“What India Needs Right Now is Active Citizens...We Are Custodians of the Country.”: Faye D'Souza

Cosmo Editor Nandini Bhalla speaks to independent journalist Faye D'Souza about the power of social media to educate and inform, how she joined forces with actor Alia Bhatt to share credible resources, and why it is imperative to ask the right questions from those in power.  

Faye D’Souza, an independent journalist, pledged to deliver ‘just the news’ so young people could depend on reliable information without any dramatics. As the country battled the second wave of Covid-19, Cosmo Editor Nandini Bhalla spoke to Faye on the power of social media to educate and inform, how she joined forces with actor Alia Bhatt to share credible resources, and why it is imperative to ask the right questions from those in power. Read her interview below. 

“I have taken to sleeping with my phone near my pillow, because 
I don’t know who will call at what point, needing help. When I wake up, the first thing I do is scroll through my messages to make sure there is no bad news from a loved one, and that everyone is okay. Every day is a rollercoaster, not just for me, but for many people. Because the news that has been coming in, consistently, is depressing. We hear about lives lost...about friends who have lost a loved one. Each one of us knows of someone who has been very sick, and there has been this desperate rush to find them a bed, get them oxygen, and make sure they are okay. 

What breaks my heart the most is how human beings have been turned into statistics. In India, there are thousands of people succumbing to COVID-19 daily, and this is now a mere statistic. I’d like to offer some perspective here... The 9/11 attacks in New York killed about 2,900 people. The 26/11 attack in Mumbai killed about 170 people. But right now, we have many more people dying in India, every single day. And the more deaths that are taking place, the more they are becoming a statistic. Bodies burning, washing up in rivers...these were all human beings, all loved by someone. Every dead body signifies a broken family. 
I worry about rural India which is, unfortunately, suffering not only from a lack of resources, but also a lack of media attention. The impact this will have on the women and children of the country, breaks my heart, because they will suffer the most.  My state of mind, at the moment, is a deadly cocktail of being depressed and despondent. I often ask myself, ‘Are we doing enough? Should we be doing more?’ What fuels me is when my work helps make a difference. It is nice to hear someone say, ‘Hey, watching your news is helping me, because I don’t have to sift through all the anger, sadness, and shouting on television’. Over the last few months, I have been using social media to publish what I call ‘boring news’. My team and I came up with this idea of reporting ‘just the news’—factual, verified, unemotional, and unbiased. We prioritise stories based on how many lives it will impact. We write features the old-school way, almost like how we were taught to do in journalism school—you verify and explain what happened, you add a statement and a response, and you close it. The idea is to be able to present a ‘wrap’ to the audience, telling them what they need to know in 10 minutes. I honestly, genuinely believe this will make a difference to people’s mental health, to receive news in a sanitised, hygienic, and carefully delivered way. 

Faye

Illustrations: Naina Hussain

We publish these news stories on Instagram, which might seem like an odd place to do so, but I discovered there is a large population of young people in India who want to know what is going, but just don’t trust most sources. So we place our text on a grey slate, which is the most unappetising way you can present something on Instagram, because we want to drive home the point that news is not meant to be entertaining... News is like vegetables, it is meant to be boring but good for you. We don’t ‘break news’ constantly, we are not aiming to be the first to tell you something... Once a day, I will inform you of what happened, and I won’t tell you how you should feel about it. I won’t say that you need to be angry, and I won’t tell you what you should do with the information. My job ends at telling you what has happened, and I will respect your intelligence, so you can make up your own mind once you have that information.

A few weeks ago, Alia Bhatt’s team got in touch with me and asked if we could work together to put out credible information that people could use. I said, ‘Yes!’. I truly believe that we are at a point where all our gifts, all our resources need to be dedicated towards helping the country out of this crisis. This call came at the time when social media was bursting with contacts for ambulances and oxygen supplies, but many of those numbers were incorrect or unavailable. So Alia’s team, my team, and a bunch of volunteers began verifying the information before sharing it. We called the numbers and verified the NGOs—getting their registration numbers, details, proof of activities, etc—and then put this information out there, for people to save on their phones. Alia’s team also translated the information into Hindi, so we could reach as many people as possible. What brings me some hope, in these desperate times, is how the citizens of India have filled the gaps left by the government. I am amazed and inspired by how people have come forward to help each other, how they have offered their time, energy, and resources. We are a country of good people, we are a country of strong people, we are a country of people who see each other as brothers and members of the same family. And that has shone through in the last few months. 

I believe each one of us can do our bit to help the country and crisis we are battling. The first thing we need to do is stay safe, even if the numbers seem to be reducing. Pretend there is a monster outside, who will eat you if you go out, because that is true. The next thing to do, and this is really important, is to use the gift of your high-speed Internet at home, and register as many people as you can for the vaccine—the guard, the milkman, the staff, the drivers...register each one of them and their families. There are so many people who don’t have access to the portal, and this is one of the ways to help solve that problem without putting ourselves at risk. What India needs right now is ‘active citizens’. We need to view ourselves as custodians of the country, and we need 
to keep tabs on the work being done by 
our governments.  As citizens of a country, one can’t be uninvolved. One can’t say, ‘I don’t care about politics’, because that can cost you your life or the life of a loved one if you are not paying attention to how your government is running the show. 

I also believe it is our duty to ask the right questions. When someone says they are afraid to speak up, I am like, ‘Why? What could possibly happen that is worse than what is already happening? For those of us who ran around in circles to find a bed or oxygen for a loved one, the worst has already happened. For the ones who lost a loved one, for the lack of a bed or oxygen or ambulance, the worst has already happened.’ We need to demand accountability and we need to demand better from our governments because what we are seeing right now is simply not enough. Nobody will deliver unless we ask for it—it’s like when you pay for a cell phone service, and you expect top-dollar service. In the same way, the government is our service provider, and we are the customers, and right now the service sucks and it is costing lives. What our governments should have been doing was making sure not even a single person died...because each person that died was somebody’s loved one. There has never been a more important time to raise our voices, than now.”