Lost at the mela: real stories

BY Archana Venkat| IN Media Practice | 02/02/2013
Sadhus driving SUVs and complaints about mismanagement deserved more follow up.
ARCHANA VENKAT says the foreign media is doing a better job of behind- the-scenes coverage of the Maha Kumbh.
100 million people. One city. Congregating once in 12 years. Pictures of sunrise and sunset dips in the Ganges. Lost and found registry. Naga sadhus. Celebrities on pilgrimage. Unfailing mentions of the UP government’s role in taking this event to the ‘next level’. That is all that mainstream Indian media has covered so far about the ongoing Maha Kumbh mela.
For an event that has often been touted as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the Indian media coverage was largely restricted to replicating material from the press releases issued by the UP government and mela administrators, and spotting anything that was out of the ordinary. Unfortunately for readers, this creates an impression that the mela itself is nothing more than a gathering that attracts weirdoes. The reality, as many who have attended the mela will tell us, is very different.
There is little doubt that the Maha Kumbh provided an opportunity for the UP government to transform its image and showcase to the world how it could match up to other Indian states/other countries in managing what is considered among the largest and longest gathering of pilgrims. But for the media to restrict itself to reporting only the better (and well known) side of the mela indicates either a lack of interest (or perhaps faith) in probing religious gatherings or a possible nexus with the UP government to stem any adverse reportage. How else can one explain its attitude in covering the Maha Kumbh, considering it has always been hard-nosed about revealing corruption and other ills among UP’s ministers and society? If there is a bigger story behind the UP government’s transformation and efforts behind this mela, it has not been told.
Reporters have been content covering obvious subjects like what
Sunetra Choudhury of NDTV points out when she brags about her experience in ‘religious reporting’ in her column for the DNA. She says reporters often focus on ‘eyeball grabbing stuff’ whereas the real story is how the event is managed without hiccups. She asks howwe can run a Kumbh mela sans any mishaps whereas managing a Commonwealth Games results in a can of worms and expose of corruption scandals. The question is interesting but she provides no concrete answers. She says she met a sadhu driving an SUV and speaking impeccable English, and asked him if there were others like him. His response to the effect ‘times are changing and we have also changed’ seems perfectly reasonable to her to not probe any further into what sadhu lifestyles today are and who funds them. This is pretty much representative of the reportage at the event – superficial.
A report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry mentioned that the Kumbh mela could generate as much as Rs 12,000 crore in revenues for the UP government. While this press release was carried by almost all media outlets, there was no reportage around what this meant for small and medium businesses or workers in the vicinity of the mela. No one seems to have spoken to as much as a shopkeeper, leave alone a government official for details such as what kinds of jobs were created, what was the role of the private sector in the mela, etc.
 In some instances, the reportage slips to resemble a UP government communiqué with self-praise. A Hindustan Times report quotes an official saying “Unprecedented security arrangements have been put in place…” but does not mention what these security arrangements are. One has to read blog posts and reports by foreign wires to find out that around 30,000 policemen are on patrol duty under the surveillance of 56 watchtowers and 89 CCTV cameras.
Little wonder then that the fire at the Kumbh mela was reported primarily by the wires and was brushed off by mainstream media as a minor incident not worthy of scrutiny. (TV channels dedicated only ticker space to the news). Stories highlighting mis-management by the festival organisers are also far and few. One Times of India report talks about several saints complaining about poor sanitation and drinking water facilities at the camps allocated to them. When asked for a response to this issue, a government official is quoted as saying, “The issue would be addressed”. There was neither any follow-up report of whether the situation was fixed nor were there any more stories of mismanagement.
The national broadcaster Doordarshan (DD) too did not seem to show much interest in the event, although it had stationed one OB van exclusively on location. DD has scheduled 30-minute special programmes on key days of the festival such as January 14, 27, February 6, etc (and repeats the following days) with the aim of providing live and exclusive coverage of certain key activities. These spots could have been used to broadcast insightful stories from the mela, but have so far only broadcast aspects like when an arti happened and who visited the bathing spots, along with the religious significance of that day/ ritual. More live coverage is expected as the event comes to a close, but going by what has been broadcast so far, the nature of the coverage is unlikely to change.
During prime time, only two stories were aired on DD (from what I saw and what I could find online) – one was on how business was booming for tourism operators in UP and the other was  general footage showing crowds at the commencement of the 55-day mela. DD Bharati additionally showed an older documentary on the Kumbh mela on two different days prior to some of the important rituals. As a public broadcaster, DD is not expected to be driven by advertiser preferences or competition, as is the case with private TV news channels, and could have hence taken a lead in showcasing the Maha Kumbhmore extensively for the kind of experience it provides.
The foreign media has done a better job.  National Geographic did a series of stories where its reporter Laura Spinney shared her everyday experiences at the event. She focused on issues such as abandonment of women and children, how sadhus hunt for new recruits, security at the mela, the logistics behind erecting the city for the mela, lives of cremation workers, and efforts taken to minimise waterpollution in the Ganges. While the articles are not on the lines of an investigative piece, they do provide insights into what goes into the making of such a festival and, more importantly, the sentiments of those who congregate here. 
The BBC captured aspects such as preparations for the mela covering health, sanitation, food and policing efforts along with an option for the public to share their views on any aspects of the event. It also published articles on trade during the mela, and how pilgrims are counted during the festival days to arrive at official count – both stories revealed interesting aspects to life at the Maha Kumbh. Other stories, such as those of Naga nuns having their own space at the event, provided insights into the lives of female ascetics and one could see they were nothing like the perceived image of their male counterparts.
A blogpost in the Financial Times raised a fundamental question saying “…In India, there are just nine hospital beds for every 10,000 people; 626m people are forced to defecate in the open for want of sanitary facilities; and local investors are looking abroad to escape unpredictable regulation and unreliable infrastructure at home. And yet, when religion and revelry are at stake, this same country can pull it together and host the 55-day Maha Kumbh Mela festival, where 9 million pilgrims are provided with all the shelter and services they need...” Had Indian journalists thought of this question, they could have generated a wealth of stories.
A team of researchers from Harvard University has embarked on a case study on the Maha Kumbh to focus on aspects such as city planning and management, health and water distribution, sanitation, hospitals, public services like fire and police, tourism and environmental concerns, entertainment, use of technology and the economics of organising something of this scale. Perhaps the Indian media will then wake up to the possibilities of what could have been covered.
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