Is A Flood Not Sexy Enough?
Not as exciting as exposés, the devastation caused by floods in Assam finds little space in the media.
They said it was not a flood but a tsunami. Some said the water came gushing in waves 200 feet high. A few days later in the last week of September when we reached Dhola in Assam, the lifeline bridge had become debris. Homes were crumbled. The army was still evacuating people from Sadiya the upper tip of Assam and Eastern Arunachal Pradesh. All bridges and roads there were washed away. At least 4000 people were rescued. Some were swept away by the current. Thousands of domestic animals and poultry died.
Lower down where the Brahmaputra threatens to submerge the town of Dibrugarh. At PWD Koilaghat, 45 houses were claimed by the river. In the last ten years the river has advanced several kilometers into the land at many places.
In the latest flood bulletin issued by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (18/10/2012), more than 29 lakh people are still affected. 6 lakh people are in relief camps where living is not easy. The rest of the people are left struggling on highways in makeshift shelters. 20 districts of the state are still affected at least three weeks after water started receding; leaving a trail of destruction. An estimated 20 lakh children are fighting illness, malnutrition and are vulnerable to trafficking. Hundreds of thousands of people will again enter another cycle of debt to rebuild homes and run their lives till another harvest.
In the last wave 40 people have lost their lives and successive waves of flood have been hitting the state since June 25th.
The Brahmaputra carries one of the largest volume of sediments anywhere in the world – an estimated 800 million tones. It can barely balance its volume of water and sediment, causing flooding which could have been mitigated with well maintained embankments.
Against the backdrop of an unforgiving river lashing across two states displacing millions and destroying lives and livelihood, is the measure of how much the nation cares. This is almost an annual feature with varying intensity. This year it has been unusually brutal. But in my almost two decades of broadcast career I cannot recall a single national debate around floods. Is a flood not sexy enough for the media?
If we believe the general refrain that India’s northeast is not newsy and mainstream media doesn’t cover the region then turn your focus to the north. Flood is not really a focus anywhere for that matter. How much of the Pakistan flood have we covered this year? 455 people have died so far and floods have affected millions in Pakistan, but a terror plot hatched there targeting an Indian city would surely be discussed ad nasuem.
As one traveled further downstream the magnitude of human misery was visible almost everywhere. The story is similar, the landscape repetitive. Sheets of water on both sides of the highway. Someone’s field, a standing crop, the year’s harvest. All gone. Siltation has destroyed cultivation.
Not very far away at Kolakhua, the Chetri household has gone underwater twice this season. The paddy fields are not even visible. A man forces us to visit his village not to show his submerged house but how the previous night a herd of hungry elephants destroyed the granary which would have seen them through these bad times. Close by where one has to wade through watery roads, a relief camp is also under water.
Majuli, one of the world’s largest river islands, was not even visible from a helicopter. Relief couldn’t be airdropped because they couldn’t find any land. All connections by river or air had snapped for a week. Prisoners had to be evacuated as the jail was under water as well.
So what is it that makes flood devastation of this magnitude just a passing mention? Cyclones occupy a slightly more coveted position because they cause instant devastation and are perhaps more dramatic. Unless one has seen how the river breaches embankments and gushes in taking along whatever comes its way. I am not aware of why a cyclone is a national calamity whereas a flood is not. The scale of destruction is several times more in flooding. It is also over a long period. Television is instant and maybe finds flood too repetitive. Cyclones claim many more lives and therefore enjoy the top position in the hierarchy. Floods displace millions and often destroy the ability of lakhs of people to recover and rebuild. But that is not good enough. Displacement has never been an issue either in election manifestos or any civil society campaign. The United Nations programs for internally displaced people do not and are not allowed to reach these plains. International NGOs have a mere token footprint.
While floods face stiff competition in the media from other natural calamities, so does the plight of rhinos who are not nearly as important to the media as their more popular endangered cousins. More than 40 rhinos have died in Kaziranga National Park, which is also a world heritage site. They have either drowned or have been poached while escaping the floodwater. Global concern for environment and wildlife conservation ensured that it was discussed and not just mentioned, but beyond that the rhino is still running for cover. I recall the closing line of a colleague in the BBC while filming the rhino, a line I so wanted to use in my story: “If wildlife conservation was a fashion show then the tiger clearly beats the rhino at it”. Incidentally in the international market a rhino horn fetches a higher price than a tiger skin.
So what determines the grading of flood as against cyclone, rhino as against the tiger and flood victims as against terror attack victims or even riot victims? Why isn’t the fate of 20 lakh children important to our awakened civil society and political class? For a farmer, isn’t loss of land to a river as painful as losing land to political land grabbers? Why isn’t trafficking of humans and wildlife parts a national security issue? If tragedy and homelessness aren’t good enough reasons for the media to report, then figuring out where the millions invested for flood relief measures have gone, would be a good place to start.
(According to the National Disaster Management Authority “On an average every year, 75 lakh hectares of land is affected, 1600 lives are lost and the damage caused to crops, houses and public utilities is Rs.1805 crore due to floods”).