Chennai: Journalists Nitin Sethi and Shiv Sahay Singh were declared winners of the Asian College of Journalism’s Award for Investigative Journalism and the K. P. Narayana Kumar Memorial Award for Social Impact Journalism, respectively, at an awards ceremony conducted online due to the ongoing Covid19 pandemic.

Sethi’s six-part series titled ‘Paisa Politics’, which was published by The Huffington Post India was chosen as the winning entry in the investigative journalism category, while Singh’s story titled ‘Death by digital exclusion: On faculty public distribution system in Jharkhand’ published in The Hindu was declared the winner of the inaugural social impact journalism award.

The final jury comprising Senthil Chengalvarayan (Chairperson), Vidya Subrahmaniam and Jose Martin Tharakan chose the winners from ten shortlisted entries in each category.Both awards comprise trophies and citations, while the Investigative Journalism Award winner receives INR 200,000/- in prize money and the Social Impact Award winner receives INR 100,000/-.

The awards were presented to the winners by the Chief Guest Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist of the World Health Organisation, at the Inauguration of the Class of 2021. Dr. Swaminathan’s keynote address was on the “Covid 19 Pandemic: What we know and the role of the media”.

The efforts of two other journalistshave been awarded specialmentions by the jury in the Investigative Journalism Category:

• Jeff Joseph Paul Kadicheeni’s work ‘Kerala’s Contentious Quarries’ published in The Lede.

• Rohini Mohan’s work ‘Worse than a death sentence: Inside Assam’s sham trials that could strip millions of citizenship’ that was published in

The ACJJournalism Awards Committee received 105 entries in the investigative journalism category and 147 entries in the social impact journalism category. The entries came in seven languages from over 60 news organisations and publications as well asindependent/freelance journalists from across India for the 2019 edition of the awards. Two preliminary juries comprising 18 faculty members of the ACJ selected entries for the perusal of the final jury.

The K. P. Narayana Kumar Memorial Award for Social Impact Journalism was instituted as an effort to keep alive the legacy of K. P. Narayana Kumar, a graduate of the ACJ from the Class of 2001, who passed away last year [Read obituary]. This award was made possible thanks to the efforts of the school’s alumni from the same batch.

The jury’s citations for each award read as follows:

Investigative Journalism

“This year, the Jury had several outstanding entries to choose from. However, the final entry selected itself for its stunning exposure of how easily an elected government can subvert the checks and balances fundamental to a parliamentary democracy. Nitin Sethi’s six-part investigative series on the Electoral Bonds is an expose in the classic sense. It combines elements of investigation and documentation with paramount public interest.  Indeed, the story unearths and establishes facts about the Electoral Bonds scheme that, although previously suspected, remained in the realm of speculation for want of hard evidence. Sethi’s documentation brings out staggering details about how the government pushed through the Bonds in the face of stiff opposition from the Reserve Bank of India and the Election Commission of India, and thereafter went on to expand the scope of the scheme by breaking the rules notified in this regard.

In 2018, the Central Government introduced the Electoral Bonds scheme as an innovative and far-reaching measure to curb the use of black money in election funding. However, a key feature of the scheme was the anonymity it provided donors which rendered it opaque and vulnerable to misuse. The RBI was concerned that the Bonds would become bearer instruments that could undermine faith in the bank notes issued by the Central Bank while the ECI flagged the opacity of the scheme and the opportunity it afforded to shell companies to funnel funds to political parties. Sethi’s documentation shows that while the RBI suggested limiting the scope of the Bonds, the government instead opened more windows to enable purchase of the bonds in close proximity to State elections.

Elections are the bedrock of a parliamentary democracy and when the electoral arena is sought to be manipulated and made opaque, it can impinge on democracy itself.  It is in this sense that Sethi’s investigation becomes a public service.  Mention must be made here of the extensive use of  the Right to Information Act and the stellar role played by Commodore Lokesh Batra in procuring many of the documents.”

Social Impact Journalism

“The K P Narayana Kumar Memorial Award for social impact journalism was instituted to recognise reportage that identifies latent social problems, gives a voice to those affected and points to potential remedies. The unanimous pick for the inaugural award is Shiv Sahay Singh’s “Death by digital exclusion: On faulty public distribution in Jharkhand,” published in The Hindu. The article stood above the rest for its focus on how ostensible reforms to a government scheme can often adversely impact those who need it the most due to flaws in design and implementation.

Digitisation and Aadhaar verification of potential beneficiaries were meant to plug leakages in the Public Distribution System (PDS). However, Singh’s on-the-ground reporting shows that in tribal villages of Jharkhand the system has created more problems than it has solved. For example, those who have not been able to meet the criteria of having a ration card and a linked Aadhaar number have been excluded from receiving foodgrain. Lack of internet connectivity in remote villages means that point of sale machines used for tracking deliveries do not work.

The report points out that fixing connectivity alone may not be the solution. The cancellation of ration cards held by those who really require them indicates a need to rethink a digitisation-at-all costs approach. Singh’s article highlights a series of deaths that are seen as a consequence of a patchy PDS accentuated by the poor implementation of the other major rural safety net in India, the job guarantee scheme.

The state government denies these deaths are caused by starvation. The scale of the challenge is conveyed by his interviews with people who have been pushed to a precarious existence by policy experiments that on paper are meant to safeguard their entitlements. The potential benefits of digital transformation have been well advertised by the Narendra Modi government. Many have adapted to the disruptions such a transformation entails. Sahay’s report is a timely reminder that for those on the margins, these disruptions may be the last straw.”

For previous Winners and Special Mentions, please see: