Why do the devastating floods in Assam fail to sweep national headlines?
The people are struggling to stay afloat but the rest of the country either doesn't know or doesn't care.
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Like every year, this time too, the Indian state of Assam and its people are struggling with devastating floods. But, as usual, the rest of the country either doesn't know or doesn't care.
Let's take a look at what happened last year. Around mid-July, most of Assam was neck-deep in water with the number of affected people soaring beyond 15,70,571 and the number of relief camps exceeding 332, housing a total of around 12,27,786 inmates. However, as horrifying images of animals and humans — stuck in debris and unhygienic surroundings — were circulated on several social media platforms, the national media, barring a few exceptions, appeared to be in deep slumber, displaying total apathy to the grave situation. Instead, it was busy highlighting the water-logging in millennium city, Gurugram.
Image: PTI photo
Had a calamity of such a scale hit Mumbai or even Uttarakhand, in no time television cameras would have reached the ground zero and termed it a national disaster. But since the particular incident was from India's “forever pariah” — the Northeast — apparently the lives of the people of Assam mattered less as compared to others. The massive destruction and severe distress following the floods in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2014 was considered a major calamity, and rightly so, by everyone — right from the Centre to state government. One just wishes that Assam too gets the same treatment and sympathy. (No people deserve to suffer because of government apathy — be it Assam or J&K).
The people of the region were not surprised when the successful organisation of the South Asian Games (including its opening ceremony graced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi) in Meghalaya and Assam, was completely "blacked out" by the national TV channels (it's again a matter of question how "national" they can call themselves with their Delhi-centric Noida-based coverage). Even the catastrophic impact of the earthquake, which shook Manipur at the beginning of 2016, was given little or no coverage.
In this age of globalisation, when our cellphone screens start glowing with notifications as soon as anything happens anywhere in the world, isn't it a bit absurd that the news from India's Northeast finds no mention in the national media? If this is not “step-motherly” attitude of the so-called mainland India towards the Northeast, then what is?
Senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai has described this phenomenon with the phrase “tyranny of distance". This somewhat echoes what Congress MP Shashi Tharoor once told us, “Our media is excessively Delhi-centric and the farther you are, the less coverage you get.”
According to a different view, the presence of very few TRP boxes in the Northeast — the number of which hardly exceeds 30 — is another prime reason why the corporate-owned media houses find it difficult to give due coverage to the Northeast.
But there is one more reason behind this attitude. Even the audience (rest of India), for instance, is more interested in what the Delhi or Uttar Pradesh CM is doing (no matter how mundane and not newsworthy) than the news of a bunch of women protesting naked in a distant Manipur against the draconian AFSPA.
A huge number of people associated with these media houses candidly say that the poor connectivity in the Northeast and unavailability of high-speed internet services in several areas make it difficult for journalists to report the events adequately. It's often seen that while most media houses keep only one or two reporters in Guwahati (the capital city of Assam) for the entire Northeast, major newspapers club all news about Northeast in a single page of their Kolkata edition, let alone bringing out a specific edition for the region.
Senior journalist Karan Thapar, while talking to us, once expressed optimism, citing several examples of how the national media has started to give due importance to the Northeast.
He, however, stressed that the people of the region too must convey this issue assertively to as many editors as possible for prospective course correction.
But questions remain regarding the fact that the level of engagement that journalists show while reporting a mundane bank robbery in Ghaziabad or some controversial statement by a political leader, that same level of concern is nowhere to be found while reporting about the Northeast.
Why is it so that despite the presence of journalists from Northeast in top-notch posts of the national news channels, the region has to perpetually beg for attention even to get mere five-minute news coverage?
It's not that we don't have any solution. Many people from the region as well as reporters from national media houses are consistently trying to solve this problem of “lack of representation”.
The local news channels from the region too must play a pro-active role in ensuring that the incidents they cover reach the national media houses in time since most of the times national media houses borrow footage from the local channels. The erstwhile tie-up between Times Now and the Assamese private news channel News Live is noteworthy in this regard.
Moreover, if filmmakers from the region or the rest of India start making short films on the unexplored positive issues of the Northeast and take the initiative of telecasting them on news channels, then definitely stereotypes and misconceptions that the Hindi heartland has regarding the Northeast will gradually wither away.
Politicians, artists, entrepreneurs and business houses of the region must help the groups concerned in this regard. To add to it, one should not forget the power of social media. At a time when the idea of citizen journalism is gaining momentum, with just a smartphone or tablet, one could spread any important news to a large group with all possibilities of creating the desired impact.
In no way the "hashtag-influenced" media houses would be able to "black out" news from the Northeast if the issue trends on Twitter.
But in this whole process, the role of the youth will be highly important. From Asia's cleanest village Mawlynnong in Meghalaya to the Loktak lake in Manipur or the "forest man" from Assam, Jadav Payeng, to the impressive literacy rate of Tripura ((by the way, Tripura happens to be the state with highest literacy rate with 94.65 per cent, beating Kerala which has 93.91 per cent) — all such information about the Northeast has to be prepared in written format and spread across India.
Northeastern students living in different places of India too must play a pro-active role in bridging the gap. The local channels from the region also need to focus on "quality news" instead of solely fixing their cameras on drunk girls, neighbourhood skirmishes and cheap talks (not that the national channels don't sell such trash as news).
In the world of fiction too, Northeast-oriented novels and translation works in Hindi and English must occupy a preeminent room without ado so that the stories of happiness and despair from the region touch the nerves of those same Indians who empathise with the protagonists of Chetan Bhagat's Two States.
New-age writers from the Northeast such as Aruni Kashyap, Ankush Saikia, Uddipana Goswami are some names to reckon with in this regard.
In the sphere of culture too, it's worth appreciating that the media has started to highlight the achievements of artists from the region (the limelight hogged by singer Papon is just one of the examples in this regard). When senior journalist Shekhar Gupta in his writings, talked about .007 factor of Assam, he meant that during the 1980s, only .007 per cent of the students went out of the region and got the chance to exchange their views with the rest of India.
Now, the scenario has changed drastically. The more and more the youth of the region interact with Indians from other states, the chances of Northeast gaining due importance grow. Northeastern festivals organised in different cities of India throughout the year should focus on attracting more people from outside rather than confining it to the people of the region.
The recently organised "India Today Mind Rocks Youth Conclave" in Guwahati is a welcome step which deserves appreciation.
In the run-up to the Assam Legislative Assembly Election in 2016, the national media for the first time, covered any election of the North-East with such intensity and for whatsoever reasons, a trend of extensive reporting and analysing the activities of the new government has been observed of late, which probably could herald a new dawn vis-a-vis national media's reportage on the Northeast.
The extensive coverage of the fiasco related to the political situation in Arunachal Pradesh, the government formation in Manipur after the election or the interesting policy “innovations” of the Assam health, finance and education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has proven this change of attitude on the part of the national media of late. But that’s not enough.
It is important to understand that it was only during the Assam Agitation (1979-1985) that the national media bothered to focus on the Northeast after a long period of lull since the 1962 Indo-China war.
In fact, even when the Indian Air Force bombed Mizoram in 1966 to wipe out insurgents, the only instance when the government of India bombed one of its own states, the national newspapers did not pay any importance to it.
The scenario has improved to a great extent now. But what's important is the genuine concern which media houses need to show towards the region with a view to address this issue wholeheartedly.
The people of the Northeast, on their part, have to try their best to make their stories heard across all Indian states. That's the only way the "integration" of Northeast with the rest of India is possible in the real sense.