Stirring Emotions in the Time of Disaster

Illustration: Arun Ramkumar (Vidura, Press Institute of India)
Illustration: Arun Ramkumar (Vidura, Press Institute of India)

“That the media rose to the challenging task of providing the catastrophe wide coverage so as to attract national attention was commendable. But it cannot be allowed to get away scot-free for the sensationalism and emotional opportunism that marked the coverage.”

The torrential rains and cloudburst in Uttarakhand earlier this year, which triggered landslides and floods and laid bare the state and its economy, have set the Devbhoomi (literally, land of the Gods) of yore ten years back. What role did the media – especially the regional media – play in this tragedy and chaos? It can be said to have played a dual role – one aspect was praiseworthy, and the other the subject of condemnation.

That the media rose to the challenging task of providing the catastrophe wide coverage so as to attract national attention was commendable. But it cannot be allowed to get away scot-free for the sensationalism and emotional opportunism that marked the coverage. The very pitch of the reportage was permeated throughout by a sense of emotional exploitation. Instead of acting as the torchbearer for spreading assurance and easing the fears of the hill people, the regional media, thanks to its melodramatic anchors, contributed to the reigning uncertainty, fear and chaos.

The media could have contributed far better by hosting programmes aimed at spreading awareness about the measures that can be adopted in such situations. This is of importance because, though the Kedarnath- Uttarkashi-Badrinath sector was affected first, the rest, especially Kumaon, were hit much later. The uncertainty fuelled by the media compounded the agony that these regions suffered. Had the media recognised that, apart from reporting, it also had the role of leading society to better safety and stability, things could have been different in Kumaon – at least when it came to handling the aftereffects of the natural calamity.

While it wallowed in sensationalism on the one hand, on another, it did little to create awareness about exceptional situations and force action to be taken. For instance, the media, with one or two exceptions, chose to ignore the plight of Bamni Village near Ukhimkot (Kedarnath), where all the women were widowed.

For generations, the men of Bamni – a village mainly made up of Brahmins – had been serving as priests in Kedarnath. “It being the tourist season, all the men of the village, along with their sons, had gone to Kedarnath to conduct the services, leaving behind their wives and daughters. Even those who normally worked in the plains and were in the village for the vacation period had followed tradition and gone to Kedarnath. All of them died in a landslip, thus widowing the women of Bamni,” says Vayjyanti Joshi, a survivor from Nainital.

With the bread-earners all dead, life will be a challenge for these women. The difficult terrain poses towering problems for them, as agriculture is the main occupation in the hills and, with no men to support them, survival is sure to be a struggle. Governmental help is only a pipedream as its past record in the hills for rehabilitation is marked by lethargy and indifference – witness a similar devastating monsoon crisis of 2010.

Sadly, our media did not find it an issue worth consideration.

The recent calamity also raises questions about the future of various places in the state where unauthorised construction has become the norm. The rapidly mushrooming tourist destinations of Bhimtal and Bhawali in Nainital District are classic examples of this. In Bhimtal, thanks to the dictatorship of the ‘land sharks’, an entire township has come up where a hill stream which feeds the lake of Bhimtal once flowed. God forbid, if there is heavy rainfall in the region, will the water gush down its original pathway and flood the entire township? Was this not the case with Uttarkashi in the recent crisis? The bitter truth is that there is a nexus among the ever-greedy brigade of the babus (bureaucrats), the netas (politicians) and the contractors – each trying to fill their own coffers.

Undeterred by the happenings in the state is the sand mafia. The day the weather improved, local papers carried reports of a convoys of trucks rushing to and from the river basins, loading up with illegally acquired sand and stones. The unscrupulous musclemen whose godfathers come wearing dhoti-kurta (traditional garb of the politician) dare to openly defy repeated warnings by the Supreme Court. This is bound to happen in a state where the majority of the lawmakers are contractors – thus the conflict of interest.

Unfortunately, there are few scribes willing to publicise the unscrupulous deeds of such demigods. One reason is that it is these demigods themselves who own the fourth pillar of democracy – the media. Thus the brave heart who tries to prove the might of his/ her pen either ends up losing it (the job, that is) or his/ her palms are easily greased with a token or two and then the ink stops flowing.

While assessing the catastrophe, one must take note of the fact that Uttarakhand is important not only for its scenic beauty and strategic position, but also because it is a vital centre for sustaining India’s geo-cultural and geo-political unity through the various pilgrimage centres located there. The Char-Dham Yatra, the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra and the annual yatra (journey) to Hemkund Sahib, the holy town of the Sikhs, have for ages been landmark events in India.

It is time the government made a thorough assessment of the crisis, not only in terms of environment, ecology and disaster mitigation, but also with regard to the socio-cultural bond that the state holds. This is not the time for experimenting with and firming up political permutations and combinations for the coming elections, but for indulging in serious soul-searching on how best to serve the national interest. In this endeavour, journalists should contribute towards confidence-building measures with heads held high and pens that have not been clogged with grease.

  • (This article was published in Vidura—a quarterly journal of the Press Institute of India in September 2013.)
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