LK was supposed to be my guide. He had been set up by another journalist, who I had only spoken to over the phone, to help me navigate my way around a block of one of the Uttar Pradesh constituencies that I plan to track till the state votes early next year.
I was told LK was a veteran reporter of the block – he had worked for both newspapers and TV channels. He looked suitably veteran: late forties, neatly parted hair, the air of someone who had seen things in life. (It would later turn out, he indeed had.)
LK took me around multiple villages and small one-street towns in the block, occasionally pitching in with questions of his own. He had no reason to – he was in any case doing me a favour, but he perhaps thought it was his duty to slip in questions about important local issues that I obviously had little knowledge of. It was a standard day of shoe leather reporting – scores of people, dozens of interviews, hordes of stories.
Every now and then when I got immersed in a juicy conversation, LK would disappear. I would call, he wouldn’t respond, but inevitably return in a minute or two with a mischievous smile. He had been at work, looking for open drains and garbage heaps to shoot and send to the crowdsourced news application he was registered on – one of the growing breed of video aggregators specialising in hyperlocal news in rural India. A video fetched him Rs 50, LK said. He needed to send at least ten a day to keep things afloat at home.
Sometime mid-afternoon, we had wrapped up a bunch of interviews in one village and headed to another, LK received a call. I didn’t pay heed initially, but his raised voice soon caught my attention. “I am telling you I can’t meet today – a friend of mine has come down from Delhi, ” he almost barked at the person on the other end. “Come tomorrow, we will see what we can do.”
As he hung up, LK flashed his mischievous smile yet again. “Do you know who it was?” he asked, clearly excited at the prospect of a good story to share, just like any other journalist.
Without (wisely) waiting for me to respond, he continued, “It was the lekhpal of the village we were just in. Someone told him I had visited.”
A lekhpal in Uttar Pradesh is a village-level accountant, a government clerk, who maintains revenue accounts and land records.
“I have the bugger on the mat,” LK smirked. “He had called to settle.”
So, here’s what had happened: a couple of days ago, LK had landed a video of the lekhpal asking for a bribe to clear the mutation, or formal ownership transfer, of a plot of land.
LK decided to sacrifice his assured Rs 50 and bet bigger (what followed is not what you think).
Instead of uploading the video with a voiceover on to the app as he usually would, he went with it to the sub-divisional magistrate the lekhpal reported to.
According to LK, the sub-divisional magistrate summoned the lekhpal, gave him an earful, and warned him to mend his ways.
The lekhpal seemed to have taken the counsel seriously. He called the person who had secretly shot the video, summoned him to his office, and cleared his paperwork in less than half a day.
End of story then? Far from it.
The lekhpal apparently was a habitual offender and had a long list of complaints against him. The villagers were in the process of preparing a memorandum seeking his removal and submitting it to the district magistrate, the sub-divisional magistrate’s boss.
Here is where LK told the lekhpal that he could help: “If you fix your ways for good, I will convince them not to go to the DM, and you and I can settle.”
But why not, I asked LK, just go with the video to the lekhpal in the first place and demand to “settle” then itself. “Humare kaam karne ka tarika alag hai,” he said. “My style of working is different.”
As I prodded further, he explained “He has his family to feed, I have my mine – but I must also remember my commitment to my profession.”