The bay of Bengal Sea's eastern coast town is seen aftermath of the cyclone Fani , 65 km away from the eastern Indian state Odisha's capital city Bhubaneswar, on 7 May 2019. (Photo by STR/NurPhoto)

Cyclone Fani hit the eastern coast of India on May 3, leaving behind a trail of destruction.

The state of Odisha, which was the epicenter, has palpably been the most affected. At the time of writing, the death toll has been pegged at 41. It has been estimated that there has been US$1.7 billion worth of damage to infrastructure.

It will no doubt take a lot of time and effort for the state to recover from this disaster of epic proportions, but what it can definitely benefit from is a responsible role played by the media.

Alas, it is not the case.

The cyclone was equivalent to a Category-4 hurricane and was the worst to hit India in two decades, yet the media coverage of the same left a lot to be desired. What should have been a big news story – the state government’s mammoth task of evacuation and rehabilitation has been acknowledged in various quarters – has been consigned to the backburner as the fourth estate in India is busy covering politics, cinema and cricket, the three things that ensure maximum readership, page views and target rating points – in no particular order.

Even as Odisha makes an attempt to rehabilitate and restore normalcy, a majority of the national media is conspicuous by its absence.

It was only days before the catastrophe that the entire national media was based in the state capital and scattered in the hinterland, doing the mandatory coverage related to the 2019 Indian general elections.

In fact, a veteran journalist, who was among the select few to get a chance to interview the state’s chief minister ahead of the polls, confessed (during the interview itself) to having difficulty eliciting a substantial response from a subject who preferred answering in monosyllables. He nonetheless got to interact with an excited bunch of aspiring media professionals, complained about the excessive heat and, based on a few day’s stay, even passed a judgment – declaring the state’s cuisine was second best to that of its neighbor. It is no coincidence that the gentleman’s better half hails from that neighboring state.

However, neither the gentleman nor the organization he represents can be credited with showing interest in providing commendable coverage of the disaster that followed.

Unfortunately for Odisha, the cyclone struck after voting was over.

“It will take a lot of time for the state to stand on its feet again. Had the cyclone happened when voting was still on, the media would have been forced to report, and even otherwise things would have happened at a much faster pace,” explains Dr Bibhuti Bhushan, a Bhubaneswar-based psephologist and political analyst.

As things stand, the national media hasn’t bothered to ensure proper coverage and the few that are present are busy doing negative stories, a glorification of the misery so to speak.

Images of the damaged airport, railway stations, fallen trees on roads, etc have been splashed across the board while stories about a delay in the restoration of the water supply, and electricity and transportation facilities abound.

What else does the media expect in a cyclone-affected area? Restoration work to happen overnight?

It is not as if there’s a dearth of positive news… stories of hope and resilience.

The Odisha government’s efforts to initially alert and subsequently evacuate more than 1.2 million people to temporary shelters before the cyclone made a landfall (May 3) drew praise from various quarters, as did its efforts to ensure sufficiency of food, drinking water, medicines and other essentials ahead of the impending disaster.

The United Nations’ Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (ODRR) complimented the government’s “zero-casualty” policy and overall preparedness.

“They seem to have done a very good job in terms of minimizing the possibility for loss of life,” Denis McClean, a spokesperson for the ODRR, said at a UN news briefing in Geneva, Switzerland.

Three days after the cyclone struck, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, carried out an aerial survey and thereafter complimented Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s handling of the disaster.

“Naveen babu’s planning was excellent,” PM Modi told reporters. “In the middle of a busy election schedule, everyone concerned prioritized this [cyclone]… I must congratulate the state government, the authorities and those involved in evacuations. The work done is commendable.

“This time the people of Odisha have shown the entire country how to act during an emergency such as a cyclone.”

The chief minister subsequently donated his annual salary to the chief minister’s relief fund to support rehabilitation and restoration work.

However, amid this plethora of positive stories the correspondents from the national media are busy highlighting the widespread destruction caused in the wake of the cyclone, the delay in reinstating the telecommunications infrastructure, the administration’s struggles in the affected areas and the inhabitants grappling with power cuts and water shortages. A nice strategy to enliven the prevailing despondency, pun entirely intended.

Media apathy isn’t entirely a new phenomenon for Odisha.

