Assam floods: who cares?

BY KAKOLI THAKUR| IN Media Practice | 11/09/2015
Nearly 1.5 million people were affected in this year’s floods but our media was busy focusing on the Sheena Bora case as if Assam had no other news to offer.

A few days back, a cartoon was doing the rounds on social media. It showed a marooned couple sitting on the roof of their dilapidated house amids floods with the husband holding a placard, “Even I had an affair with Indrani”. And he is explaining to his wife that he is  trying to draw the attention of the media – obsessed with the Sheena Bora murder case -- to their plight.

The cartoon reflected a sad irony – a woman from Assam was hogging the limelight but the state itself, where thousands of people were hit by the worst spate of floods in decades, was reduced to fillers in the newspapers and small news capsules on TV channels. Barring one or two, national newspapers and TV channels mostly chose to ignore the fury nature had unleashed on the state, rendering thousands homeless and many dead.

It’s been months since floods are wreaking havoc in Assam. And this is not the first time, year after year Assam faces the same crisis – sometimes mild in nature and most of the times very grave.

To give an idea, this year itself over 60 people have died till now and the number is still counting. According to the daily flood report issued by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority on Sept 7, 14.42 lakh people in 19 districts of the state were then reeling under the floods. If a similar situation happened in any other state, the government and the media took no time in declaring it a national calamity.

Compare it with the coverage Mumbai or Delhi’s waterlogging gets in prime time news. Even a puddle of water in Mumbai is enough to make to the front pages or prime time. Every time Kashmir goes under water or Uttarakhand is ravaged by rain, a battery of reporters is lined up for special coverage from ground zero, prompting people from Assam to ask a pertinent question: “Are we lesser mortals?”

It is not that people from the state are craving for media attention or wanting to hog the headlines. But it is also true that there should be a fair balance in reportage and that adequate media coverage also forces the government to sit up and take note.

Nearly 1.5 million people were affected in this year’s floods but our media was busy focusing on the Sheena Bora case as if Assam had nothing to offer for news except that it is the native state of the accused Indrani Mukerjea. Camerapersons and reporters lined up at the Guwahati residence of Indrani when the floods were ravaging the state but hardly any went out to look for the flood-hit people. Even the social media – which didn’t spare a moment sharing comments and opinions on the Sheena case -- was not moved enough to spread a message about the seriousness of the situation even after seeing distressing pictures, few of which became public.

People are rendered homeless, they live in relief camps for months in unhygienic conditions, sometimes they go without food for days and the farmers are the worst affected. This year, Dibrugarh in upper Assam -- considered the tea capital of Assam and a medical hub -- went under water for days but no one took notice. Forget about the hundreds of villages where people spend months on dykes and boats and even trees. Last year, 80% of Guwahati, the gateway of the northeast that houses Assam’s capital Dispur, was submerged for days but did anybody even notice?

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Sample this. Between August 25, when IndraniMukerji was arrested, and the first week of September, when the Assam floods reached a critical phase and the Sheena case coverage peaked, the print media largely chose to ignore the grim situation in the state. The floods never made to the front pages and remained restricted to standalone photos or small isolated reports buried inside. This was true for Hindustan Times, Times of India, Indian Express and Hindu.

The electronic and digital media did slightly better, though the flood coverage hardly made it to the landing page of the websites. Barring India Today TV and Zee TV, which ran special reports from ground zero, other channels restricted the coverage to small news capsules that were overshadowed by the enormity of the Sheena Bora murder case and other news stories. It is quite paradoxical that the media, which calls panel discussions even for the most trivial of subjects, had hardly bothered to call in experts to suggest a solution to the problem that has ravaged the state for decades and crippled its economy.

According to data released by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority on Sept 7 – when the flood was at its peak -- some 1,635 villages had been affected. About 105,716 hectares of crop area had been affected.  In all, 308 relief camps and centres had been set up, with over 120,000 people taking refuge. Dibrugarh and Dhemaji districts were among the worst affected. All rivers including the Brahmaputra, JiaBharali, Dhansiri, Puthimari, Beki, Katakhal and the Kushiyara were flowing above the danger mark. Though the situation has considerably improved, the misery of the people will continue as water-borne diseases rear their ugly head after flood waters recede.

Making the situation worse is the blame game between the state and central governments over flood relief. While the Centre says adequate money has been sent, the state claims even last year’s funds have not been fully disbursed.

As always, sandwiched in the middle are the people of Assam who have to bear the brunt of the floods year after year after year. And the media and the governments merrily choose to ignore their plight year after year after year. 


Kakoli Thakur is an independent journalist based in Delhi-NCR. She is the former Resident Editor of JagranCityplus Delhi-NCR (DainikJagran group). Has a blog, 'Mixed Bag'.



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