Backstory: When Storms and Pandemics Create Overlapping Human Disasters, What Should the Media Do?

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

Here’s an equation that more or less sums up the latest news cycle for a significant section of the Indian media: CYCLONE AMPHAN + COVID 19 = PILLARS DISCOVERED IN RAM MANDIR SITE. As television channels went into overdrive over this last piece of news, cyclone Amphan was tracing a vast swathe of death and devastation through Odisha and Bengal. Times Now was so excited by the temple findings that it devoted not one, but two prime time slots to them. After Rahul Shivshankar in India Upfront had a go at ‘Excavating ‘Truth’, followed by another punch at ‘Slamming the Lobby’, we had, minutes later, Navika Kumar in the ‘News Hour Debate’, once again bring to the “surface” with televisual shovels, new “evidence” of the Ayodhya “truth”. How is this to be accounted for on the one night when there was no dearth of news that India really wanted to know about? What does this bizarre competition between two of Times Now’s star anchors wrestling with the ghost of Arnab Goswami – long after it had slunk out of the Times Now studios – say about the organisation’s news sense? The people of Bengal have let the world know what they think through a flurry of social media memes, including this one:

But to get to the more substantive question: how should the media, that takes its news seriously, respond when disasters fold into each other? What are the parameters that should go into prioritising coverage of different but equally devastating news developments? Temporal and spatial aspects are obviously decisive here. Something like a gathering storm of immense destructive power should necessarily overtake every other challenge facing the country for the duration that it rages and in the aftermath when human costs are duly documented and there is firm expectation that state and society will respond in a commensurate manner.  

One of the factors that play a disproportionate role in media coverage often is the ability of some sections of the affected population to visibilise and articulate their suffering more powerfully because of their access to communication tools and networks. So Kolkata’s misery emerges in plain sight, while that of Medinipur barely makes it to national conversations. This is in no way to deny Kolkata’s trauma and the density of its population (which come through eloquently in two pieces put out by The WireCyclone Amphan: After Night of Darkness, a Morning of Untold Devastation’ and ‘The Gods Can Simply Kill Us’: A Ground Report From a City that Weathered a Deluge’, May 21), but only to remind ourselves that there is an ocean of stories left untold. The impact of nature’s fury on Odisha also got lost in the focus on West Bengal. The Wire, for instance, had within the first two days put out four stories on Bengal, while Odisha was the subject of just one. 

It could be argued that this was for good reason, since it was on the latter that Cyclone Amphan had dealt its killer punch, but catastrophes of this kind do not recognise state borders and the media, with all their constraints of human and other resources, must also try not to do so. While calamitous events affect all sections of the population, there can also be no disputing that the poorest, the marginal, the least well-housed end up bearing the direst, most life-threatening costs. It is here that the two emergencies presently roiling the country – COVID-19 and the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan – overlap. 

The writer, Amitav Ghosh, who knows the region well, has argued in a Times of India interview, that both these calamities are products of “the tremendous acceleration that occurred over the last 30 years, a period in which extreme forms of neo-liberal capitalism have been imposed upon the world by global elites.” There is another link, too, that came clearly in heart-breaking accounts that emerged from the cyclone site. Many of the migrants desperately searching for ways to go back home after two months of unemployment and empty wallets, are now left with the additional burden of rebuilding lives back home amidst a landscape of flattened homes. The Wire report, ‘After Cyclone Amphan Wreaked Havoc, Bengali Migrants in Mumbai Struggle to Return Home’ (May 22) captures the utter poignancy of their situation. In Odisha, dirt-poor farmers who can barely feed themselves and who had struggled through a punishing lockdown are now required to tend to their smashed dwellings and fields ruined by saltwater ingress. As a social worker in Odisha’s Gadkujang district puts it, “The harsh truth is that the miseries heaped on the people by the coronavirus pandemic have aggravated due to the cyclone. The poor cannot survive on empty promises” (‘Odisha: Cyclone Amphan Compounds Miseries of Those Reeling from Effect of Lockdown’, May 20).

The days ahead in reporting on this twinning of tragedies, would demand from the Indian media an extraordinary ear to the ground and a shift to more hinterland reporting. Television anchors who manufacture synthetic political storms in studios that are hermetically sealed against the real storms raging outside, must know that their claim to speak for the country is an exercise in dissimulation – much like their news.

