How do you talk about stunting without getting bogged down in technical definitions that reduce children to weights and numbers? How do you talk about any field of public policy or development at all, without losing an audience removed from its direct impact?

These are questions Radhika Viswanathan and Samyuktha Varma, both with several years of work experience in the field of development, asked themselves when they decided to create In the Field, a ten-episode podcast series in English about the complexities of development in India.

“The topics that we want to talk about are quite complicated and we are kind of ourselves muddling our way through it,” Varma said. “We want the audience to muddle through with us and learn with us in the course of the episode.”

The series, funded by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies will tackle weighty topics such as water, environment, health and education. The first episode on stunting was released on October 24. The second, on environmental conservation, will be posted a fortnight later on November 7.

Photo credit: In The Field
Photo credit: In The Field

As each episode of the podcast dives into the complexities and nuances of these topics, the two Bengaluru residents also want to make this information accessible, both for lay observers and for people working in the field who might not have considered aspects of the issue beyond their expertise.

For instance, the first episode titled If you eat egg, your child will be bald begins not with definitions or serious interviews, but at an anganwadi in Bengaluru and then moves on to interweave data and definitions with interviews with doctors, researchers and corporate professionals. Among the many figures it cites is the United Nations Children’s Fund’s finding that 38% of India’s children under the age five face chronic nutritional deficiencies that result in stunting. This has serious long-term effects on everything from future mental development, chronic health issues and lower earnings than others their age.

The podcast is comprehensive. It covers policy aspects such as the role of the Integrated Child Development Scheme for Mothers, the fact that the government shut down the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau in 2015 (meaning there is no way to adequately track stunting anymore). Vishwanathan and Varma also include health research into what sort of focus nutritional interventions will be of most use, and the role of companies in branding healthy food in a way that encourages people to adopt new practices.

“Social work is quite siloed where you know some things but not others,” Viswanathan said. “We want to bring in the intersectionality of these issues.”

In The Field dwells on the constraints of the non-governmental organisation sector, something both Varma and Viswanathan, who have worked in development for several years are familiar with. The development sector has changed a lot in recent years, Varma said, largely because of inputs from philanthropy and charity.

“NGOs have been getting a bad rap lately and there is now a focus on a non-NGO approach,” Varma said. “But we see a place for everyone and want to show what everyone can do.”

This also means that there is a need to have a public conversation about what happens in the social sector, particularly when impact is measured narrowly on perceptible goals, rather than long-term changes.

“We have an appreciation of how difficult making an impact is,” Viswanathan added. “That is what we want to show, that making a change is often a long process.”

Public radio aspirations

Podcasts are still nascent in India, and are a popular format for non-fiction storytelling in the United States, particularly in areas such as public policy and development that many consider to be dry. While commercial radio rarely ventures into such formats, forms such as community radio in India pick up locally important stories.

With In the Field, Viswanathan said, they wanted to reach a “public radio standard” that is both rigorous and engaging.

The podcast emerged from a need to tell the stories they were seeing at work in a different way. Varma worked with non-governmental organisations at the interface between research and communication, trying to get their messages out to different audiences. However, she felt limited by creating just annual reports where she was unable to be entirely open about what it meant to do that work.

“The podcast comes from that frustration of wanting to share what it’s like to work with social organisations,” Varma said. “We wanted to show what happens in social work, from the boring day-to-day activities to the encounters with communities that actually bring change.”

The two have no prior experience with audio, which they chose because they felt it gave them more room to experiment than television or writing.

“This is uncharted territory still for us and development is a wonderful bridging topic, where you can tell different stories,” Varma said.

While the first episode is entirely in English, the coming episodes feature people speaking in other Indian languages as well. Here, the two made a conscious decision not to play a voiceover on those sections. And if the first 10 episodes prove successful, the two co-creators hope to extend the series to other Indian languages, which they realise will throw up a fresh set of challenges.

For the English version, they listened extensively to different audio forms, including documentaries, adapting what they found most compelling to Indian ears. In other languages, they will have to identify a soundscape that is “culturally familiar” to those listeners’ ears, Varma said.

“A regional version of the show can’t be identical, though it can definitely be along the same themes,” she added. “The idea is also to put this out in as many forms as we can.”