Truth be told, the state represents a perennial negative story for the national media. As such, while the poverty, corruption, mining thefts and other negative stories associated with Odisha get ample coverage in mainstream media, any positive occurrence in the culturally rich state is either entirely brushed under the carpet or given negligible bandwidth, the blink-and-you-miss kind.

While the poverty, corruption, mining thefts and other negative stories associated with Odisha get ample coverage in mainstream media, any positive occurrence in the culturally rich state is either entirely brushed under the carpet or given negligible bandwidth, the blink-and-you-miss kind

Not surprisingly the trail of destruction left behind by the super-cyclonic storm BOB06 or 05B, dubbed the Super Cyclone, that caused more than 10,000 deaths in 1999 received widespread publicity. The under-preparedness of the state government, the lack of adequate facilities, the ever-increasing death toll and a delay in relief operations were highlighted on a regular basis.

However, the same media fell into a slumber in 2013 when a proactive state government successfully evacuated a million people from risk-prone places to safer areas before Cyclone Phailin hit the state, with the death count limited to just 21.

For that matter, when the cyclonic storm Hudhud hit the state a year later (in 2014), so prepared was the Odisha government – there were only two casualties reported – that it not only ensured the total safety of its citizens but also significantly helped out its seriously affected – and largely under-prepared – neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh.

That Odisha had learned from its previous failure and set an example was seldom discussed in the media.

It took recognition from the topmost international body to bring this positive story to the forefront.

In August 2015, the United Nations recognized the Odisha government’s handling of cyclone Phailin, while felicitating Chief Minister Patnaik by presenting a citation.

In fact, Odisha was the first in South Asia to be recognized by the UN. The international body has since documented and highlighted the state’s efforts as a model for disaster management programs globally.

“Odisha has learned lessons from the 1999 super-cyclone and today it is a global leader in disaster management and risk reduction,” declared Margareta Wahlstrom, UN special representative of the secretary-general for disaster risk reduction.

Not even a handful in a country of 1.3 billion people would be aware that the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) – the first disaster management authority center in India – was established in 1999, two years before the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was constituted in 2001, and much before the Disaster Management Act was passed in 2005. It is not surprising that this fact has hardly been reported in mainstream media.

Likewise, while eminent international publications like The New York Times, BBC, etc appreciate Odisha’s efforts at disaster management and rehabilitation post-Cyclone Fani, a majority of the Indian media remains apathetic.

In fact, the “few” positive stories in the national media happen to be derivatives of those featured in the international media. In simple terms, it is not the proactive but the reactive kind, the fourth estate behaving in a similar manner to the country it is based in.

The local media, to its credit, has been doing a far better job informing the people of the latest developments from ground zero. However, its limited reach means it cannot make a widespread impact.

For a state so disaster-prone Odisha has historically got little in terms of help from the central government. The assistance from the Center is a pittance in comparison to the extent of damage caused, forcing the state government to fend for itself. The fact that the ruling coalition at the Center and the ruling party in the state has mostly been different has more often than not worked against Odisha.

Consequently, none of the aforementioned natural calamities have been declared national disasters, and the state government’s repeated demands for a special category status – implying central assistance and tax breaks given to states historically disadvantaged (difficult terrain, sizeable tribal population, risky location, infrastructural backwardness, etc) in contrast to others, have thus far fallen on deaf ears.

The double standards ingrained in the Indian psyche may stop short of admitting it, but a “state bias” does exist, not only in the Indian polity but also in the national media.

Suffice to say a handful of states with bloated populations, such as Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, get more attention from both the leaders and the media, owing to the fact that they elect more members to the Lok Sabha – the lower house of the Indian Parliament.

Odisha, with just 21 representatives in parliament (of 545), is palpably at the receiving end.

The other states that hog the limelight are the ones that have marketed themselves well, the likes of Gujarat, Kerala and Punjab. Odisha doesn’t score well on that count either.

In such a scenario a more positive attitude from the national media would have at least helped highlight the significant efforts put forth by the state government.

However, a perennially negative attitude means the media is less interested in showing the good part, instead turning its focus on the not so favorable aspects.

The scenario remains the same in the aftermath of Cyclone Fani. Odisha’s positive story continues to shine despite the negative mindset of the media.

An alumnus of East-West Center, India-based Bikash Mohapatra has been an integrated communication specialist, a strategist, a consultant and a media professional. On top of that varied experience, he believes that 15 years of travel has taught him more than his two master's degrees.

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