The last time para-trooping journalists disrupted the languid air of Bhopal was when the world’s worst industrial disaster killed more than 5,000 people and spawned a pestilence-stricken generation of disabled and deformed victims.
Three decades on, journalists from across India are drawn back to the city, this time to cover a crime not as deadly in scale perhaps but no less diabolical.It has taken the death of more than 40 people and a growing clamour for justice for the media in the rest of the country to take note of the exam-rigging scandal in Madhya Pradesh, although local news outlets and journalists have been flagging the scale of the fraud for years now.
The first cases of irregularities in these jobs-and-courses examinations were reported in the mid-1990s, and the first police complaint was filed in 2000.
But, such cases were not thought to be part of an organised racket until about 2009.
As the complexities of the scandal unfolded, the state government established a committee to investigate.
A Special Task Force (STF) was established in 2012.
But it was not until 2013 that the sheer scale of the fraud came to light when the police in Indore arrested 20 people who had come to impersonate candidates for a medical college test.
The interrogation of these people led to the arrest of Jagdish Sagar, the alleged leader of the racket.
Since then, the cookie has crumbled, baring a well-oiled nexus among politicians, bureaucrats, exam managers, small-time crooks and corrupt students.
This story, so far, was uninteresting because in a country where corruption is routine one, more scandal about graft was unlikely to excite people. Plus, serious reporting and analysis hardly fetch the TRP/readership numbers.
Then came a string of deaths of witnesses and accused, injecting a macabre mystery into the scandal that the national media could no longer ignore.
Since then, parts of Madhya Pradesh have witnessed vignettes of the Bollywood blockbuster ‘Peepli Live’ with journalists crisscrossing the state in their ‘Press’ cars and broadcasting vans in search of witnesses, accused and victims of the scam.
The relatively large influx of parachuting journalists here comprises a varied range of players.
There is the national electronic media, reinforcements for print outlets from their headquarters (including this writer) as well as some international media such as The Washington Post.
Almost all major global news outlets, including the BBC, CNN, Time, Reuters and AFP, have begun covering the story.
Some of my colleagues at Hindustan Times in Bhopal have got calls from foreign media reporters desperate to understand and contextualise the information they gather.
Still others seek ‘contacts’ for their stories.
However, my media friends need not get offended.
As I was once told, parachute journalism works if you pack your bag with advance research.