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By ICTpost Media Action Bureau
The horror stories are flooding in Uttarakhand. The Dev Bhoomi where pilgrims pray for moksh is a mass graveyard after the flash floods erupted in the state on June 16th. Kedar Ghati and the entire Rudraprayag region turned into a ghoulish bed of corpses. On the morning on June 17, when the water of Gandhi Sarovar came gushing down after a cloud burst, many pilgrims were washed away.
The massive floods that struck Uttarakhand is a wake-up call to the government as well as Indian citizens. Disaster, with most people calling it more man made than natural, has exposed the fragility of this beautiful, yet ecologically vulnerable region.The world has advanced technology and knowledge available as to when some of these disasters are going to happen and where, and to a great extent how to deal with them. Well, we may not be able stop a disaster from happening, but we can very well stop a disaster from becoming a humanitarian crisis.
The tragedy is also an institutional disaster. Before the cloudburst and flash floods wreaked havoc on June 16, the Indian Meteorological Department had warned very heavy rainfall in Rudraprayag, yet the disaster management agencies made little effort to prepare. The lack of coordination in states prone to natural calamities makes quick response in such a situation nearly impossible. India’s most hi-tech communication lab Defence Electronics Application Laboratory (DEAL) is in Dehradun but even after two weeks of the tragedy, the government failed to take assistance of DEAL to establish communication.
While different States announced aid, the authorities in Uttarakhand seemed clueless about how to handle the situation. In several places, food packets dropped by helicopters were swept away in the river. Many choppers returned with the food packets, having found no safe place to drop them.
During natural disasters, and for some time afterwards, the people affected by them usually have millions of questions and are desperate for information. In many cases, they do not understand what has happened, what to do next and whether there is still any danger. These are questions in need of answers.
The local communities remain the first responders, so we need to prepare and equip them for dealing with disasters. The role of local communities, especially children and youth in saving lives during the first few hours after a disaster are critical. Governments often come out with series of relief measures in the wake of a disaster, but this information often doesn’t reach the affected communities.
The role of community radio is tremendous in the natural calamities. The local-dialect community radio stations have been warning residents about cyclones and helping farmers cope with erratic weather patterns. People in the countryside, most of whom are illiterate, can easily understand weather bulletins and other instructions. Community Radio enhances the flood affected population’s access to vital information through the establishment of mobile community radios. Gram Vaani has been operating Relief News lines at different community radio stations of the flood affected regions of Uttrakhand. This is a system for Uttarakhand flood victims where they can just give a miss call for help. As soon as people give miss call on the particular given numbers, they get a call back where they can record their messages.
Gram Vaani’s three phone services in this state are Kumaon Vani (Mukteshwar), Henvalvani (Chamba Valley) and Mandakini Ki Awaz (Rudraprayag).
Community radios have been broadcasting live programmes that inform and sensitize the communities and try to reach all flood-affected families. Having a community radio that meets their information needs helps the affected families and their communities stay up to date on what is happening. Radio also plays a key role in bringing community members together to discuss the issues that affect them.
Community media is championed by many, including international development agencies, as a tier of broadcasting that gives voice to the voiceless and provides an important channel for local development and the enactment of citizenship. State support in terms of adequate legislation and funding, especially in the early stages of the development of community radio in India is clearly the key to the development of effective citizens’ media.
The intensity of the devastation could have been much lesser had there been an effective communication system in place to disseminate weather alert to the masses. The Indian media experience represents a gallery of stark contradictions.
While private radio has made an entry into the Indian broadcast arena, community radio is yet to gain legitimacy from the law of the land.
During the 2004 tsunami, Anna FM was the only CR station in India. About the I&B Secretary’s conviction that CR was an important component of disaster preparedness, Dr Sreedher (then Channel Manager, Anna FM) wrote, “He immediately requested our university to set up a similar community radio station in the Nicobar Islands, which were also badly hit by the tsunami and to train local people there to run the radio.”
This was in 2005. Such is the government of India’s keenness to have a radio based disaster warning system in the Nicobar Islands that the network of CR stations in the archipelago has now grown to approximately zero. How long must they be compelled to remain marginalised voices waiting in the wings? Will any clear-cut answers be forthcoming from Indian government?