How does a magazine survive for over seventeen years without any advertisements, without paying its employees or a permanent office space? How does a magazine priced only at Rs 10 a month survive?
Ask Arul Selva, the editor of Slum Jagattu (Slum World), these questions and he merely smiles shyly.
Slum Jagattu, a magazine for and by slum-dwellers, started in 2000, is now in its 18th year of production and is looking to add more members to its small but growing network.
The magazine has seen its share of troubles. It had to close operations in 2014 due to financial difficulties, but re-started in 2017 after a three-year gap.
"The paid circulation of the magazine was over 2,000, but we were forced to shut it down. After re-starting the magazine in 2017, the circulation is now around 500," says Arul, speaking from his makeshift office in a bylane on the fringes of Koramangala.
Published in Kannada, the black-and-white monthly journal is read in 14 districts of the state, including in towns like Mysore, Mandya and Hosapete.
Arul, a researcher and consultant, works with a close-knit group of six people who contribute to complete the magazine every month.
"We have three writers, Rajesh, Anisha and Vaishali, and an artist, Arul Das - who comes in and helps design the cover of the editions. Joseph designs the layout of the pages and Balamma helps coordinate the entire process," says Arul Selva.
All of the people who work in the magazine are slum dwellers and none of them are full-time employees.
Under the editorial guidance of Arul, the group sets aside five days every month to write stories, design the magazine's layout and make sure it is printed, all with no guaranteed source of income from it. "We will keep the magazine alive somehow. The fact that it exists gives people in slums a tool to communicate and share their experiences with each other," says Arul.
It was this idea to build a communication tool for slum-dwellers that lead to Arul starting the magazine in 2000 after Slum Suddi (Slum News), a similar newspaper for slum dwellers, had to close down due to differences between its editors and owners.
Arul, who used to work part-time as a reporter for the newspaper, decided to bring interested people together to start a new monthly magazine. "There was no income then. We all had our own jobs to fill our stomachs, and then we used to get together and publish the magazine on top of that... It was difficult," he admits.
The very first edition of the magazine was published in October 2000, being priced at a mere Rs 5 as anything more would put it out of the reach of its intended audience - slum dwellers. As more editions of the magazine were published, it continued to gain subscribers and admirers. "Our ambition wasnâ€™t big. There was no communication tool among slum dwellers and it was for this reason we started the magazine," says Arul, adding that he is looking to focus on the ideals of the magazine rather than its circulation numbers.
The resolute editor always knew he wanted to work in magazines in spite of dropping out of school in Class 4 to take up coolie work. "I was drawn into the habit of reading books from an early age. I read a lot of Tamil books even though I dropped out of school. Later, I was drawn into social issues," recounts Arul.
After doing a number of odd jobs, Arul got his first taste of journalism after his writings were published by Slum Suddi. He later galvanised efforts to start Slum Jagattu and continues to steadfastly ensure that the magazine goes to print every month.
The magazine's new avatar aims to highlight the living history of slums and build an archive, documenting the lives and aspirations of slum dwellers. "I have met four Chief Ministers of Karnataka to discuss slum issues. I am involved legally, politically. The way we speak to politicians and the way we speak to the public is different. Our reporting includes both perspectives and not just what political authorities are saying. It focuses more on the lives of people living in the slums,â€ť he says.
Arul is a vocal activist and is a familiar face at protests and meetings organised by slum dwellers for their rights. Most recently, he was present as hundreds of slum dwellers from several districts across Karnataka protested at Freedom Park in Bengaluru in February demanding that a Bill be passed giving them land and property rights.
But, he argues that activism is not just about hitting the streets in protest and believes that the work he is doing to archive the thoughts of slum-dwellers is equally important.
Through his efforts, slum dwellers not only became consumers of news but also began producing it. Arul is adamant that people who live in slums can write and report stories if they are given the platform to do it. "Slum dwellers think that they cannot write. It is not for people like us, they need that nudge. Almost always, they need that person to come and tell them, you can read, write. You just have to learn languages," he says.