Assam Floods: The Shameful Annual Lack of National Media Coverage

As river water raced towards my family home, I remembered how my parents had duped me all my life.

For a small-town girl living in Northeast India’s Silchar, life was far removed from reality. My folks were naive enough to tell me and my siblings we live in an egalitarian world and that humanity is for one and all. I believed it too. After all we were given the same opportunities, my neighbour treated me as family and everything was divided equally between us (especially the chocolates).

Little did my unassuming parents know then that someday, when our entire state is on the verge of drowning, we would be scooping our essentials up alone. No cameras to capture, no sense of urgency amongst reporters to cover, no celebrities doing groundwork and definitely no big donations for us to recover from the devastating Assam floods. During my boat ride through my locality, which could have easily been mistaken for a murky river, I wondered: what did we even do to deserve this blatant discrimination?

Once the flooding started in the main town, a power outage and water scarcity followed almost immediately. Just like most distressed families, we ran to safety with a few pair of clothes and National Register of Citizens (NRC) documents to prove we are Indians. The irony of this situation made me laugh in my head. But, as was the case with thousands of other displaced lives pacing the streets of Silchar (or whatever was left of it), we had to concoct a plan. My mother and sister rushed to my uncle’s home and I took shelter at my aunt’s place as I still needed to work.

This trip home from Delhi was to spend quality time with my family. Mother Nature couldn’t care less.

From tall buildings to the local mall, from the rich to the famous, from every street and dingy lanes to posh neighbourhoods and impoverished localities, anything that exists in some concrete form was under water. Those who could afford to hire generators from overwhelmed tent wallahs, did so for 30 minutes to an hour each day. Others tied their hopes to burning candles and flickering lamps. With our phones and laptops close to conking out, some of us dared to think it would be different this time around — that they will care.

So I sought help from the press, and some of my fellow Silcharians made desperate pleas on social media. Mostly what I got was lip service. “Oh, yes yes I will try (sic).” Another cared just enough to not come off as not caring, saying, “I will try to get this done.” Or something along those lines. Tired, I decided to take matters into my own hands. When a news channel agreed to run a potential broadcast story, I ventured out to evaluate the situation. I was hapless, and felt death from close proximity.

What was once beaming and beautiful had now been reduced to mere skulls and bones. The ground floors of most of the buildings I saw were under water or had just started to re-emerge. Lanes were submerged in dirty river water that has been stagnant for weeks, people were carrying bundles of stinky clothes. With water receding at a tepid rate, while reporting, I saw a bloated dead body float. And once you see that in your lifetime, you cannot unsee it.

A neighbour I had a chance encounter with told me a 24-year-old drowned somewhere nearby. Another childhood friend told me about two men who had been sitting on a wall as river water ravaged the town, to help them reach home in exchange for Rs 5,000. They did not have the money, he did not have the means.

One incident in particular left me sobbing in secret. When I asked a man cleaning his sofa set, which was in a deplorable state, for a video byte, he replied, “Is that going to bring my home back? Will anyone help me?”

I left without a word.

The most heartbreaking aspect of this year’s flood, which elders of our community insist is by far the worst, is how it yet again failed to evoke emotions in our fellow Indians. One agency copy, copy-pasted and shared by all the media houses, surely does not qualify as reporting on the Assam floods.

But I don’t think the people of Silchar — read all of Northeast India — are disappointed any more, they are used to being ignored. No climate-change influencers lectured anyone about the need to plant more trees or even how climate change is real, very few celebrities talked about the natural calamity, and don’t even get me started on politicians. At a time when over five million people in Assam were displaced and 150-odd lives were lost, the biggest news coming out of the Northeast was that of the ‘rebel MLAs’.

Five million helpless souls against 12 people with A-class facilities at their disposal. Please do the math.

Bollywood and the rest of India mourned the loss of those affected by the Maharashtra floods, politicians and the rest of the world stood by New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh during the second wave of COVID-19 in India. Who, then again, was to stick up for Assam? And, who do you think is responsible for the non-solidarity policy against the state?

I think the bigger question that you need to ask yourself is, why? Is it because we do not meet the criteria to be labelled as conventionally fancy? Is it because raging over #AssamFloods is not quite the rage on social media? Over the years, Assam —and some other Seven Sister states — have been experiencing massive floods, but you, my friend, have never bothered to bother.

I cannot help but quote what Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini’s Hassan says to Amir in The Kite Runner: “For you, a thousand times over.”

All of India needs to imbibe that sentiment.

Pallabi Purkayastha is an entertainment reporter and film critic with the Bombay Times.

All images have been provided by the author.