At least five Indian states are in the grip of a severe drought. In the last few weeks, television and newspaper pages have been inundated with pictures and reports of cracked and parched land, dying cattle and desperately poor people scrounging for food. Even Chandrababu Naidu's Andhra Pradesh is not making news for its transformation into a tech-savvy state but for the sale of kidneys by its destitute farmers to pay back their loans.
While the tragedy is real and merits all the attention, it almost seems as though the drought is a natural calamity like the cyclone that hit Orissa a few months ago. The drought ought to have been anticipated soon after the monsoons ended with adequate rainfall in several states. Had it been foreseen, rainwater harvesting and distribution of the grain rotting in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India would have started before it turned into a terrible tragedy.
But the media was as much out of touch with rural India -- or to quote farmer leader Sharad Joshi "with Bharat" -- as our politicians. If Members of Parliament, or MPs, elected from rural constituencies interacted with their voters, they would have drawn attention to the problem long ago. But then, MPs only seem to attend Parliament these days to give themselves more perquisites and money.
Increasingly, the press has failed people as much as the neta and the babu. Often they resort to wild exaggeration and hyperbole after a tragedy. The Surat plague (which turned out not to be plague at all) and the coverage of the Latur earthquake in Maharashtra (where the number of deaths were grossly overstated) are two examples.
Am I expecting too much from my own tribe? Could the media not have anticipated the drought? Probably, yes. We hacks may actually have a slight excuse for missing the drought because most mainline national newspapers are shrinking district and rural coverage and few, if any, have agricultural correspondents anymore. City reporting and society gossip is what drives circulation, says a leading national daily.
But city scribes are not doing their job either. Look at the coverage of last week's deluge over Bombay, Pune, Goa and other places. Since Monday (May 15), Bombay, which does not normally experience pre-monsoon rains, experienced fairly heavy showers. No newspaper or even television channel bothered to comment.
On Thursday (May 18), the occasional showers turned into torrential rains and the crazily busy and self-absorbed metropolis slowly came to a grinding halt. Silt-blocked drains that had not been cleared and roads, which have been dug up to keep concreting contractors in business, made Bombay a complete nightmare. Yet, even on Thursday morning, newspaper readers had no clue about what was happening. Had the Weather Bureau missed the onset of the monsoon? Had it cautioned about unseasonal rains and its warnings been ignored?
Television channels have earnest-looking anchors making a song and dance of the weather report, but none felt the need to pick up the possibility of torrential rains into the main news stories or highlight it in the weather section.
On May 16, when the papers had failed to enlighten me for the second day in a row, I turned to the Net. A search of India and weather got me two sites crammed with complex charts and tables that made sense only to weather experts.
I wrote to the site maintained by the National Informatics Centre, or NIC, saying "… how about providing a small 500-word summary for lay persons on what is happening and what to expect in terms of weather. I am writing this on May 16, when Bombay, Pune, Belgaum and Goa were lashed by unseasonal rains… We have no idea about why it is raining and how long it would last…"
I never really expected a reply. Government sites rarely ever respond - not even the Central Vigilance Commission, which invites information. Imagine my surprise when a couple of days later I receive a mail from Dr Brij Bhushan, technical director, NIC. I reproduce his mail:
The rainfall in Maharashtra has occurred due to a low-pressure system in Arabian Sea. This was observed by Joint Typhoon Warning Centre, Pearl Harbour and these reports were available on this system developed by National Informatics Centre at that time. This was not likely to reach intensity of a cyclone as other reports were not indicating the same. But this kind of rain was expected.
Same thing is also happening near Visakhapatanam and already has happened in coastal Orissa.
Further this site is independent of India Meteorological Department. You can get more details from: Shri Shravan Kumar, Deputy Director General of Meteorology, Meteorological office, Colaba, Mumbai (Bombay) who is keeping close watch on the weather systems over Mumbai (Bombay) and neighbouring region. You can contact at another officer located in Pune, which is in-charge of all India weather forecast.
Address is as follows: Dr V Thapliyal Deputy Director General (Weather Forecasting) India Meteorological Department Ganesh Kind Road, Shivaji Nagar, Pune - 411005
(Dr Brij Bhushan) Technical Director, National Informatics Centre."
Dr Bhushan was not responding to a journalist and that makes it heartening. It also establishes, that if information is easily available and willingly given, the media has even less reason not to provide information to readers.
On the other hand, there is a thick silver lining to it all. Clearly the Net, which is the best equaliser, is empowering ordinary individuals to seek the information they want and to be able to get it, without the intermediation of a lackadaisical press. Over time, the speed of response will be that much more and, hopefully, the weather site will actually include a little write-up for lay persons.
A bigger plus is the ability of the Net to pick out individuals willing to respond to reader queries even when most government sites do not bother. Thank you Dr Bhushan, in restoring our faith in government systems.
Here is yet another cause that readers may want to support. Last week, the Maharashtra government transferred out T Chandrashekar, the dynamic Thane Municipal Commissioner, who had transformed the decrepit suburb into a more happening place than Bombay.
Chandrashekar's transfer apparently came after he demolished some unauthorised constructions on the railway station.
I have never met Mr Chandrashekar, but his support base demonstrates that his honest effort to transform the city has won him admirers among ordinary citizens, shopkeepers, rickshaw drivers and others. It is because he combines guts and good intentions with administrative ability and people skills. Also, his work is far from complete - a Light Rail Transport project which he has been pushing needs to get off the ground before he moves.
Unfortunately, it seems as if the public demonstrations and meetings are beginning to fizzle out. Some sections of the people have convinced themselves that the next person will carry on the work started by Chandrashekar. This, however, is not true. Several years ago, Surat and Ahmedabad had equally charismatic municipal chiefs who were booted out by vested interests in government - the momentum of their work was certainly not maintained.
I noticed a Thane city Web site http://www.thanecity.com whose open forum has a flood of letters demanding the reinstatement of Chandrashekar. Those who want to support the people from Thane go to: http://www.thanecity.com/openforum/forum.html