In Assam, many are saying these could be one of the worst floods in recent memory. Millions — yes, millions — of people have been displaced and millions of hectares of cropland have gone under water. On the ground, this means houses have been damaged or washed away and the season’s earning lost. Villages have been buried. Livestock have died. Daily life has ground to a halt as basic infrastructure has collapsed. People have been evacuated to schools, community shelters and temples. There is fear of waterborne diseases spreading and health care is absent. Temporary flood relief at government camps may be good enough for a few weeks till the water recedes, but after that, it will take months or even years for those who have been affected to return to normal life.
Chances are, you haven’t heard about these floods. National mainstream media has been far more aghast and obsessed with the water levels and road conditions in Gurgaon. Assam has seen token mentions. However, if the media is not covering the flood devastation in Assam adequately, the current wave of floods in the 10 more states has seen a virtual black out.
According to the last situation report on the current flood situation (dated July 25, 2016) by the Disaster Management Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Uttarakhand reported 49 deaths; Madhya Pradesh, 65; and Maharashtra, 17. In the last one week since that report, 31 people have died in Assam and Bihar reported 26 deaths. In Odisha, 41 people have died in lightning strikes.
Flood is an annual phenomenon in places like Assam. Media coverage of flood therefore can be repetitive and often doesn’t reflect the gravity of the situation or the magnitude of human misery. It is often reported a fortnight after the river breaches its banks and people start losing lives and homes. Reaching the affected places may be logistically impossible. In 2012, the media tried its best to cover Eastern Arunachal Pradesh, which was completely devastated but defence helicopters refused to carry them, saying relief sorties were more important than carrying journalists. With road communication getting cut off under such circumstances, coverage area is always limited and the last mile is rarely reported. Though social media has helped in raising some concern, breakdown of communications due to extreme weather conditions in many of the affected areas has limited the flow of information.
The haunting reference point for flood in Assam is The Great Earthquake of 1950 that changed the topography and made the Brahmaputra valley vulnerable to flooding. The river has become unstable and shifting of river channels and erosion has become more frequent. Since 1954, there have been at least 15 major floods in Assam. More than 40 per cent of Assam’s landmass is said to be flood-prone and that accounts to some 9.6 per cent of the country’s flooded area. But flood in the state has always been a seasonal management and flood coverage has almost always been skewed.
Reporting flood is much more than just images of people trapped in a sea of water. Most reports limit themselves to the facts provided by the state disaster management authorities and perhaps an aerial tour with a politician surveying the inundated places. To begin with, flood misery is largely due to abysmally poor management of embankments. Assam, for example, has 450 embankments that are giving way and need constant repairs. Community alert systems and disaster preparedness are weak in most districts. Lakhs of hectares of habitable and cultivable land have been eaten up by water and for decades, people are awaiting compensation. Livelihood lost and crops destroyed, families get into successive cycles of debt. Children must drop out of school because the schools shut down and are used as relief centres. This season also becomes the favourite hunting ground for human traffickers, preying on families with meager resource and many mouths to feed. Assam’s wildlife parks coming under water makes animals flee and making them vulnerable to poachers as well as speeding vehicles.
Given the range of issues that flood throws up and the scale of disaster the media coverage has always been extremely poor and periodic. We need more airtime and print space discussing whether flood should be declared a national calamity, the lack of preparedness on the ground and sustained coverage of the human story rather than mere mention of government data with dramatic pictures of disaster.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @Kishalay