Friday, June 12, 2009

Cyclone Aila, its aftermath and a biased discussion about an ‘unbiased’ media

Sitting distanced from Bengal and following the sui generis coverage of the Cyclone Aila after effects in the Bengali TV channels is a fascinating experience. The tragic incidence has emerged as the prime media story of the moment, promptly filling the void created by the just concluded Lok Sabha polls. The cyclone that hit the Bengal coast on Monday, 25th of May has left a massive trail of destruction in different parts of the state. The scale of destruction and the suffering of the effected people were unprecedented. As per official reports, 137 people have lost their lives in the catastrophe. Nearly two lakh others were left homeless. While the worst hit districts were South and North 24-Paraganas in South Bengal, Cyclone Aila has also left its disastrous impact in the North Bengal districts particularly in Darjeeling Hills where at least 28 people have lost their lives. In Kolkata, three people were killed when huge trees fell on buses, cars and auto-rickshaws, roads were blocked, many electric poles were keeled over snapping overhead wires. In several parts of the city, power and water supply were severely disrupted.

The days after

In the Sunderbans delta zone, gigantic waves caused by the cyclone have destroyed around 400 kilometers of embankments in Sagar, Pathapratima, Basanti, Gosaba, Sandeshkhali and Hingalgunj, flooding hundreds of the villages. 54 major and smaller islands and the lives of over 40 lakh of its inhabitants were severely affected in these areas. The floods has razed or damaged countless houses, washed away seeds and killed the livestock. Brackish water entering farmlands has ruined crops and wiped out all stocks of freshwater fish and shrimp. Village after village lay submerged. Affected people are living with acute shortage of drinking water, food and shelter. Fears of an outbreak of waterborne enteric diseases loomed large as rotten carcasses of farm animals were floating in the surrounding rivers and creeks. According to experts, Sunderbans has never been hit by such a destructive storm in the last three decades.

The world's largest independent conservation organization World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) was working in Mousuni Island of the Sunderbans for quite some time in partnership with WWF (Netherlands), Hewlett Packard and GTZ to increase the adaptive capacities of the inhabitants from cyclones and tidal surges. By taking up climate adaptation strategies and infrastructural facilities to protect the island's inhabitants, WWF (India) had also set up a Climate Adaptation Centre here, with an electronic Early Warning System to warn villagers of oncoming disasters. Cyclone Aila’s wrath has washed away the entire work done by WWF (India) in Mousuni.

Apart from the human tragedy, the cyclone and subsequent floods has badly affected the mangrove forests of Sunderbans and presumably caused a sizable damage to its animal life by sweeping away a large number of highly endangered Bengal tigers, crocodiles, wild boars and spotted deer. It will take several weeks to assess the actual extent of the damage only after the water level recedes from the area. Alarm bells are ringed by environmental activist groups. A Greenpeace spokesperson has expressed caution that “the destruction caused by Aila was in consonance with the predictions made by scientists, who had warned that storms would become more frequent and more damaging due to climate change.” The spokesperson has also said that, “…domestically, India must take ambitious action to curtail emissions of carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas which is causing climate change), by adopting mandatory, ambitious energy efficiency and renewable energy targets, and creating fiscal incentives for the same”. (Source)

The response

The Bengal government’s response to the cyclone devastation was gradual. To gear up the relief and rehabilitation work, chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee immediately deployed five ministers in the affected areas. Relief operations delayed to start as local communication systems were found to be paralyzed and many areas inaccessible by the impact of the cyclone. The army and Border Security Force personals were called in for carrying out rescue operations and air dropping of food packets in the inaccessible terrains. The government set up over 100 relief camps to temporarily shelter 50,000 effected people. While at the ground level rescue and relief efforts gradually gathered its momentum, it was almost inevitable that there will be administrative shortcomings in reaching adequate relief to certain remote areas as the scale of the disaster was massive and the numbers of victims were countless. The administrative loopholes in relief distribution remained a matter of grave concern to the government and have swelled harsh criticism from different quarters. Even as the state finance ministry sanctioned 61 crore rupees for relief operations, the funds available with the state government were grossly inadequate to cope up with the situation. Stressing the need for a centre-state joint effort to tackle the damage, the state government has urged for 1,000 crore rupees central assistance from the Natural Calamity Contingency Fund and also has demanded for declaring the disaster as a national calamity. The chief minister has also appealed to all political parties to rise above narrow politics and work hand in hand to provide relief to the distressed people.

