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PEOPLE OF THE KEN

Ruhi Kandhari

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In the summer of 2010, Ruhi did the most important story of her career.

She was young, and working at Down to Earth – a publication that focuses on making a difference by telling stories about issues that affect the world around us. Mostly environmental. Some health. Some development. Great outlet.

The story was simple. She wanted to write about the e-waste collection and processing ecosystem in India. Back in 2010, before the mobile phone revolution, when most of the country still had STD booths; electronic waste, along with Hrithik Roshan’s acting career, was seen as a relevant, but marginal problem. You bought a computer, and when you were done with it, you gave it away to a scrap dealer in your neighbourhood. Not many people really knew what happened after. Fewer cared.

Ruhi cared, though. In 2010, she was fresh, straight out of J-school, and filled with the kind of idealism that was shared by newly-minted journalists and the people of Delhi before the Commonwealth Games that year.

What made her unique, was her background and ethnic origin. Of Afghani lineage, descended from immigrants who moved to Delhi several generations ago, optimism was, quite literally, in her blood. And her name. Kandhari. It was a vestige of an ancient, magnificent city, and the centre of civilisation, but in a very different place right now – Kandahar.

When I asked Ruhi what made Kandharis special, at first she said, “We are just like everybody else. Nothing special.”

Were there any Kandhari traditions? Or rituals? Anything unique?

She thought for a bit, and said, “Well we don’t have furniture at home. We love carpets and mattresses. We just sit on them”

Sit on carpets and mattresses? You mean, you sit on the ground?

Even she didn’t know exactly why they did that. It was just the way it was. Always had been. She remembers large Kandhari families seated together and having communal meals—naan with a large bowl of meat.   

To write about e-waste, it’s important to actually visit the places where it was processed. In India, this does not happen in an organised manner. Ruhi visited Moradabad and Seelampur, the hubs where people took apart old computers, keyboards, radios—basically, anything with a motherboard inside. She watched children half her age, hunched over, spend hours melting circuit boards to extract copper. She was probably outraged, but like young journalists who often get cautioned early on about the dangers of editorialising, she was careful to keep her reporting dispassionate. Look at how she described the experience:

Naveed, along with his wife Khalida and their three daughters, wakes up every morning to extract gold and copper from circuit boards of dismantled computers. He can tell without difficulty which motherboard is from China, and which one from Japan. The Japanese circuit boards are better, he says, because they fetch him more copper and gold than the ones from China. As he burns the computer parts the plastic melts, emitting a red, toxic fume. The remains from the burnt heap—the metals—fetch him up to Rs 300 per day.

The rest of the article is like that. Clear. Factual. It reads like an analyst reporting on the stock market.

Her work would take her to darker places. She spent a large part of her career writing about topics that should wrench your heart. For instance, a few years later, she worked as a research associate with the United Nations Development Programme in Delhi. This was in 2014, just after the 16 December Delhi gang rape. She spent long hours, researched gender concerns and worked with government committees to change policies on the status of women. This meant a lot of work on the ground—talking to women, reading mind-numbing rape statistics, and documenting all this. Government committees don’t like editorialising either. The reports had to be dispassionate.

I wish I could tell you her experience with gender rights ended there. But it didn’t.

In 2014, Ruhi joined Tehelka.com.

Six months before that, Tarun Tejpal, the editor of Tehelka, had been arrested by the Goa police, charged with rape and sexual harassment of one of his employees.

At Tehelka, Ruhi was a special correspondent to author stories on gender.

The thing about writing about the e-waste industry is that it’s complicated. It’s not just a human story. It’s an ecosystem story. Back in 2010, nobody even understood how the pieces fit together. For instance, it’s crucial to explain that the e-waste industry is primarily driven by illegal imports. That meant figuring out what went where, how it went there, and why it got there. Good reporters don’t just stick to the human story. They follow all the threads, and go into the secondary market, the steel industry, the scrap industry, and tie together strands that require analysing complicated import-export reports, often from other countries. That’s how the dots are connected.

You can read Ruhi’s story today, and still marvel at the research. The human part of the story is just 500 words. The ecosystem section of the story is nearly four times that. It’s meticulous. The dots are connected.

Ruhi didn’t stay long at Tehelka. Nobody could. Least of all someone who wrote about the stuff that she did.

She spent the next couple of years, by her own admission, figuring out what to do. She freelanced a bit, and did something she always wanted to do. She took dance lessons. There are two basic forms of western dance – a tighter, classical form that’s characterised by sharp and precise body movements, and a more contemporary form which is more free-flowing and gives the dancer more room to experiment.

Unsurprisingly, Ruhi picked the first. She took ballet lessons. On the side, she continued to write about topics that break your heart.

But her approach to telling a story never changed.

For instance, in 2015, there’s a story she did about acute malnutrition. You can still read it online. She spends the first sixty words of her story talking about Subhash, a severely malnourished and dehydrated baby who nearly died. She writes about how Subhash spent 40 days in the intensive care unit being treated for malnutrition, until he was finally out of danger.

Then for the next six paragraphs, she smoothly launches into surveys, statistics, expert opinions and carefully analyses government programmes and public policy on malnutrition.

A couple of years later, somebody told her about a job opening at a new startup. Ruhi, figuring that it was high time she sorted her life out, applied for the job.

That’s how she joined The Ken.

There’s an untold story about electronic waste. Sure, it’s a tale about waste management, about ecosystems and poverty, but there’s another grimmer, untold aspect. There’s a public health part of the story that everybody missed. In 2015, a full five years after Ruhi published her story, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry in India published the results of a study on the health effects of e-waste. The results were damning. The study found that over 76% of e-waste workers suffer from permanent respiratory damage. It didn’t end there. It went on to say that children were particularly susceptible to lead poisoning, which affected their nervous systems and their blood. The last line of the study, is the most chilling.

‘By the time they reach 35 to 40 years of age, they are incapable of working’

I imagine healthcare journalism must be frustrating. It’s about grinding on, writing difficult heart-wrenching human stories about sickness and death, and then spending a lot of time and effort doing meticulous research to understand which policy led to these set of circumstances, analysing them and gleaning insights. It probably comes at great personal cost, only to find out that, after all this, very little changes in real life.

But sometimes, just sometimes, you find copper.

Sometimes even some gold.

In 2011, a year after Ruhi published her e-waste story, the Ministry of Environment and Forest in India introduced the country’s first laws on e-waste. Under the new law, producers of electronic waste had to issue information on disposal, and were forced to make consumers aware of hazardous components present within e-waste.

At The Ken, Ruhi writes about health, at the intersection of policy and technology. She was one of the first people to write about the Aam Aadmi Party’s mohalla clinics in Delhi, and reported on the ground about how they were doing. It’s one of her favourite stories. Some of her other stories are phenomenal as well. She wrote about stents, about e-pharmacies and about Modicare. She wrote about health insurance companies and about scary superbugs.

Her approach to telling these stories remains the same.

Around this time, she also switched from ballet to contemporary dance.

The thing about writing about healthcare is that it’s about telling a human story, and an ecosystem story. It’s about analysing how systems work and telling agonising tales of people who are affected when the system doesn’t work. It can’t be one or the other. It’s both. Healthcare journalism is all about striking a balance.

The best healthcare writers are the ones who understand this balance. Your writing can neither emerge from a place of emotion nor can it be detached from reality.

The best healthcare writers are the ones who sit on the ground.

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