- Samvada’s tribe of volunteer editors is on the look-out for slovenly pet owners, graffiti-drawing vandals and other hot-button neighborhood issues.
For most journalists, the challenge is often how to present the big picture. At Community Samvada Pvt. Ltd., however, editors look at the city of New Delhi with a fine tooth-comb.
What happened to the whisky that was to be served at a community “rain dance” party in a certain neighborhood? Is someone poisoning stray dogs in south Delhi? And who was behind the fake obituary of an area man?
Recent reports in various editions of Samvada, a monthly that appears across Noida and South Delhi, raised these questions, and dwelt on many of the daily annoyances that Delhi city residents face.
- Community Samvada
- They July issue of Samvada, Vasant Vihar
Editor-in-chief Veenod Aggarwal, a resident of Noida’s Sector-15A, started Samvada in his area 18 years ago at the urging of a former Indian diplomat who was then heading the neighborhood residents’ association.
“Residents suddenly wanted to know what’s happening in the colony, which normally, otherwise, they would not get to find out,” said Mr. Aggarwal. “They would know what’s happening within the country. They would know internationally what’s happening through newspapers. But to know what is exactly happening in the colony was very tough,” he said.
Mr. Aggarwal honed his skills by covering various controversies associated with the building of his neighborhood club and swimming pool. A decade later, Mr. Aggarwal began expanding to other parts of the city and aiming for advertising revenue.
With 47 issues in Noida and South Delhi, Mr. Aggarwal plans to expand to Gurgaon by the end of the year. Next year, he hopes to launch Samvada in Chandigarh, perhaps expanding eventually to Bangalore and Pune. In Delhi, the monthly reaches 116,000 homes. And six months ago, Samvada went online – although not every neighborhood is represented yet.
After selling its first ad for 200 rupees a decade ago, Samvada’s annual ad sales are now at 20 million rupees (about $360,000), with commercials for surgery for incontinence and cataract treatment among the most common, perhaps reflecting the demographic of the publication’s readership.
The magazine continues to focus on issues that neighborhood residents care about, but that don’t get editorial space in the dailies, said Mr. Aggarwal. At the top of the news agenda: dog poo.
Pet dog excrement is “one of the major areas of controversy,” explained Mr. Aggarwal.
“Most of the pet dog owners, they send their servants or guards to relieve their dogs in front of somebody else’s house and the dog poo is never picked up,” he said. And then someone steps in it.
Stray dogs, too, are a hot topic.
- Dog poo tops Samvada magazine’s news agenda. Shown, a man walked dogs in New Delhi, Sept. 9, 2009.
“Whenever we publish any story related to that, which usually comes from a resident, there’s a lot of hue and cry between people who are for stray dogs and the groups who are against stray dogs,” said Mr. Aggarwal.
The publication reflects the competing demands placed on every Delhi neighborhood, and the clashes that result – between residents and civic agencies, between young and old, between master and servant – in a style that is perhaps more tabloid than broadsheet.
Consider this account of an attempted mugging in Gulmohar Park in the July issue:
“An elderly lady of B-Block, who goes to DDA Gulmohar Park for early morning walk, had a harrowing time recently,” began a brief. “While she was sitting on a bench to relax, a heavy hand suddenly clamped on her mouth from behind, so much so that she couldn’t even turn her neck, though she kept squirming.”
Archita Verma addressed the parks issue in an article titled “When Yesterday Is Spoiling Tomorrow” in this month’s Greater Kailash-II edition, that declared, “Why is India not among the top medal list at the London Olympics or any sporting competition? The answer lies in our colony parks where the older generation does not want the younger ones to play.”
Leafing through Samvada, it can seem like elite concerns dominate. One brief announces that ironing and laundry workers in Gulmohar Park have been “given notice”: “One ironing person in A-Block lane hosts several other family members. Another one in C-Block has allegedly built accommodation for even his pets,” said the item. “All these people have been told to make residential arrangements elsewhere; they can do their ironing at their stalls and leave after the day’s work.”
- Community Samvada
- The July issue of Samvada, Gulmohar Park.
Perhaps the most attention-grabbing headline Samvada has ever run, one that likely soured maid-madam relations for quite some time, was “Maid caught begging at traffic light with employer’s baby.”
“We were approached by journalists and TV crews,” a Samvada editor told the Times of India in 2010, with regard to that story.But Mr. Aggarwal says the publication does try to lobby on behalf of colony maids and drivers as well.
“We feel domestic [workers] are equally residents of that colony. Whether they live with you or not, that’s besides the point,” said Mr. Aggarwal. “One of the major concerns that we are trying to project is that they don’t make facilities, even toilet facilities, for people like guards and drivers.”
Mr. Aggarwal said a recent edition of Samvada urged the government to make it mandatory for builders to include separate toilets for guards and drivers in new homes, in an unconscious echo of the Home Help Sanitation Initiative from “The Help,” a novel about black maids at the time when racial segregation laws were in place in the American South.
And, Ruby Pandey, editor for the South Delhi editions, recently wrote a story headlined “Guard Dies Under Mysterious Circumstances In A-Block. The story asked, “Was it due to natural causes, or was it murder?”
Ms. Pandey, who worked in finance before she got married and joined Samvada after responding to an ad, said she heard about the death one Thursday while visiting a temple in Gulmohar Park, where she lives. She decided to talk to local guards and the neighborhood association about it, and the death became last month’s cover story for the Gulmohar Park edition.
“What I wanted to highlight was in such a high-security area a man gets killed, but he is a poor man so no case gets registered,” said Ms. Pandey in a recent interview. “It came from the heart.”
In her piece she wrote, “The police apparently termed it a case of death due to haemorrhage. However, from the description given by persons that Samvada spoke to, it appears that the body of the guard was found with his head and teeth smashed…The dinner he had cooked was apparently lying untouched, as also his mobile phone and Rs 400 lying in his pocket.”
Mr. Aggarwal and Ms. Pandey says Samvada has to walk a fine line between airing residents’ concerns and getting used as a pawn in property disputes between family members or neighbors. They’re helped in that endeavor by perhaps 100 volunteer editors from the neighborhoods who call or email in developments from their areas.
And while Resident Welfare Associations are an important source of information, Mr. Aggarwal and Ms. Pandey both say their intention isn’t to represent the neighborhood association’s point of view, particularly as they say these organizations are getting increasingly political. Nor are the RWAs always cooperative.
“RWA executives in most of the colonies are slightly wary,” said Ms. Pandey. “They are always worried about getting re-elected.”
When she tries to cover a spate of crime, for example, Ms. Pandey says she gets push back from RWA officials who ask her, “Why do you want to write about it? Thefts happen in every colony.”