But where the main opposition party is Trinamool Congress and the main opposition leader is no other but the ‘famous lady’, the country’s newly appointed Railway minister, the lofty call was expected to fall on deaf ears. How can her party work along with the CPI(M), the obnoxious ‘Stalinist’ party she had recently thrashed in the polls and won 19 parliament seats from the state? And who’s Buddhadev Bhattacharjee anyway? Didn’t the poll verdict confirm that the people have wholeheartedly supported her adamant approach of going up against everything the present government does? Eyeing the 2011 assembly polls, she has immediately tapped the popular grievances to blast off the state government for ‘nonexistence’ of any disaster management system throughout the 32 years of ‘misrule’. As if elsewhere in India, disaster management systems are working splendidly. She seemed, or pretended, to be unaware that the term Disaster Management System was introduced into the country’s administrative terminology barely seventeen years ago; fifteen years after Left Front came to power in Bengal.

Alleging the state government for careless utilization of central funds, she has demanded that the centre should not assist the Bengal government in relief and rehabilitation. On the pretext that no relief was reaching the affected people, she floated her alternative ‘PM to DM’ proposal: central relief should be directly handed over to the Panchayats bypassing the state government. As the Panchayats in most of the affected areas of South Bengal are advantageously under Trinamool’s control, the raison d'être behind her alternative proposal was targeted to reap maximum political advantage through relief distribution. Quite naturally she was upset when central finance minister Pranab Mukherjee met Buddhadev Bhattacharjee to discuss on the cyclone relief issue. As her alternative proposal was annulled by the central ministry, her party leaders and workers remained by and large aloof from any relief work. Instead, local Trinamool leaders were more interested and active to create obstacles in the ongoing relief and rehabilitation work and together with the friendly journalists were busy plotting effective plans to disrepute the government. Only after relief materials reached the affected areas from the Railway ministry, Trinamool leaders have jumped into their business.

The ugly media circus

Cyclone Aila has once again uncovered the ruthless anti-CPI(M) face of the mainstream media establishment in general, and the Anandabazar Patrika group (ABP) in particular. Setting a new low in journalistic sensationalism, the ABP group reporters are full of activity to spread disinformation based on half-truth evidences, primarily targeted against Buddhadev Bhattacharjee and his party. The carefully manufactured news items were selective in nature but regardless of validity, were supported by facts that cannot be easily separated from the fabrications and were presented in a ‘hit and run’ way – by making a brief attack and then dashing off from it without answering the subsequent response. To associate disinformation with authority and point up its trustworthiness, the news channels continuously ‘inventing’ exciting news and presenting them through the lingo of their own ‘experts’. Star Ananda, the ABP group’s ‘unbiased’ 24 hour news channel is an undisputed leader in this aspect. Brushing aside all journalistic ethics (if such a thing really exists), the channel has even started name calling and ridiculing rival news channel 24 Ghanta which do not follow their prescribed line of reporting. After all, 24 Ghanta is the ‘CPM’s channel’ stupid!

During Buddhadev Bhattacharjee’s visit in Aila hit Basanti, ABP group journalists had manufactured the sensational ‘imprisonment’ story. A group of local relief distribution workers were shown as ‘forcibly caged’ into a shed ‘against their wish’ for nearly two hours by overactive police and administration who had considered them as a ‘threat to Mr. Bhattacharjee’s safety’. An editorial in ABP group’s English daily The Telegraph had further articulated that the actual reason behind the imprisonment was to prevent them from “…confronting Mr. Bhattacharjee with their version of the truth of how relief operations were being mishandled in the area.” (Source) Star Ananda made it a major piece, uninterruptedly telecasted the ‘cage’ image for hours and promptly arranged a lengthy discussion on the topic. Surprisingly, the ‘cage’ was so tightly locked and guarded that the channel’s cameramen were allowed to enter inside and shoot this sensational footage of captivity for the viewers!

