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Ignorance isn’t bliss

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When I was younger, my mother had just one explanation regarding the floods in Assam every year. She said, “It’s all because of China. They have released water from the dams”. The popular belief was that China built a series of dams on their side of the Brahmaputra. It was believed that during monsoons, they would release water which would flood parts of Assam.

Every year, remote villages in places like Lakhimpur and Dhemaji used to get flooded and stayed like that for months. National media has had its own biases when it came to the coverage of the same. It always gave the news from a very surface level, it was never a prime-time debate, no discussions about the mismanagement of disaster relief and #AssamFloods didn’t exist. It still doesn’t exist. Since April, Assam has been ravaged with three waves of the flood. According to a report on 31st August by thenortheasttoday.com, around 79000 people are still displaced across four districts. 217 villages are underwater and around 160 people have died. Agricultural land spanning across 10,500 hectares are inundated.

These statistics come from the Assam State Disaster Management Authority, the only government body keeping track of the numbers. When I went online to check online media’s coverage of the disaster, I got varied results. There were a bunch of “Firstpost” articles, followed by timely reports from thenortheasttoday.com, a few pieces on “The Quint” and two photo essays by “The Vox” and “The Guardian” (the only international presence I observed.)

I have one simple question, why do people not know about issues concerning the north east?

In our journalism classes, we talk about a wide variety of issues of national and international importance. Although the discussion about events happening in the north-east is generally low, the only fact that everyone is quite aware of is that there is AFSPA in the north east as well.

Northeast continues to be that part of the country which sits a bit far from its mainland companions. It is alienated from the rest of the subcontinent and a visit to the place shows the stark contrast. “Firstly, lack of seriousness by the media. The other important reason why people don’t know much about the NE is that kids have never read its history,” says Reshma (name changed), a history honours student from a college in Delhi. She believes that the histories of the north-east have been gloriously ignored which has resulted in people not knowing anything about the region. “The only history I have read in three years is that the Mughals couldn’t capture northeast India because of the Ahom kings. I am in my fifth semester and this is the only bit of information that is there in the textbooks. So one can imagine where it all stems from,” she says.

The Times of India, on a report dated August 14, termed the floods as ‘the state’s worst deluge in three decades’ and provided the statistic that there are 439 relief camps in the state. This number seemed a bit absurd but I knew I hadn’t read enough to know whether the information was factually correct. I came across a Firstpost article dated which stated that around 14000 people have taken shelter in 45 relief camps opened by the authorities.

As a journalism student, we have been taught that it’s okay to not provide data if you are not confident about it but providing such an obnoxious number with such sass, just to sell your news is unacceptable. Times of India realised their mistake later on and in an article from August 28, the number of relief camps according to them was 82.

In a place like Bengaluru, flash floods in the city are a matter of grave concern. The Bengaluru Traffic department and the BMRCL work hand in hand to ensure smooth traffic flow or the removal of a fallen tree in the middle of the road. Flash floods in Guwahati are a casual thing. One wouldn’t see anyone from the municipality on the streets. The drainage system in the city is beyond any repair. Flash floods in Guwahati have already become a way of life for its residents and now the floods in the state have been normalised in the same way.

Last year, there were floods in the month of July which affected around 1.8 million people. 28 people died and hectares of crops were washed away. The year before that, 46 people had died and 1.6 million were affected. Due to poor drainage and the fast disappearance of forest cover and mangroves, Mumbai came to a standstill on August 29 with 300mm of rain. People were horrified with the visuals that were coming in, ‘#Mumbai Floods’ was drowning social media with images and videos and Arnab Goswami was getting drenched on purpose to report live, blaming the government and the BMC for the state of the city.

I am not going to make a comparison here and rant about how Mumbai gets 24×7 coverage in a day’s water logging while Assam gets nothing for months of floods. That argument doesn’t hold much water because – a. Mumbai is the financial capital of India and hence it has all the hype, b. It is home to industrialists and film stars so it gets all the glamour and the spotlight and c. it is a densely populated city with over 18.41 million people in it. Kudos to the media for its extensive reportage of Mumbai, I am sure it has helped a lot who were stuck in various parts of the city.

I am not asking for the news channels to become the voice-box of disaster reportage and talk about Assam all the time, but I would have been a bit happy to see a change in the attitude of the media when it comes to equal reportage of things.

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