TN Floods and the Tyranny of Distance

"You people don't care about us in South India, we don't exist for you," says a young man, angrily accosting me as we attempt a whistle-stop visit of Chennai's flood-hit areas. I sputter and apologise, even pointing to a recent video blog where I have admitted to the failure of the 'national' media to give adequate coverage to the Tamil Nadu floods. The youth who is busily distributing food packets to the flood affected isn't fully convinced: "we have been suffering here for a month and you people wake up only now. If there is water-logging in Delhi, it will be breaking news for days, but we lose our homes and it doesn't become a national headline for weeks."

The young man's anger is not entirely misplaced. Right through the month of November, Chennai has been battered by rains, the worst in almost a century. But the headlines of 'national' news channels (and here I specifically refer to television) failed to reflect the extent of the catastrophe. The terror strikes in Paris, the award wapsi campaign at home, the prime minister's high profile foreign visits dominated the air waves. Chennai was but a footnote, until the rising waters reached a level where it was impossible to ignore. Until now, we were accused of being 'metro-centric', but now when the country's fourth largest metropolis begins to sink and the story doesn't get due attention, then we have to ask ourselves: has 'national' television literally become New Delhi Television?

Most national television channels are located in Delhi or Mumbai. Print can claim at least to have local editions so there is a greater possibility of  newspapers reflecting a wider spectrum of news events. But the narrative of television news is often shaped by two or three 'big' stories of the day almost to the exclusion of all else. So, when Mr Modi is in London, it is almost as if there is little else happening in the world; when terror strikes Paris, we enter another 24 x 7 cycle; when award wapsi sparks off a ideological war on 'intolerance', then every prime time debate centres around the warring factions. Lost in the cacophony is the reality that we are a nation of 1.2 billion people with multiple issues to deal with, thousands of stories to tell. Have our editorial filters created a situation where our news horizons are limited by geography, where places that seem distant from the national news headquarters are struggling to have their voices heard?

This isn't just about Chennai either. Far from it. Last month, Bangaloreans took to the streets to protest against crumbling infrastructure in the city but their protests didn't really acquire a 'national' dimension in the manner that street agitations after the Delhi gang rape sparked off a nationwide debate. In Bundelkhand, drought conditions have been persistent for more than a year but the killing fields of a state that adjoins Delhi have been mostly ignored. In Maharashtra's Marathwada district, more than 600 farm suicides have been reported this year but it was only after actor Nana Patekar took up the cause that the story gained some traction in the 'national' media.

By contrast, almost every move of a Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi is examined with a microscope; it is as if governing a city state like Delhi matters more than administering large states in other parts of India. In a sense, Kejriwal can be described as both a 'victim' and a 'beneficiary' of 'doorstep journalism'. Because the Aam Admi Party's area of influence is in and around Delhi, he gets the benefit of disproportionate coverage and thereby almost instantly is seen as a 'national' figure; on the other hand, the relentless gaze of the camera means that his accountability is that much greater.

The popular explanation for this Delhi-centric approach to news is that it is just so much easier and cheaper to gather news in the neighbourhood than invest in building a truly national network. As the business model of television news channels come under increasing pressure, the cost cutting invariably involves reducing expenses on maintaining far-flung bureaus. There are viewership pressures too: the television rating boxes are even now skewed towards bigger cities as is the advertising pie. When the consumer is king, news hierarchies will be determined by the consumption patterns of the urban elite, not by the need to offer a greater variety of news from across India: it is almost as if the tribals of a Jharkhand and Chattisgarh dont matter unless there is a major Naxal attack in these states.

Is there a solution? In the short run it perhaps lies in sensitising editorial and management decision makers to the uniqueness of news journalism where a story's merit doesn't lie in its geographical location but in its ability to shake the conscience, where a rape of a tribal girl in Dantewada should resonate as much as that in a Mumbai mill compound. In the long run, it lies in redefining the news business into a 'news 360' multi-media model where print, television and digital come together to create a content driven, platform agnostic system where local news merges almost seamlessly with the big 'national' headline.

In a sense, Chennai is a wake up call: if large parts of even our core urban audiences begin to feel alienated from 'mainstream' media, then our future is imperilled. Spaces will be created that will be filled in by more nimble, localised social media and digital platforms that can establish a more direct connect with the viewer/reader. Not surprisingly, Facebook, Twitter, FM radio  and whatsapp groups have been dominant sources of information for Chennaites during the floods. RJ Balaji of a local Chennai FM station is more identified than any prime time TV anchor in Delhi. Either we in the 'national' media smell the filter coffee or risk losing our credibility and more.

Post-script: a fortnight ago, a group of Manipuri tribal activists came to see me to seek coverage for their protests against the killing of nine people in ethnic clashes and police firing in the state. Their protests have gone on for more than 100 days but have gone unnoticed. In sheer desperation, they have brought nine coffins to Jantar Mantar. As one of them tells me, "If Delhi can't come to Churachandpur, we will have to come to Delhi!"

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