When the chief minister visited the cyclone effected Hingalgunj of North 24 Paraganas, he had to face ‘the wrath of the victims’ who had also ‘heckled and jeered’ him for inadequate supply of relief. The ‘hungry and angry cyclone victims’ shouted at the chief minister, “You are an inefficient chief minister. You deserve a garland of shoes. What have you done for the development of the Sunderbans in the last five years?” The angry ‘villagers’ asked the chief minister during an interactive session why a poor country like Bangladesh can build concrete embankments and the state government had failed to do so despite enjoying uninterrupted power for more than three decades. What the ‘angry villagers’ didn’t know was that ‘concrete embankments’ had feebly failed to protect Bangladesh from the devastating wrath of Aila. In fact, the condition of the Bangladesh Aila victims was so bad that Heather Blackwell, the NGO group Oxfam's Bangladesh representative called it a ‘humanitarian crisis’.

The ‘furious cyclone victims’ then heckled and abused the 75 years old local CPI(M) legislator Gopal Gayen at the Madanmohan Vidyapith relief camp and smeared his face with mud. The next day, the mud spattered face of the legislator was published in newspapers all over the country decorated by an incredible caption: ‘How does it feel?’ Not a single line were published anywhere by the worshippers of democracy condemning the attack on a senior legislator whose own house, situated in one of the worst affected areas was lying submerged for days. (Source)

Inspired by their homemade propaganda, a columnist of The Telegraph wrote, “The people were angry with not just the administration’s rather casual response to the human suffering, but also with the long years of official indifference to their plight.” (Emphasis added) The columnist continued, “Such anger erupting in the Sunderbans and in the chief minister’s presence can only mean how it is extending beyond ideological or partisan confines.” (Emphasis added) The columnist finally delivers his real message, “But the change in Bengal is noticeable…Bhattacharjee and the CPM are now less popular with the rural masses…” (Emphasis added) (Source) Buddhadev Bhattacharjee’s visit was termed by Star Ananda as a ‘VIP Picnic’. The media brotherhood roared in accordance: if the security of a chief minister becomes more important than relief distribution, if distribution workers are kept caged, then there is no need for the chief minister to visit the affected areas. Let him sit home. His visits are hindering the relief process. Amazingly, enlightenment struck the ABP group to raise the ‘VIP Picnic’ issue only after the ‘famous lady’ and three Trinamool central ministers had finished their respective visits to the cyclone hit areas. When the ‘conscience keeper’ Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi later visited the humble victims of Sandeshkhali, the same media reported about an ‘altogether different public mood’. Cyclone victims who has lost all that they possessed gave the Bengal Governor a ‘warm welcome’, little girls strewed flower petals before him. A shaken Governor was seen to amiably ask a woman in tears ‘if the child in her lap had eaten’. The reporting has turned Sandeshkhali into an almost surreal land, inhabited by surreal people who in the midst of agony can magnanimously strew flowers on their illustrious guest!

There is an alternative version of this rousing incident that came from Ganashakti, the CPI(M) mouthpiece. (Source: June 4, 2009 Issue) According to Ganashakti, the basic plan to heckle the chief minister was hatched by the ABP reporters. Blessed by their management, the reporters joined with local Trinamool leaders in a neighborhood club ‘Tarun Sangha’ in the early hours of that eventful day and fine-tuned their plan. Hingalgunj became their perfect executing ground as the area is considered to be a Trinamool Congress stronghold. The Trinamool leaders were taught how to stage a ‘media friendly’ demonstration in front of the chief minister, in the crudest way possible, involving women armed with brooms and shoes. The news and images will then be publicized as ‘public fury against the chief minister’. The Trinamool leaders perfectly acted according to the ABP authored script and helped to manufacture the breaking news: ‘Struck by Aila, survivors jeer Buddha, call him inefficient CM’.

The CPI(M) mouthpiece’s version could have been easily dismissed as a cliché CPM style defense under severe media criticism. But this time the daily has struck directly to produce an authoritative proof to support their claim. Ganashakti published an image of the chief minister’s interactive session in the Madanmohan Vidyapith relief camp and convincingly identified five ‘cyclone victim villagers’ – all of them were local Trinamool leaders. Throughout the incident, this gang of five was the most invective protesters who had flung ‘hard questions’ before the chief minister. None of them were cyclone victims; none of them were living in relief camp, none of them were hungry. The attack on CPI(M) legislator Gopal Gayen was also perpetrated by the same group. But no matter what evidence or logical arguments are offered, it is CPM manufactured news after all. A piece of news is considered 'credible' only when it appears in the ‘unbiased’ media.

