Looking at the “what” bit of an incident is elementary, puerile journalism. The real purpose of any journalism worth its salt should be to question

Features Friday, July 18, 2014 - 05:30
By Subir Ghosh Memories of last year’s Uttarakhand catastrophe are a tad difficult to push under the rubble of amnesia. For the last few days, incessant rains have been wreaking havoc in districts like Champawat, Chamoli and Nainital. Landslides too have been reported from many places. A bridge that had been constructed after the 2013 Uttarakhand disaster has been washed away. It is not without reason that memories of the other day keep rushing back. The superficial reportage of the ongoing rains is there, albeit quite sketchy; but that is hardly the issue one is driving at. If you Google up the news items that have been appearing in the media over the past few days, you will find that they have been lacking sorely in both depth and perspective. In fact, the perspective angle should have been the easiest to add to any news Uttarakhand rains copy. It’s true that, even as this piece is being written, big disaster hasn’t re-enacted itself yet in Uttarakhand; but the factors that had led to the calamitous June 16 deluge in the state have not been washed away as yet. But do we need to wait for disaster to strike? The opportunity to do that (i.e. question what all has been done or not done in the past one year, and also all that had been wrought on the state for years before that) came twice in the recent past – when we solemnly observed the anniversary of the tragedy this June, and when the expert committee report on the impact of hydro-electric projects on the Uttarakhand floods was put in the public domain in the last week of April. Both were opportunities missed by journalists. It is the callous media silence on the Ravi Chopra report “Assessment of Environmental Degradation and Impact of Hydroelectric Projects During The June 2013 Disaster in Uttarakhand” that is disconcerting. The Chopra committee was reluctantly constituted by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in October 2013, following a suo motu Supreme Court order of August 2013. The panel submitted its report in April this year. For the discerning mind, it would not be difficult to understand why the media has by and large refused to acknowledge that the Chopra committee report event exists – the report is sheer anathema for those who don’t want to question the status quo. The findings of the expert body, after all, came up after delving into the roots of the problems. And the in-depth report, through its findings, called into question the lopsided priorities of a development-driven hysterical milieu. The expert group recommended the scrapping of 23 hydel projects in the state. This would of course have been unacceptable to a media that is as frenzied about so-called development, as have been both the current and previous ruling dispensations in New Delhi. The Chopra committee report had not been without its flaws – the structure of the group, environmentalists have alleged, itself was flawed to an extent through the presence of officials of the Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Electricity Authority (CEA). For the sake of argument the conflict of interest thereof can be disregarded. Yet, the Chopra report came up with a whole lot of questions that journalists can in turn ask of authorities. Looking at the “what” bit of an incident is elementary, puerile journalism. The real purpose of any journalism worth its salt should be to question: it is the “why” bit which is important, the “what” is only peripheral to an argument. And the Chopra committee had virtually outlined a checklist for all. If you look at the news reports of the last few days that have been trickling out of Uttarakand, you will realise that not one has gone beyond the “what” bit of the rains and landslides into the “why” bit of a possible disaster. Why, for instance, was the bridge constructed over the Saraswati river near Kalimath in Rudraprayag washed away late Tuesday? Given the Met Dept predictions that a precipitation of the kind that had caused last year’s floods is unlikely, one hopes this week’s rains will not take a turn for the worse. But prudence lies not in indulging in scavenger journalism after a disaster, but in being watchdogs. And that can be done with circumspect, without hyperventilating scare-mongering. Just ask the right questions. [The writer is a Bangalore-based independent journalist and researcher. He can be reached here. ]

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