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Backstory: Bengaluru Floods – Where Are Ordinary People in the Media’s Coverage of Urban Affairs?

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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How have the national media imagined the city of Bengaluru? As a place where political power dynamics play out? As stretches of real estate waiting to be cornered? As a place holder for Shining India? 

Consider the routine coverage on Bengaluru before the recent flood of images and reports on the city’s drowning came in. It beeped on the national horizon when Congress MLAs are flown to Mumbai in cash-soaked Operation Lotus-type manoeuvres, or when a flood of saffron from a Bajrang Dal rally clogs the city’s heart. Its land value is always in the news amidst tantalising sound bites of the city being home to “7,700 millionaires and 8 billionaires…with a combined fortune of $320 billion”. It waves the flag for Indian exceptionalism through its garb of being India’s Silicon Valley, with the media going catatonic over its innumerable startups and unicorns. 

Tractors being used to evacuate people in the Yemalur area on Bangalore on September 6, 2022. Photo: PTI/Shailendra Bhojak

In all this, we are left ignorant about the ways in which this city is being slowly extinguished. The thing with journalism is that statistics are not scary when normalcy reigns. When we are told on a perfectly dry day that only 10% of Bengaluru’s roads are equipped with storm water drains, we can shrug off that piece of information with insouciance. It is when the waters rise on the streets and make their way under the door that the data put out by long-time observers of Bengaluru like T.V. Ramachandran of the Indian Institute of Sciences, create a spiral of anxiety in the pit of the stomach. He has pointed out that there has been, in Bengaluru, a 1055% increase in paved surfaces over the last 50 years, with an 88% decline in vegetation cover and 79% decline in water bodies.

That’s when we are forced to ask ourselves a question that vulnerable people across the globe have always raised: “If this goes on, what will become of us?” 

Two Bengalurus emerged simultaneously as the city grew and its lakes shrank: one that rapidly moved to first world levels of consumption and lifestyles, studded with multi-crore villas and super-luxury apartments in towering edifices; the other comprising sea upon sea of hutments where the Third Worlders who service the needs of the First Worlders seek shelter, and raise their families in precarious conditions. The Karnataka Slum Development Board claims that there are 597 slums in Bengaluru, but private surveys have put the figure at four times as much. When the heavens open up, as they did recently, the residents in these pockets are left to cope with the ravages of nature with no assistance from the rest of the world. Yet the same water that enters the basements where the wealthy park their BMWs, also rises steadily in their fragile tin sheds. 

This means that any consistent reporting on urban affairs has necessarily to make sure that no single resident is left behind. It also means that reporting on what ails the city needs to be done before calamitous developments occur, not after they have wrought havoc. An incisive report carried in the Deccan Herald in March this year (‘How land mafia grabbed Chikka Kallasandra Lake) is a good example. By providing an X-ray of one lake, it helped us gain a broad spectrum insight into why large parts of Bengaluru got flooded five months later. 

Here is a lake that once helped to keep in balance the water flows in the neighbourhood, and ensure a check on flooding. It had covered an area of 12 acres at one point but is today a stagnant pool of about five acres in dimension. The story points out how encroachment on a storm water drain is always the first step in killing a water body. As drains get blocked, the original lake simply shrivels up and dies, turning into valuable real estate in time. 

Also read: #BengaluruRains: IT Capital Grapples With Severe Water-Logging After Overnight Rains

Municipal authorities like the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) are aware of this and although they promise the courts that they will take remedial measures they do nothing until nothing can be done. This is crime with no name: an open daylight robbery of the people’s commons perpetrated by the real estate mafia actor backed by local politicians. Together, they intimidate honest officers; influence those that can be bought; manage to get stays orders from courts and proceed to issue clearances.

This is a story of one lake/tank/water body, but it could be multiplied innumerable times in a city that was believed to have had 1,452 water bodies in the 19th century and now possesses some 193 of them. 

The point to be noted is that an investigative report of this kind would never have come to be written if it were not for five decisive factors. One, it needed serious investment in the municipal beat which is crucial to ensuring that citizens can play an active role in shaping their built and natural environment. Two, it required reporters who were free to do their fact finding without the fear of being controlled by powerful interests which want to keep the public ignorant about ground realities.  Three, it also meant that reporters needed to be prepared to walk the extra mile to garner authentic information. Four, editorial oversight that makes the various aspects of journalistic functioning – from fact gathering to fact checking to fact presentation – meld smoothly was essential. Five, and perhaps most important, it demanded an editorial policy that places the welfare of the city and its residents at the core of its operations. 