Why the ABP group has gone berserk to involve itself into such a depraved act? In their own words, the initiative was undertaken to ‘provoke a widespread eruption of popular rage’ against the ‘impotent’ state government administration. (Source) The key intention behind this media circus was to act as proxy to the ‘famous lady’ who was away from the epicenter to attend her ministerial obligations in New Delhi. While the Trinamool chieftain and her henchmen were too busy celebrating their portfolios, their media friends has taken up the task to counteract the positive impact of the chief minister’s visit by any means. It was therefore their moral obligation to establish that the chief minister was sternly discarded by the cyclone affected people. They have realized that this out of the blue situation has provided them a wonderful chance to intensely exploit public resentment against the ruling Left Front and the CPI(M). Systematically they are trying to build-up an atmosphere of discontent and sustain it till 2011, for the final assault. Beating the Stalinists in Bengal is no more a pipedream. In any case, the Stalinists are in the verge of losing their power and the glory!

A concealed truth

The all out media surge against the Left, particularly against the CPI(M) obviously lead to the suspicion that the media might be working hand in glove for a much greater plan designed by their imperialist bosses. Remember the former US Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker’s testimony about how the Central Intelligence Agency had carried out a clandestine operation to topple the democratically elected Communist government in Kerala? Howard B Schaffer, the author of Bunker’s biography Ellsworth Bunker: Global Troubleshooter, Vietnam Hawk, has disclosed in the book that, “…the election results rang alarm bells in Washington. This apparently involved agency funding for political demonstrations organized by the Congress party and other opposition groups that were designed to create a law and order situation.” Sounds familiar? Former US ambassador to India Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s autobiography A Dangerous Place has further revealed how agency funds were poured in to help the Congress Party in Kerala and Bengal to cut off the communists who were clear favorites in the elections.

Successive US governments have a long history of extensively using the CIA to interfere in the internal political matters of various countries if considered detrimental to the US interests. Do we have to believe that the continuous eruptions of mayhem, lawlessness and violence in Bengal are spontaneous events? In the current global state of affairs, it is impossible for the US to remain impassive about a strategically important country like India. Only a stupid will believe that the US has signed the Indo-US nuclear deal to solve India’s power crisis! In their notorious intelligence game, one of the most efficient devices is the journalists who can serve the US interests under an institutional cover – the Fourth Estate.

Former Washington Post reporter, the legendary Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein had exposed in his Rolling Stone cover story ‘The CIA and the Media’ how journalists had secretly carried out assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency. Bernstein wrote, “Journalists provided a full range of clandestine services – from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go‑betweens with spies in Communist countries. Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs. Some of the journalists were Pulitzer Prize winners, distinguished reporters … who found that their association with the Agency helped their work… and, the smallest category, full‑time CIA employees masquerading as journalists abroad. In many instances, CIA documents show, journalists were engaged to perform tasks for the CIA with the consent of the managements of America’s leading news organizations.” (Source)

Do the journalists go on working for the CIA on their own? According to Bernstein, “…contrary to the notion that the CIA insidiously infiltrated the journalistic community, there is ample evidence that America’s leading publishers and news executives allowed themselves and their organizations to become handmaidens to the intelligence services.” What about the ‘opinion maker’ columnists? Bernstein writes, “…a dozen well known columnists and broadcast commentators whose relationships with the CIA go far beyond those normally maintained between reporters and their sources. They are referred to at the Agency as ‘known assets’ and can be counted on to perform a variety of undercover tasks.”

Bernstein continues, “In the field, journalists were used to help recruit and handle foreigners as agents; to acquire and evaluate information, and to plant false information with officials of foreign governments.” Bernstein further elaborates, “…During the past twenty-five years, the Agency has secretly bankrolled numerous foreign press services, periodicals and newspapers – both English and foreign language – which provided excellent cover for CIA operatives.” (Emphasis added) The CIA is believed to have directly owned of subsidized “…more than fifty newspapers, news services, radio stations, periodicals and other communications facilities, most of them overseas. These were used for propaganda efforts, or even as cover for operations. Another dozen foreign news organizations were infiltrated by paid CIA agents.”

