In the aftermath of any natural disaster, a cable line is thrown down to connect those engaged in rescue missions and those out of harm’s reach and following the tragedy. There’s a two-fold purpose for this: one, is the hope that people far removed from danger will be moved enough to chip in in whatever manner to help those still in danger; two, to recognise the good job done by those engaged in rescue operations.
Both purposes are valid. While genteel folk may find it unsavoury to find people in public life tumble over each other to be seen helping unfortunate victims, the fact of the matter is that these people with power — to do something more than just follow natural disaster coverage and shake their heads in a mix of horror and sympathy — do end up doing something. If a boy rescues an old lady stranded in a burning building to impress a girl, it’s churlish to keep on muttering that he was being brave just to get the girl. Doing the “most good” and being seen to do that is a hallmark of the positive competition that a democracy encourages. To believe that only the proverbial maharaja has the right to help and provide succour or give the call to ameliorate suffering is feudal Amar Chitra Katha stuff.
But there’s a flipside to this plurality in disaster relief. And that’s in figuring out whether competing forces of good are actually doing the good they claim to be doing. The job of spin-doctors is to magnify each act of help their clients are engaging in. So if I had fished out a drowning man from a turbulent river by sticking in a branch and pulling him out, my image-magnifiers would at least hint at the fact that I stripped down to my waist on hearing a cry for help, jumped into the raging river, swam against the current risking my own life and then brought the man back to the shore. In media terms, the second description would be called a better form of what’s now fashionably called “narrative journalism”. Something that tells the same story in a more immersive (pun not intended) way.
So when Congress parliamentarians were “asked” by president Sonia Gandhi to donate a month’s salary for flood relief, this noble gesture was announced by the head of the Congress’ communication department Ajay Maken. So what if this wasn’t quietly done the way you’ve sponsored a girl child in a village? These are people in public service and coyness isn’t necessary or preferred. If MPs do something rotten, we have a right to know. If they do something good, we have a right to know too. To write such a gesture off as a political gimmick is not only undermining what politics should be about — competitive provision of benefits to the people — but also to not understanding the legitimate human psychology of “doing good”. You may be happy by doing quiet acts of good, but there’s little reason to make a fetish out of this noble secrecy, especially if you are in public service.
Similarly, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s act of conducting aerial surveys of flood-affected areas in Uttarakhand — which followed the Prime Minister’s and Congress chief’s aerial recce — is hardly a matter to be condemned. If it is playing to the gallery, it is that, as well as being an attempt to understand, perhaps through the emotive immediacy of actually seeing the devastation, the scale of the challenge being faced. Modi drumming up relief operations and being supposedly responsible for the rescue of “15,000” people trapped in Uttarakhand is welcome, whether he did this in Rambo- or Entebbe-style.
But with so much goodness in the air with a much-needed one-upmanship of who can provide better relief underway, the media sitting in the umpire’s high-chair has one job cut out for it: in the manner of confirming whether the opponent’s claim of the ball being hit outside the line, they can confirm whether the acts of disaster relief are as they are claimed to be or not.
There’s no reason for Modi-supporters to doubt that he is responsible for saving “15,000” people trapped in Uttarakhand. But you know how people are? It would be worth their while for the media to find out how this number of 15,000 saved in two days came up. Not as a Modi-exposing exposé, but a calm tabulation to tell people that this is how the claim was made. Not generalised opinions about whether 15,000 can be or cannot be air-lifted to safety but how this mission was conducted. If it was done, its procedure can be reported — and perhaps even serve as a case study in future operations.
Similarly, journalists could check out the procedure engaged by Modi’s administration in Uttarakhand of rescuing Gujaratis who were stranded in the disaster areas. This was mentioned in passing by the Sunday Times of India in its report by Anand Soondas on June 23 (Modi in Rambo act, saves 15,000): “… [Modi has managed to bring home some 15,000 stranded Gujarati pilgrims… Around 80 Toyota Innovas were requisitioned to ferry Gujaratis to safer places in Dehradun as were four Boeings”. The report provides one detail: “When a car of a Gujarati was stuck in a road-block by angry residents demanding aid in Badkot, Uttarkashi, an urgent message was sent out by an IAS officer and the vehicle was taken to safety”.
If a list of the other cases — whether saved from a mob or from nature’s fury — could be made public, it would be so great. While some people seem to be seeing a nefarious “helping-only-Gujaratis” sub-plot here, the fact is that travellers from Gujarat stranded would be easier to track down for the Gujarat administration than from everywhere else in India. Considering Gujaratis are Indians too, once again, the media providing details about how “15,000” stranded “Gujaratis” in Uttarakhand were rescued could provide great help for administrators of other states to rescue people from their own states.
Similarly, the Congress’ fabulous gesture of each of its 275 MPs in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha donating a month’s salary — Rs 50,000 being the basic monthly salary would raise Rs 13.75 million, if one includes the 13 UPA-nominated members in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha — could also be confirmed and tracked over the next few months. Like the Gujarat BJP being only too happy to share with the media how it rescued the “15,000”, the Congress should be delighted to share information on this generous donation at such an hour of need — not to mention the additional Rs 275 million that Sonia Gandhi has “asked” Congress MPs to give from their MPLADS (Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) funds for reconstruction efforts in Uttarakhand.
Media organisations won’t even need to use the RTI (Right To Information) to gather such information that will not only showcase the great efforts that are being made at the time of a national disaster but will also give due credit to those undertaking them. The nation would be only too happy to recognise and reward these heroes once the media, after conducting the usual due diligence, fact-checking and follow-ups, brings us the details.
Image Source: Screen grab from NDTV