This takes us to the central question: Where are the living, breathing residents in the media’s reporting on our cities? If we don’t put people back into our reporting today as urban hotspots across the country stare us in the face, we may as well pack up and go home because there is little doubt that urban affairs will dominate the news space in the years to come. According to the United Nations-Habitat’s World Cities Report 2022, by 2035, some 43.2% of the Indian population (675 million people), is expected to reside in urban areas. What would be the quality of life be for these millions if the growth of our cities is driven by the interests of the land mafia and not their residents? 

The one thing that emerges from the Bengaluru drowning is that while the courts and municipal authorities may be susceptible to inducements from land sharks, water is not. It has memory and will return to the place from where it was once displaced. They may break municipal laws, empty a lake out and pour kilometres of concrete into hollow crevices to make their millions,  but there will come a time – as it did in Bengaluru recently – when they are forced to be accountable to hydrological laws. 

So can this enormous tragedy be made to work for us? Gautam Bhan, an urbanist based in Bengaluru, while speaking at a recent symposium at IIT Delhi to honour the late Dinesh Mohan for whom cities were not motorised dystopias but human-centred habitations, posed an important question: can the crises facing our cities today be a way to rethink our path to urbanisation? 

To that, I can only add another query: Can our urban reportage help to enable such a re-imagining? 

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Five years since they killed Gauri

The news that Gauri Lankesh was felled down by the assassin’s bullets at her doorstep still shocks and disturbs us. Meanwhile, Karnataka, the state that she loved and called her own, is sinking – not just in a morass of municipal blunders but in an ocean of manufactured communal hate. She anticipated the impacts of the ideology that now has Karnataka firmly in its grip and expressed herself in her characteristic no-holds-barred manner.

Here are some excerpts of a piece that appeared in the Gauri Lankesh Patrike three months before she died, ‘My Patriotism, Your Patriotism’. It was translated from the Kannada by Mark Sebastian and Arron Menzes, and was included in The Republic of Reason Words They Could Not Kill (Sahmat with The Raza Foundation).

“…The Hindutva clamour seems to have increase in leaps and bounds especially on social networking sites of late. Fake news, fictitious history pieces and empty slogans have become the norm. The magnanimity of lies like ‘our national anthem being declared as the best in the world for the past two years by the UN,’ are all recent. My college friend who started a WhatsApp group, also received this message. When I reacted to it saying “it’s fake as the UN doesn’t rate any national anthem,” his reply was neither an embarrassing sorry nor an acceptance of the said mistake. Instead, my so-called upper-case, married, educated engineer friend declared: “So what! I am proud of our national anthem.

“The same WhatsApp group also shared another message that read like this: “I am eagerly waiting for a candle light march from Kannayya and JNU students on behalf of Kulbhushan Jadhav who is trapped in lawless Pakistan. Likewise I am also looking forward to the reactions of intellectuals as well as journalists who say Pakistan is a good country.”

“I naturally lost my cool after reading this message and replied, “As per my knowledge, no intellectual or progressive thinker has ever regarded Pakistan as a good nation. We oppose Hindutva’s undue concern that India could end up becoming as chaotic as Pakistan. It should be noted that Pakistan owes its existence to religious fanaticism. Fundamentalist Islam is the foundation of Pakistan’s politics. If Hindu fundamentalism were to become the basis of our polity, the status of India would be a lot worse than Pakistan…In order to discourage India from treading a similar path, we need to be vigilant and oppose Yogis, Sadhvis, and people like Lt Col Shrikant Purohit – an emerging face for Hindu terrorism – from coming to power.” Sadly, I got no response from the WhatsApp group upon posting my views.

“If young boys, unemployed youth, and illiterates were to indulge in such empty patriotism, I can understand and could in turn fill some sense into them. But when one from the middle class, who has studied in a prestigious college, draws a salary of nearly one lakh per month, tours in and out of the country, and reads newspapers –when such a person starts chanting Modi’s name and is overtly obsessed with myopic patriotism, what can be done in this regard!”

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Saffron bookshelves spill over

Every politician is in search of a legacy and one way of doing that is to get books published to their greater glory. Since the colour of the times is saffron, it is the bookshelves accommodating saffron portraits that are getting crowded by the day. There is a whole industry of writers working on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, capturing him from every angle for every range of readers: for the ordinary bhakt, there’s a collection of his poetry (A Journey: Poems by Narendra Modi – perhaps to read out loud first thing in the morning?). For the little ones, there is compendium of his tales of heroism as a child (Bal Narendra).

