Friday, June 21, 2013

Media and Disasters - Cyclone Aila and the Uttarakhand Floods

The Cyclone Aila hit West Bengal and Bangladesh on May 25 and 26th, 2009, impacting the lives and livelihoods of nearly 6.8 million people in West Bengal alone.  According to the Government records, the disaster hit 28,349 villages of 206 blocks in 18 districts West Bengal killing 193 persons and leaving nearly half a million people homeless. 911,000 houses were partly or fully damaged,   2262 kilometers of roads and over 900 kilometers of river embankments so vital for preservation of ecological sensitive areas of Sunderban were washed away by  the cyclone, salinating the farmlands and inundating the villages. The estimated damage was pegged at US $ 300 million. This warranted a massive relief operation with cost estimation to the tune of Rs. 647 crores (6.47 billion). With additional support from the Union Government, the total volume spent by the government by way of relief, rehabilitation and recovery including embankment repairing would be another 5,000 crore (50 billion) rupees, besides about 50 crores spent by NGOs in relief activities. But, one big grudge was repeated in all inter-agency meetings and even in government meetings: the media did not give due attention to what had happened in West Bengal. There was very little coverage in the English news channels, and very little in the national dailies printed in other states.

In comparison to this, the damage in the state of Uttarakhand in June 2013 is much smaller in terms of territory, in terms of damage to houses, and damage to infrastructure, although more people have died there due to the unpreparedness of the community and a huge traveling population who were visiting the state. But what we see is a huge outcry in the media - both electronic and printed, each one trying to beat the other in reporting about the damage. Why is this difference in attitude of the media. Let's analyze.

Visuals Matter: In the case of cyclone Aila, we do not have cyclone tracking maniacs in the country to shoot visuals and sell it to TV companies. And once the embankments broke, it was so sudden that there was no one to take photos and videos except after the relief camps were set as everything else was under water. But in the case of Uttarakhand, the waters came like a dam-burst and hit with vengeance on anything on the way, and the buildings were collapsing while the media men and people could stand at safer distances and take visuals of it. (Picture courtesy: The Hindu)

Geographical Proximity to Capital: Uttarakhand is hardly a distance from the capital New Delhi. And there was heavy rains at the same time in Delhi, leaving several parts of it inundated, including the Delhi airport. And the fear of a flood in river Yamuna was agog. And the media men and women can fly in an out within an hour. Whereas, in the case of West Bengal, the distance did matter. Besides, there was no fear of any other part of the country under threat. After all, the cyclone is "gone", then why bother about what is gone? After all, it is not cost effective to do live coverage sitting in Delhi about a flood in the Sunderbans. There are more serious matters than that.

Impact Population: In the case of cyclone Aila, the worst affected were the people in the Sunderbans, although millions of others were also affected. But, the point is, the people of Sunderbans are all people who were residents of the area, poor and vulnerable, and had fought through several disasters throughout life. But the population in Uttarakhand is of different nature. Indeed, Uttarakhand is having such flash floods only of late. Secondly, although it is a small state, lot of rich people from other states visit it for going to various Hindu pilgrimage centers. So, you have people from Delhi, Gujarat, Bengal, Maharashtra and several other states are found to have been "impacted" due to the disaster there. There are Agarwals, Chatterjees, Mishras and several other such higher caste people stranded or affected by the floods there. But in the case of Sunderbans, it is all simple agricultural farmers and fisherman. Why bother about those who cannot make much noise!

Improved Technology: With better cellular connectivity, mobile applications, possibility of video uploading, interactive applications, and the huge impact of Google and Android in Indian market which were either not there or were not so prevalent four years ago, have played also a major part in highlighting the Uttarakhand disaster. So, when 18 districts were affected with huge damage to infrastructure and houses in West Bengal, there was hardly any demand for declaring it a "National Calamity" except for some feeble voices coming from the state itself. But, there is a huge demand for declaring the Uttarakhand flood as a national calamity, for it has affected people of several races, castes and states, although in actual number, it may not be as high as the cyclone Aila.

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