As Yamuna waters swelled in 2010, signalling imminent floods in Delhi, the media went into a tizzy taking people along with them. A disaster was in the making, it claimed; a catastrophe likely to make Delhi look like the sets of water parks. And while that never happened, a both amusing and disturbing picture of the media fighting tirelessly for TRPs, emerged. Such was the aggressive prediction of the catastrophe that reporters braved rising waters and perched themselves on boats to give minute-by-minute details to viewers.
What was evident was the media’s flawed knowledge and handling of issues concerning natural calamities. There were only a few who questioned the odd rainfall in September; there were even fewer who pointed towards brazen constructions in and around Delhi for the upcoming Commonwealth Games.
It is no secret that issues concerning climate change have hardly found any serious space in the national media. The coverage of such disasters has been given importance according to the region and nature of the calamity. Most times, the real reporting does not begin until the calamity has struck majorly. The flash floods in Uttarakhand is a telling example of this misdemeanour. It was on June 16 that the state received its first heavy rain, causing maximum damage. As images of roads and houses disappearing under the water emerged, the tragedy was reported as part of the aftermath of an early monsoon and the untimely rain that caused death and destruction.
By the next day, the entire media went into frenzy, grappling to understand the intensity of the tragedy. Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna termed the disaster a “Himalayan Tsunami”. The nation watched in shock as nature delivered this severe blow in one of the most sacred and frequented pilgrimage states. The extensive damage caused was rarely seen; while the landscape of crucial districts was transformed, by June 22 evening the government announced the death of nearly 1000 people.
As news channels brought pictures of the disaster, the dead and of the anxious relatives waiting to hear about their kin, a section of the media played a humanitarian role, carrying photographs of those missing and some even reuniting them with their families. However, there was only a small section of the media that looked to enquire into the tragedy. Prime among these were Times Now and Times Of India, which soon after the incident, drew attention to the commercial concerns that had held up decisions in favour of protecting the ecology of the frail terrain of Uttarakhand.
Moderated by Arnab Goswami, the group was among the first to highlight the political-bureaucrat nexus in the state. It brought to light the Comptroller & Auditor General’s (CAG) reports of 2009 and as latest as this April, which, if taken into immediate concerns, could have prepared the authorities to tackle the disaster if not turn it around. The 2009 CAG report had warned of potential effects of indiscriminately following a policy of hydroelectric projects. The report was ignored amid revelations that of nine of the major hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand, eight had no proper clearances, were unregulated and not audited. This means that under the nose of “responsible agencies”, illegal construction was being carried out; mining near state’s prominent rivers was swift even as the attempts to declare stretch along the Bhagirath as ecologically sensitive were actively resisted.
During one of the debates, environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan accepted that the proposal to declare certain parts of the state as eco-sensitive needs to be seriously considered in view of the calamity and that the authorities should not compromise with the fragile ecology of the region. The channel also exposed how politicians colluded to block an eco-zone proposal, a plan which if implemented, would have reduced the scale of human loss. Goswami flashed documents that revealed how the successive governments had given in to the sand, building and timber mafia, ignoring at the same time crucial reports from the CAG and warning from the meteorological department.
The group further reported that the CAG this April had warned of shoddy preparations to handle disasters and as the humongous calamity gripped Uttarakhand, it emerged that the state had no disaster management plan worth its name. As roads were washed off and landslides caused destruction, the indifference to public security was evident by lack of coordination between different government agencies created to look after the people. Disasters need to be treated like defence with constant preparations but the collapse of these agencies was obvious.
A catastrophe like in Uttarakhand has not been new to the country. However, we live in times where memories fade away soon, without lessons learnt from such tragedies. The Times Group sought to awake agencies from this self-imposed amnesia, bring the politicians out from the shell of zero accountability to accept responsibility to its people. There is need to take responsibility for illegal hotels being made for tourists in the sensitive zones, the innumerable dams cleared in the name of development without assessing the cumulative impact and the hydro projects that smack of politics of greed and disaster.
As a developing country, we need an active media asking uncomfortable questions and clarifications from those at top who are elected with the hope of leading its citizens to a brighter future. The irresponsibility of political-bureaucratic class needs to be exposed so that an average citizen does not become dispensable for politicians, so that they don’t go back to business in a few days but usher reforms before the next disaster happens. Climate change is a reality the world will be grappling with in the coming years and this calls for sensitive as well as tough journalism.
This is the time for resilience and compassion instead of indulging in blame games. What also cannot be denied is the fact that disasters like these give us a starting point to get our act together; question the nature of our state, the leaders we elect, and enquire into our role in causing this havoc. It should make us angry enough to seek answers, to analyze and pledge to our responsible nature in the hope that better sense will prevail.