INTERVIEW: Uzmi Athar, 2017 Food Sustainability Media Award Winner

by Zeina Najjar
Tuesday, 12 June 2018 10:07 GMT

Uzmi with children in Kumbalgodu village in Karnataka. Lalita Singh / November 2017

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Where does your interest in food sustainability come from, and what was your main motivation for entering this Award?

I used to regularly visit a village near my hometown called Neotini, and used to see women working as daily laborers, only having two meals per day. I used to empathise with them but I didn’t have a platform to help them.Once I grew up, I was able to understand the complexities of the issues related to food sustainability and I decided that the first step towards spreading awareness of the issue would be to write about it and let more people living in urban areas know about the daily struggles of rural people in acquiring the basic necessities of life.

When I saw the Award advertisement, I was very excited. I thought finally I’ll be able to explain the food paradox of India to a larger audience. It gave me a perfect opportunity because there was a good chance that if my article gets published by a place like Reuters and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, then it would help in mitigating the problem of the Indian food paradox.

How did you come across the Uttar Pradesh family you mention in the lead-in to your story?

I met the family in October 2016 and it took time to gather information for the article. When I saw the award advertisement, I decided to enter my story for it, so that it could be presented as part of a larger forum.

I travel to rural places across the country regularly for my job and I cover their issue and stories. This was one family which I came across accidentally. I had made a stopover in that village because of some issue, so I decided to roam around and see what the place is like, and then I came across them.

The most difficult thing was to get the children and even the women of the house to open up. Why would they want to share their stories with a stranger? When I saw their body language, I decided to spend more time there, and after a few hours they started talking to me.

People in India are very hospitable, especially in villages. So when you go and they feel that they’re not able to give you enough, they’ll try to explain why this is happening. That’s how you get to talking about things. Talking to children is another matter altogether. Children have grown in an atmosphere where they rarely get  three meals per day. Suppose some day they get three meals – that would be extraordinary. To make them understand that this is not the amount of nutrition they need is very difficult.

Is their story a frequent one in India?

No, but it is often seen in the northern and eastern parts of the country. There are a lot of reasons for it, like unequal distribution of wealth and drought. I would like to add that the government has taken some positive steps, but their implementation will take time.

Is this a story you will continue covering? After this reporting, what do you see as the biggest barriers to ensuring all in India have access to good quality, nutritious food?

I am currently covering other stories related to food sustainability. The biggest challenge is availability of funds for building infrastructure like cold storage facilities, as well as the logistics. Some private corporations have come forward to invest. Another challenge is to prevent the crops from being destroyed by rodents, for which the government is providing loans to farmers. Several state governments have started mid-day meal schemes in schools to provide nutritious food to children.    

Lack of awareness is another challenge in terms of barriers to ensuring all Indians have access to enough good quality food. Even the woman in the story is not aware of what the right diet for her children should be. She doesn’t have access to that information or doesn’t know how to get it.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experience since winning the Award?

My personal experience of winning the Award has been really good. It was very nice to see that people were talking about the issue on such a large stage at the ceremony in Milan, because that’s where it all started. 

After getting published, the story achieved the purpose of creating awareness about the food paradox in India. The government has started taking steps at the ground level, like the introduction of air-conditioned vans to stop food perishing on the way to storage facilities.

What role do you think journalists can play in addressing the challenges within our food systems?

The biggest challenge for journalists is to bring to light the stark comparison between the excess food that is produced and the number of people going hungry in a country. There are times when people are growing food, but they are not able to feed their own families. I think journalism can act as a medium for telling the story of such people. After reading a story, opinion-makers often push the government to take steps to address the issue andthat’s a very crucial role that we journalists can play.

What are the main obstacles you or others might face in reporting on these challenges?

Getting people to talk is really difficult. Equally challenging is getting someone from a village family or officials in government to admit to gaps in policies or their implementation. People always want to show the positive side of things but are reluctant to mention the area of concern.

What’s next for you and your food sustainability coverage? Do you have any plans to cover any other related issues?

I am planning to travel to the tribal belt of eastern and central India to cover women's and children's malnutrition. Recently, there was a report which mentioned that nearly half of the women of reproductive age in India are anemic, and one third of children below the age of five are malnourished. I am going to focus on these two issues.

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