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If Only India Responded To Floods 'Elsewhere' The Way It Does To Big City Disasters

13/09/2017 8:33 AM IST | Updated 13/09/2017 9:22 AM IST
Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird many years ago. My first serious book, and at any rate one I spent a lot of time thinking about. I followed this up with Animal Farm. The effect was devastating—I had never known the meaning of humiliation before, and certainly no need to check my privileges.

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

By the time I became a student of public policy at Harvard, hierarchies of privilege were old hat. I accepted, like the rest of the world, that there would be violence in the world, and war, and inequality, and disaster. We make the best of things, simply because there is no choice.

[F]lash floods in big cities quickly pull the interest of public and private support structures. Larger, catastrophic events of flooding in rural areas go unattended...

I had a lot to learn. Through the years of research and planning around starting my own social enterprise back in India, I learned that some inequality is more troublesome than others; some disasters too, are more impactful, and move masses more than others.

Consider the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, and the global support it garnered. Millions of dollars in rehabilitation and reconstruction funds flowed in; survivors had access to primary healthcare; relief camps ran high on food supply. A blessing. Ten months later, Kashmir rocked with the force of a massive earthquake, and this time, there was no substantial relief fund. Homeless, battered men, women and children lived for weeks in makeshift tents in the bitter cold. There were few doctors, fewer drugs. World leaders made statements of solidarity. These did not translate to resource-based support.

And this is just one example. It is understood, by those who work in disaster management, or policy-making, or social work, that first world problems will attract more attention than developing nations' crises. The assassination of a celebrity will stay longer on most people's minds than a shootout on a low -rank college campus that may have killed ten. Large disasters will get better support. Those involving children will attract most sympathy. Earthquakes will be managed better than floods.

And in my experience, flash floods in big cities quickly pull the interest of public and private support structures. Larger, catastrophic events of flooding in rural areas go unattended, and this is not because more trained volunteers are needed, or that these regions are necessarily inaccessible, or because monsoon floods are too large contain always. As I see it, a lack of funds and the media's under-representation of these areas could be responsible for the fact that support is mobilised poorly in rural flooded areas.

It's almost as if the modern world is trying to send an alarming message across. " Some floods are more equal than others..."

Most people want to help when there is a crisis. Most are moved by calamity. Ergo, I may theorise, roughly, that there is little recognition of rural floods as any great mishap in the first place.

But let's not engage in apportioning culpabilities. The media is in the business of selling stories as products. It is only natural that they choose to craft stories that have better chances of appealing to as large an audience as possible. A flash flood in Mumbai, commuters' interesting and often amusing inconveniences, photographs of vehicles and humans wading through dark water, the odd circumstance of Mumbaikars throwing open their homes to the public— these have an established market. Images of farm animals, cattle, people in worn, soaking clothes—these don't. Vast numbers of flood -struck villagers get diarrhoea and dengue as the water begins to recede. Nobody wants to read about other people's diseases, not when the diseases (and the people too) are so humdrum, common.

Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

Irrespective of thin media activity surrounding rural floods in India—and these are annual phenomena—poor relief collections stand in the way of getting rehabilitation operations underway.

I run a crowdfunding platform, and I will say under oath that there is no want of donors in the world, and not in this country. Most people want to help when there is a crisis. Most respond to disasters with significant donations. Most are moved by calamity. Ergo, I may theorise, roughly, that there is little recognition of rural floods as any great mishap in the first place.

We need to write stories of suffering, of sheer human courage and resilience. We need to take more photographs, share them on social media, send them to the mainstream media...

This year, activists raised some funds on our platform to help with relief work in Gujarat and Bihar. A fundraiser for the Uttar Pradesh floods has brought in a little more. Our campaigners have done everything right—that is, they have posted compelling, if not sophisticated, images, written vivid accounts of on -the - ground situations, and leveraged their personal social networks to create a stir. We have helped by opening up a virtual space for everyone's narratives of survival—victims', survivors', relief workers'.

Incidentally, a December 2015 fundraiser to bring relief to the Chennai flash flood victims raised over a lakh.

What was different about the Chennai flood issue and the rural devastations was that they were not covered equally well by the media. The coverage of one was sensitised, and coated with urgency. The others were canvassed, but without detail, without strong opinion, and without the compelling character of human tragedy.

The prime concern at the moment is to generate awareness among the Indian population that monsoon flooding affects Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, Bengal and Gujarat every year. We need to write stories of suffering, of sheer human courage and resilience. We need to take more photographs, share them on social media, send them to the mainstream media and do what we can to have them published. We need to be more proactive about fundraising. We have a responsibility to let people know that crowdfunding can turn out to be an easy and efficient channel for attracting gifts of money to this cause.

It is impossible, and barbaric, to try and design a pecking order for disasters. Human -made is not easier to deal with than natural. And floods in the Indian countryside are no less damaging... than flash floods in Chennai or Mumbai.

The urban educated classes who consume these stories, and are more often than not moved to make a donation, need also understand another thing. Suffering is not beautiful, be it in cities or villages, and suffering in the wake of a natural disaster that has left poor people poorer, sick and destitute will with certainty not be attractive. Photos of flooded terrain carrying people and animals and tree trunks and waste will not be visually appealing. We have a job learning how essential it is to focus on agony and need, and allowing ourselves to respond to misery as best as we can.

It is impossible, and barbaric, to try and design a pecking order for disasters. Human -made is not easier to deal with than natural. And floods in the Indian countryside are no less damaging, no less potent in their wreaking havoc than flash floods in Chennai or Mumbai.

This is not new or revolutionary information, and I didn't think in any particularly radical way when I wrote. Most of us sometimes disregard the obvious, and I have faith that we can come together—donors, traditional fundraisers, the small but growing crowdfunding community, NGOs, the media and the government— to make sure that we respond humanely to the terrible misfortune of others. It does not matter where they are.

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