In Chennai, India, where I live, those who are rich have built apartments facing the sea and, as they build, the fisherfolk are pushed closer to the sea. In several fishing hamlets in and around Chennai, which is the capital of Tamil Nadu state, fisherfolk sometimes live as close as 50 meters from the sea. Since the tsunami, the Tamil Nadu government has admitted that 95 percent of the affected population belongs to the fishing community, which forms an estimated six percent of the entire state’s population.

In India’s caste hierarchy, fisherfolk are placed above the “untouchables” (who identify themselves as “dalits” today), but their position in society is not very unlike that of the dalits. Given the crucial question of their representation in the news media, dalits and fisherfolk—who are classified as the “scheduled caste” and “most backward class” by the government—almost go unrepresented. Perhaps this is related to their absence as members of the news media. A study published in 2004 found that there were no dalits (who constitute 16.48 percent of India’s billion- plus population) or adivasis (the indigenous population, 8.05 percent) visible in the Indian media. The brahmins, estimated to form three percent of the population, hold nearly 60 percent of reporting and editorial jobs in the English-language media.

Print and visual media in India, like other privately controlled industries, do not believe in the principle of diversity. While in the United States there have been concerted and conscious efforts made to improve the presence of social minorities in the media, the Indian newspaper establishment does not even acknowledge the nonrepresentation of certain communities as an issue. Yet it leads to a lopsidedness in priorities about what stories to cover, and the coverage of the tsunami and its aftermath reflects this structural problem. Not surprisingly, a natural disaster in India inevitably and quickly turns into a social disaster in which the news media play a central role.

When no reporters, photographers or news editors come from the fishing community, it is unlikely that this community’s problems will be understood or get fairly represented. This helps to explain what I regard as the largely insensitive and pointless reporting by the media—TV and print, both in Tamil and English—of the tsunami disaster.

Correspondents who reported this story had almost never stepped into these ghettoized fishing settlements before the tsunami. During the last few years, the Tamil Nadu government had been trying to relocate several fishing hamlets in Chennai to landlocked areas six to eight kilometers from the shore to “beautify” the beach. The fisherfolk resisted such moves. The media, including the newsmagazine, Outlook, where I work, were hardly interested in reporting these developments. Now, too, when the government is using post-tsunami rehabilitation as an opportunity to push fisherfolk away from the shoreline, the media are still uninterested.

The fishing ghettoes are no-go zones for those who do not belong to the community. Fish is consumed by everyone, but the fisherfolk are always kept at a safe distance. And they rarely inhabit spaces other than seaside settlements. In reporting on the tsunami, I met several fishing community members who had tried to move away from their traditional occupations of fishing and work as engineers, lawyers and software technologists, but they found it difficult to get jobs or rent houses once their identity was revealed. The popular stereotype of the community is that they are quarrelsome, dirty, smelly and that the men are given to drinking and are prone to crime. Since work in the sea tends to be seasonal, the fishermen are available as ‘goondas’ (as goons/thugs are known) and mercenaries. Simply put—an antisocial image. When reporters walked through the worst affected areas, these were the images they inevitably carried in their minds. Since this was one of the biggest stories of the century, they could not walk away from the scene, and so they began to peddle the images of these people as victims.

Initially, hundreds of stories were the “how did it happen” ones. Visually, both print and television in Tamil Nadu competed in showing images of gruesomeness and pathos. Sun News seemed to revel in showing bereaved women crying helplessly. Dinamalar, the second largest circulated Tamil daily (selling close to a million copies per day), had a color picture of a dog nibbling a dead child. Though the fisherfolk are not necessarily poor, the news media quickly made beggars of them. Within a few days old, used clothes—the charity of the rest of civil society—flooded the tsunami-hit areas, especially Nagapattinam and Kanyakumari districts. But these donated clothes were rejected by the people. Heaps of clothes lay untouched on the roads as a slap on the face of middle-class charity.