However, in response to public disclosure of CIA’s use of journalists in undercover operations, the agency has scaled down the program but continued “to ‘welcome’ the voluntary, unpaid cooperation of journalists”.

Daniel Brandt, founder of NameBase, the web-based cross-indexed database of names that focuses on individuals involved in the international intelligence community once asked, “How can one distinguish between news and propaganda when the overlaps and interlocks are so pervasive?” According to Brandt, “…the collapse of socialism and the centralization of domestic and transnational media, suggest that the CIA now has everything well in hand”

We wrap up the section with a wise Daniel Brandt comment: “…the larger problem is that the media is owned by the ruling class. With the increased media centralization of the last twenty years, their lock on the masses is now so complete that when they maintain an appearance of objectivity, it's only out of habit.” (Source)

Disaster Management: the Indian way

Any policy is best judged by how well it is implemented on ground. The Government of India had incepted the Natural Disaster Management Program (NDMP) in 1992-93 following the devastating Latur earthquake to suggest a long-term strategy for managing natural disasters in the country. As a guideline the NDMP had also provided a long list of necessary institutional and legislative measures for the national, state and district levels to follow. In 1999, soon after the devastating cyclone in Orissa, another high powered committee on disaster management plans was constituted to prepare a comprehensive model for management of disasters. But the 2001 Gujarat earthquake has brought out in open several inadequacies in the country’s disaster management system. The 2004 tsunami catastrophe has proved again that the system in fact does not exist beyond the government files. As a consequence of the tsunami, on 11 January 2005, another high power committee was constituted by the central government to draft the Disaster Management Bill to start a multi dimensional endeavour involving various scientific, engineering and social processes. The draft bill became the National Disaster Management Act after being passed by Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha and signed by the President of India on 23 December 2005. The Cabinet Committee on Management of Natural calamities and The National Disaster Response force was constituted on the same year. The 2008 Kosi floods in Bihar once more exposed the serious weaknesses in the government machinery and confirmed that disaster management system in India has turned into a disaster by itself. Neither the central nor the state governments have any clue on how the system is supposed to work.

Disaster Management Programs require multi-disciplinary and pro-active approach involving a number of departments and agencies spanning across all sectors. After every disaster strikes, limitations of the government machinery, its top-down approach and lack of determination to mitigate the impact of natural calamities comes into open. Our governments have learned little from experiences of the past disasters. Neither have they realized that costs of disaster mitigation are far more economical than spending crores on relief and rehabilitation.


It is beyond any doubt that in a natural disaster of extreme magnitude, where properties and lives of countless people are devastated, anger against the government administration is nothing unusual. If the Aila affected people in Bengal are demonstrating their anger against the authorities, they have enough reasons to do so. But it is also true that in a country like India, timely and evenly supplying relief material to each and every effected area or person is virtually impossible. Even a utopian administration cannot succeed in this task. There will be certain places where supply of relief will fall short to satisfy the real need. Therefore it is quite easy to find out stories of anger, frustration and deprivation in a situation like this. We are not saying this to cover up some of the genuine administrative lapses of the Bengal government’s but trying to view the situation from a realistic point of view. The point is – what are then the alternatives? Running a parallel administration while ignoring a democratically elected government? Purposefully defaming a sincere and concerned chief minister by questioning his motives and blowing the opposition leader out of proportion? Bringing out cliché allegations based on minor matter or element of the facts, focusing on side issues and fabricating them to an absurd level? Claiming every effort of the Bengal government as irrelevant and demanding for the impossible? Insisting on immediate disaster management solutions in a country where political cynicism, bureaucratic lassitude and corruption formidably rule the roost?

None of the above alternatives have any ability to bring smile on the face of the Cyclone Aila victims. It can only reinforce the farce of Indian democracy once more. Judicious preventive measures with community initiatives are the real answer to the problem, not the post-disaster relief and rehabilitation.