Migrant workers wait to board buses to the Borivali Railway Station, Mumbai, May 21, 2020. Photo: PTI


The Wire has been highlighting issues of labour and migration in these COVID-19 times (some of the latest offerings include, ‘The Modi Sarkar’s Project for India’s Informal Economy’;‘Ola to Cut About 35% Workforce Amid COVID-19 Crisis’;‘Changes in Labour Laws Will Turn the Clock Back by Over a Century’, May 20). This concerted assault on workers’ rights conducted under the cover of the lockdown has drawn a great deal of comment from trade unions and trade unionists… Some excerpts from mails sent in:

“The final package by the finance minister on her fifth television appearance on May 17 was a fiasco…She had just five minutes for her policy statements on the health sector as if she was making a passing reference only, forgetting willfully that the nation is dealing with a health emergency…AITUC has been demanding an immediate infusion in the health sector of not less than 1 lakh crore to meet the requirements of health professionals and the upgradation that the health system demands. The increase in health budget, especially in the public health system, has been our demand.” (Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary AITUC).

“The Joint Platform of Central Trade Unions and Federations/Associations vehemently denounces the blanket exemptions given to all establishments from employers’ obligations under all substantive labour laws for a period of three years by the governments of UP and MP… As the mass of the working people have been subjected to inhuman sufferings owing to loss of jobs, loss of wages, eviction from residences, etc…the government at the centre has pounced upon working people with fangs and claws to reduce them to the stature of virtual slaves…This retrograde anti-worker move comes after six state governments have enhanced the daily working hours from eight hours to 12 hours through executive order in violation of the Factories Act, taking advantage of the lockdown situation….We consider these moves  as an inhuman crime and brutality on the working people, besides being a gross violation of the Right to Freedom of Association(ILO Convention 87), Rights to Collective Bargaining( ILO Convention 98) and also the internationally accepted norm of an eight hour working day…We note with satisfaction that the unions in the states are already on agitation path independently and unitedly…” (INTUC, AITUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, TUCC, SEWA, AICCTU, LPF and UTUC)

The protest in Delhi. Photo: Special arrangement

“The All India IT and ITES Employees’ Union (AIITEU) noted with faith and hope that on March 20, the Ministry of Labour & Employment (GOI) clearly advised employers not to terminate any employee from jobs. Unfortunately a few of the major IT companies have issued unlawful retrenchment notices to hundreds of its employees at different levels. The latest is IT major Cognizant Technology Solutions. Sources have confirmed that Cognizant is finalising the list of a large number of employees to be fired within the next four weeks…The Covid-19 outbreak has also deeply impacted Cognizant’s T&H and Retail business which forms 8-9 per cent of its revenue. The recent ransom ware attack will cost the company a loss of about $50 million to $70 million in lost revenue and margin for Q2, 2020. But to keep profitability intact, the company is firing the actual delivery people who are not connected to these failures…The AIITEU strongly condemns any kind of retrenchment. We believe that MNCs and all other companies must consider their employees as valuable human resources and refrain from firing them in the name of maximizing profitability.” (Saubhik Bhattacharya, general secretary, AIITEU)

“All India Bank Officers’ Confederation (AIBOC), the apex body of the bank officers’ trade union movement in the country having membership of over 3.20 lakh bank officers, expresses its outright opposition to, and strong anguish over, the decision of the wholesale demolition of Public Sector Enterprises of India as elaborated by the finance minister. The economic package offered contains very little in terms of a fiscal stimulus and apparently tries to exaggeratedly inflate the package size by adding liquidity infusion measures with that of fiscal measures. This is not only misleading but also technically fallacious. Most disturbingly, she has announced in unambiguous terms the government’s intention to privatise public sector enterprises and assets across sectors, which far from promoting economic self-reliance will destroy the very foundation of our national economy. In view of the pandemic which has hit economies across the globe, AIBOC had demanded a substantial fiscal package to be financed through an expansion of the fiscal deficit. The government has the option of issuing special Covid-19 bonds and borrowing money directly from the Reserve Bank of India at a low interest rate, as advised by several eminent economists. It is disquieting that this reasonable course has not even been considered…” (Soumya Datta, general secretary, AIBOC)

Mails from readers of The Wire reflecting distress also keep coming in….

Akhteyab Salahuddin, an MBBS student from Gopalganj, Bihar, studying at the BGC Trust Medical College, Chittagong, Bangladesh, wrote in some days ago to say that for over two months, almost 50 Indians – many of them students from West Bengal, Tripura and Telangana are stuck in Bangladesh. “The Indian High Commission started evacuating Indians, but has focused only on students from J&K, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, UP, Tamil Nadu and Delhi. When we asked them for help we were told to contact our respective state governments. We have tried to do so but have failed thus far. We are desperate for help. My WhatsApp number is: +917250643998.”

A student of Banasthali Vidyapith, Rajasthan, wants to highlight the fact that this institution is demanding fees be paid during this period despite the fact that the hostel and mess were not in use since May 15, 2020. It is also asking for fees for the next semester. This is distressing because it comes at a time when the parents of these students are staring at job losses and salary cuts.