Dangers of Human-Interest Reporting

After the victim stories, reporters began to look for “heroes.” They were under pressure to produce “feel-good” stories about hope from the disaster zone. My editors were constantly reminding me to keep the human-interest angle in mind. “At least a box,” I was told. Here are some examples of what this reporting looked like and the consequences of it:

  • New Delhi Television (NDTV), India’s leading 24-hour news channel, showed one correspondent coaxing a 10-year-old to reenact the scene of how she saved two children when the big wave came. It was clear that the children were made to rehearse the scene a few times before it was put on film.
  • An English weekly, The Week, published a mid-January cover story on the “heroes of tsunami,” featuring on its cover Vivek Oberoi, a movie star from Bollywood who volunteered for relief work. Oberoi was actually there as part of a right-wing Hindutva group led by Swami Chidanand Saraswati.
  • With the state government welcoming Oberoi’s presence, and the Tamil and international media celebrating his heroics, even a serious magazine like Frontline, which routinely carries features by notables such as Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky, failed to see that he was part of a religious right-wing group. It reported: “The most visible among the voluntary organizations working in the district is the Rishikesh-based India Heritage Research Foundation, founded and run by Swami Chidanand Saraswati …. Among the notable followers of this foundation is the Hindi film actor Vivek Oberoi, who rushed to the aid of the affected people within days of the tsunami attack. He camped at Devanampattinam for a week and helped Swami Chidanand Saraswati in a big way in organizing relief.”

What Frontline and other media did not report was the strong presence of cadre of the rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Corps) at some of Hope Foundation’s meetings. What also went unreported was that young fishermen openly questioned the presence of Swami Chidanand Saraswati and asked him to leave. The reason: Once this organization arrived, government relief had stopped coming to these fisherfolks’ village. Then one day, unreported by the media, suddenly this voluntary group packed its bags and left.

The large presence of international and national nongovernmental organizations (NGO) impacted the nature of media reporting. In fact, sometimes NGO’s set the news agenda. After being briefed by NGO’s, reporters gave a lot of space to the “perceived” importance of psychological counseling (even though none of the counselors who were deployed to help had ever been in a fishing village and understood little of the community’s dynamics) and to the “imagined” plight of tsunami orphans. In fact, Outlook did a five-page report on tsunami orphans and, as a reporter working on this story, I had to play along. The ostensible reason was, after the Bhuj earthquake of 2001, a cover story on orphans of the quake sold very well, and now a similar story could be repeated in the context of the tsunami.

However, the perception of urban nuclear families of an orphan as being a child without parents is at odds with the community care that such children tend to get in these fishing communities. Once the government decided to open orphanages, very few children were enrolled despite some efforts by overly enthusiastic NGO volunteers who tried to force single parents to part with their children to swell the numbers in these orphanages. As of now, fewer than 100 orphans are in the state-run homes in three districts.

For the media, though, orphans were part of the human-interest angle. In part, media interest was triggered by an NDTV story in which the reporter held a cute infant and said on prime-time television that “These babies could be yours for adoption. For all such orphan babies, the need of the hour is a secure, loving home.” The perception left by the media and government was that these children might not be safe if left with relatives or the community.

One of the best displays of media insensitivity came from the Outlook photographer who accompanied me on this story. Despite being told that the children in the government-run orphanage were scared of the sea, he wanted them to collectively pose near a catamaran “with the sea in the background” for that would make “a great picture.” Denied this, he made the children pose behind the sliding iron grill door of the orphanage to (mis)represent “their plight” and, during the photo shoot, a finger of an 11-month-old girl in the orphanage was crushed in the grill.

Some three weeks after the tsunami, print and visual media remained keen on showing amateur video footage of the tsunami taken by tourists. While visual media thrived on these sensational images, print media was not far behind. The Hindu, a leading English- language national daily printed in Chennai, prominently displayed poor quality photographs taken with a camera that after 20 days washed ashore on Chennai’s Marina Beach. A feature story in the daily’s January 25th issue was woven around the recovery of this camera and The Hindu’s earnest efforts to successfully restore it to its owner, who had come to Chennai as a member of a sports team.

These are a sampling of the human interest/investigative stories the tsunami inspired. By January 26th, it was time for “calendar” journalism involving a spate of one-month-after-the-tsunami stories.

While covering these many aspects of the tsunami’s destruction, there are certain topics about which India’s media have been almost silent. When India rejected offers of foreign aid, there was hardly any analysis done of this decision, even in the English-language press. On the nuclear installations along the coast not having tsunami-preparedness, there was muted reportage. On the failure of India’s scientific community, there was no debate. When the Indian government refused to characterize the tsunami as a “national calamity,” members of the news media were largely silent. The media did not report when dalits were employed to clear the dead bodies without even protective gloves. And the media continue to show no interest reporting on the efforts to relocate fisherfolk in landlocked areas far from the sea.

In all this, one factor remains clear and important: The fisherfolk are not people like us. The reporting on the tsunami told us more about the society to which journalists belong than about the society of the fisherfolk, about which they know very little.

S. Anand is based in Chennai, India and works as a special correspondent for Outlook newsmagazine. He is also the cofounder of Navayana Publishing that focuses exclusively on caste issues.

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