In a sense, it all began here — with Arati Kumar-Rao pointing out one day that water is the most under-reported — and paradoxically, most pressing — of the issues confronting us.

We thought there was something to the idea, but didn’t quite know what. And so, in the spirit of figuring things out by doing, she started with River Diaries — an exploration of water and related issues, with the Brahmaputra as the spine of the narrative.

Early on in the project, Arati decided to take a boat trip up the Sunderbans. And in the midst of what should have been a routine ride, she experienced something disturbing:

Suddenly the GolPata abandoned the center of the river and veered sharp left. “Look!” Caesar called out. A ship, the size of a three-storey building, bore down on us. Some distance behind it, hanging a right on the horizon, loomed another. And another. And another. They kept coming: massive oil tankers and noisy cargo ships, all churning heavily through the Sundarbans.

“The usual channels have silted up,” offered Alom, referring to Ghasiakhali — a river channel so overrun with shrimp farms and embankments that the silt carried by these rivers, having nowhere to go, sits heavily in the main channel.


Watching a cargo ship power through the channel, I was not so sure. These monsters were noisy and fast and dirty. They were an unwelcome incongruous presence in the quiet of the mangrove forest. Several oil tankers followed these cargo ships. I shut my mind to the dread of what might happen here, should fate be tempted once too often, running one of these run dirty guys aground.

The experience proved prophetic — not long after, an oil tanker crashed, flooding the delicate Sunderbans ecosystem with thousands of litres of oil. That day, we learnt that in slow journalism, you don’t chase the headlines. You don’t have to — if the field-work is strong, if the reporting is detailed, the stories anticipate the headlines.

That was the proof point we were looking for; the validation of an idea. From that experience, the concept of Peepli took shape; Rahul Bhatia joined in with his immersive reporting on development, and Kalyan Varma followed soon after with compelling tales from the fault-lines at the intersection of man and nature.

Last week, the Society of Environmental Journalists announced its awards, the 14th in an annual series. And to our delight, picked that early story of Arati’s on the oil spill, for an Honourable Mention in the Outstanding Environmental Photojournalism category, where the winners include the likes of Robb Kendrick, Matt Black and Jim Richardson.

Of Arati’s work, the judges said (emphasis ours):

“Arati Kumar-Rao’s entry, “Oil Spill in the Sundarbans”, was also awarded an Honorable Mention for a very well done, one-day shoot of an oil spill in Bangladesh. Rich details, with a good scene setter, Kumar-Rao’s camera takes us on an immersive, first-hand visit to a community reeling from a devastating oil spill. It’s hard to imagine how the photographer could have gotten any closer.”

Bingo. That is the validation we had been seeking — the belief that to tell it right, you have to get as close to the story as you possibly can.

The full list of awards is here, and it incorporates links to some amazing — and vitally important –storytelling. And here, Arati’s story, Oil Spill in the Sunderbans, plus much more in the related stories segment.