The most recent addition to this list is Modi@20, Dreams Meet Delivery, a breathless valorisation of two decades of public life which in turn provoked a breathless OpIndia reviewer (who happens to be a minister in Karnataka) to swear that the book is “a must-read for everyone to understand the thought and strategy behind our country’s transformation”.  

Given all these panegyrics to the prime minister, can the Union Home Minister Amit Shah be far behind? In 2019, even before the general election had wound to an end, we were rewarded with a wrap on his “political life, struggles, rise and triumph” in the form of Amit Shah and the March of BJP

Earlier this week, we had the launch of a collection of his speeches, Shabdansh: Amit Shah Ke Chuninda Bhashan. Now who would want to read a book of this kind, you may wonder. This, dear reader, it not about readability, it is about legacy hunting and prostrations to power. It offered Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh a chance to do the right thing while launching it, by hailing the work as “a lighthouse for generations to come”.

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Readers write in…

Neglecting Gorbachev 

Leo Levy from Belgium, who contributes to The Conversation, Reuters and Deutsche Welle, who describes himself as a long-time reader and admirer of The Wire, sent in this mail: “Mikhail Gorbachev died on August 30. To me, it is an ill omen that I did not find one Indian intellectual who paid a tribute to Gorbachev.”

My reply: While you may be right to point out that there was a deficit of commentary pieces on the reformist Soviet leader, most mainstream newspapers in India did carry opinion articles on him. The Wire.in did two pieces, including one by former external affairs minister, K. Natwar Singh (‘Remembering Mikhail Gorbachev’, September 1). 

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Tension points across the world

Deejay from Australia has this fervent plea for Arfa Sherwani, senior editor, The Wire.in: “Respected Arfa, I am a social activist interested in building educational awareness. I work for the interests of minorities and against child labour and domestic violence. I consider it is my good fortune to do good things in life and meet good people, and build good relations with them.”

“The oppression of women in Afghanistan and the current state of Indian democracy system are my concerns. I am requesting the Australian government to take in orphaned children of Afghanistan as refugees. In terms of the situation in India, a movement should be initiated in India with the participation of intellectuals and writers to strengthen democratic practice in the country.”

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A simple question

Prathmesh Awasthi writes about an omission: “I don’t know whether this mail will be seen by you or not, but being a citizen of this country it is my responsibility to send it. As we know The Wire always raises its voice against crimes perpetrated against the Muslim community and other minorities in the country. This is very good. But here is my simple question: Why does The Wire not report crime conducted against Hindus by Muslim criminals?

“A recent example is the case of Ms Ankita from Jharkhand who got burned alive as she declined a relationship with a Muslim man by the name of Sharukh. Isn’t this wrong, or are you in support of the Jharkhand chief minister’s statement, “Ghatanye hoti rahti hai” (incidents take place). If you don’t have the guts to report this incident please do not claim to be an independent media platform. You are just a Muslim version of Sudarshan News.” 

My reply: I agree that the incident was egregious and should have figured in the English language edition of The Wire. I would, however, like to draw your attention to The Wire Hindi which carried a long report on this gruesome crime on August 29 (‘झारखंड: युवक ने युवती को ज़िंदा जलाया, विहिप और बजरंग दल के प्रदर्शन के बाद धारा 144 लागू’).

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The Wire could have done better

The piece, ‘Prominent RTI Voices Slam Gujarat IC for Banning 10 Applicants From Filing Applications’ (August 28), prompted a long time Right to Information observer and activist, to write in. The intention is in the nature of a corrective and therefore the writer did not wish to be named: “Lame and tame journalistic piece, even though The Wire is inherently capable of much better work. This is an expectation from anyone reporting on an unprecedentedly illegal and unconstitutional blunder perpetrated by State Information Commissions.

“It was also very strange indeed that the webinar videos embedded in the piece were invitations to the panel discussion rather than the video of the panel discussion itself.  In fact, embedding all documents connected with the subject, including their vernacular translations, would have stoked wider reading.  All in all, grossly tardy editing indeed.”

My reply: Some of the points made in the letter are worthy of attention, especially in terms of embedding the right kind of material in the piece. Hope this will be taken up by the desk.

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in