Meanwhile Nikhil Gupta, national representative and coordinator of Research Scholars of India and senior research fellow, CBMR SGPGI, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, appraises us of the various difficulties being faced by research scholars across the country vis-à-vis the disbursement of fellowships for their tenure as JRF/SRF/RA/postdoctoral fellowships from various funding agencies such as CSIR, UGC, DST, etc. Research scholars who are in many cases supporting families, are being subjected to various delays, sometimes of more than six months, due to bureaucratic procedures.  He wants the government to kindly release these fellowships, irrespective of the funding agency, with arrears up to April 2020 throughout the country, as a one-time grant.

A mail in similar vein came in from the conveners of the Democratic Research Scholars’ Organisation (DRSO): “After a letter sent to the prime minister and chief ministers on May 12, an online sign campaign was initiated by DRSO and more than 1500 scholars had signed this within two days of its circulation. They are demanding: (1) Regular fellowship for all scholars (2) Required extension of fellowship tenure (3) Safety, security and insurance for scholars fighting COVID-19 at the frontline (4) More testing and research for COVID-19; funding for it and basic sciences (5) Support to ensure safe working condition after the reopening of the labs.

A medic collects a swab sample of a man in Worli, Mumbai, April 19, 2020. Photo: PTI/Kunal Patil

The students of JC Bose University, YMCA Faridabad, are demanding cancellation of semester exams. “According to the UGC directive in the event of this disaster, every university had to create a COVID-19 cell that would listen to all the problems and suggestions of the students and help them appropriately. Instead of doing this, our university formed a 10-member committee which is insisting that evaluation be conducted through online examinations.  Many students do not have proper internet facilities. In fact most do not even have a computer or laptop.  Many esteemed engineering institutes, including IIT Bombay and NIT Kurukshetra, have cancelled the main examination and passed their students based on internal assessments and earlier performance. Students demand a similar procedure be adopted at JC Bose University as well.

Dr Sudhir Mane, an alumnus of Osmania Medical College, Hyderabad, highlights the steep hike in tuition fees instituted by private medical colleges in Telangana, despite the chief minister having said that this will not be allowed. On May 4, KNR University of Health Sciences, Warangal, issued a fee hike notification in which the tuition fee was hiked from Rs 3.5 lakh per annum to Rs 7.5 lakh per annum in the A-category and Rs 12.5 lakh to Rs 24 lakh in B category. The PG Dental courses too had similar hikes. On one hand, doctors are facing physical attacks and high risk of COVID-19 infection. On the other hand, a sudden fee hike in the midst of a lockdown will jeopardise the careers of thousands of meritorious doctors. 


Finally, I received a letter from a reader of The Wire, Hemant Bokil with regard to this column, and I include my reply:

“I am an avid reader of The Wire. Although I do not always agree with its positions, I have felt that it is playing a very necessary role in Indian journalism…

“However, I was pretty puzzled by what was said by you in your most recent fortnightly column (‘Backstory: Rotis on the Railway Track, Styrene in the Air’, May 9). My understanding of the role of the public editors, both from referring to the work of various public editors at the New York Times and from Wikipedia, is that it includes “identifying and examining critical errors or omissions, and acting as a liaison to the public”. While a bit of the latter portion of the above definition did seem covered in your column, I found nothing speaking to the first part. On the contrary, the column made arguments that one would expect from most of the opinion writers at The Wire. Could you please clarify whether this column is intended to serve in a similar role as that of various public editor columns that one normally sees, or is it – while advertised as a public editor’s column – reflective of the personal opinions of the holder of that position?”

First, thank you for your mail and your thoughtful interrogation of the role of the public editor. The public editor as an institution is still very much a work in progress everywhere in the world and various individuals in this capacity have charted their own discursive pathways. I would, broadly speaking, go with the working definition you cite with the possible addition that a public editor also has a role in commenting on media trends, not just within the media institution s/he is associated with, but within the larger public sphere. 

In the column you cite, I tried to do that by referring to how the media covered two of the most important issues of that fortnight, the treatment accorded to migrants and the Visakhapatnam gas leak (which, as you may have noticed, serious though it was, has almost completely disappeared from general coverage). In iterating this, I am also arguing that topics such as these are crucial for the media everywhere, including for The Wire. It would follow, that the framework I adopt to do this would necessarily draw upon my ideological predilections. I recognise that The Wire has its own editorial positions which may or may not reflect my own, but I also recognise that this is something every publication is entitled to hold. When however “errors or omissions” are made which I deem as “critical”, I will, of course, draw attention to them. Thank you for your interest.

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in