jan Sahayog has provided office space and basic furniture.

Was the magazine was founded with a specific intention? “ just happened”. Selva’s writings were first published in Slum Suddi. When that paper closed down in 2000, he started Slum Jagattu. At the time, he had an offer from a mainstream Kannada publication too. “I didn’t take it as it would have meant doing what the publication would have wanted…not what I wanted”.

So what have been the learnings of these ten years? “We learnt that we could produce news instead of being mere consumers. We learnt it is better for us to represent ourselves.. More than 80% slum dwellers are dalits. When others seek to represent us, walls crop up. Their caste and class become barriers. Unless we decide to empower ourselves, we cannot be empowered”, says Selva.

I notice the soft spoken journalist’s preference for the collective “we” rather than the individual “I”. Attempts to ask him of his personal experiences are cut short with “Slum Jagattu is not Selva’s alone. It is a team effort”.

All he will say of himself – “I live in Lakshman Rao Nagar. I have studied up to fourth standard”, and a grin. At this point, a colleague who has been working across the room comes to my rescue – ” But his knowledge surpasses PhD levels”, she says. “I have read a little. That is all”, he says.

What has been the impact of Slum Jagattu? “The existence of the magazine speaks for its impact. If people didn’t want it, the magazine would not have survived”. Has it changed anything for the slums over the years? Mindsets have perhaps changed. “Earlier, we made specific requests with authorities – water, roads and so on. Now we demand a separate allocation for the urban poor in state and municipal budgets”.

He speaks with regret about official response to issues that affect the poor. “We have in our country today exactly what Manusmriti declares should exist. Everyone is in their place. Just that urban layouts have taken the place of villages and slums have become dalit keris”. He narrates an anecdote. When the Satellite Bus Stand at Mysore was being constructed, land had to be shifted from a private company to KSRTC. Families living on the land for more than 150 years had to be moved. Don’t you gain ownership over a piece of land after having lived on it for more than 40 years? But none of them were even consulted in the process, he says in indignation. Forget about giving them ownership to the land. An official actually said, “This land is worth crores. How can we give it to these people?” Eventually, those families settled elsewhere …but we had to fight for that too, says Selva.

We briefly discuss the mainstream media’s coverage of issues that matter to the poor. “There is some good development journalism happening these days. But coverage always focuses on what is not available rather than why it is not”. Perhaps the question of why raises too many uncomfortable questions, he says.

What about the future of Slum Jagattu? Queries about achieving financial sustainability are dismissed with a smiling wave. “Financial sustainability leads to institutionalisation. I don’t deny institutions have their place. But Slum Jagattu must not become an institution. It will then become an instrument of a few”.

Future plans? Personally, Selva plans to leave Slum Jagattu soon. “I am just looking for the right person to pass on the mantle to”. The question of why is answered with the characteristic smile and “livelihood concerns me too. I have three little daughters back at home”.

A translation of one of Selva’s articles appeared in Tehelka a while back. I ask if he might enter the mainstream in the future. “No. But I will prepare youngsters from the slums to enter mainstream media. I have nothing against the media. Just that I won’t enter it”, he says.

As we finish the interview, I request for photos. “Is that really necessary? Can’t you take it from other publications?”. It will just take a couple of minutes, I insist. The colleague across the room suggests that he sit before the computer. “It would look more natural sir”, she says. That is declined. A photo on the chair will do.

As I thank him and head down the stairs, I hope to feature the man I just met without any walls coming in the way.

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