Trying to get news of India via social media is an impossible experience. While you’re in the thick of it in India, you get the context and can separate the anger from the sneering and the appreciation from the grovelling. But from far away, you’re lost in a kind of absurd time-space warp and there never was a truer word than warp in this context. The Uttarakhand disaster was bad enough when I left but now it seems like an impossible mountain to
What I have gathered so far goes from the ridiculous to the admirable. What truth is there in the reports that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi displayed his managerial skills and rescued 15,000 Gujaratis from Uttarakhand? Is this news even true? Were only Gujaratis rescued? How was their regional ethnicity determined in heavy rains with a constant threat of landslides? Were people from other parts of India and the world herded to one side as they were screaming to be rescued? Or was this report a publicity exercise gone wrong? Social media tells me one side and not the other.
I have also gathered that Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi went to Uttarakhand as well but did not apparently get away with some exciting Hollywood movie escape plan for part-Kashmiri part-Parsi part-Italian people who may have been in Uttarakhand. However, he did get stranded there, so social media is agog with speculation about how he has to be rescued and waste more time and resources.
I also gathered that Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde asked important people to stay away from Uttarakhand as they would hamper rescue efforts. But obviously if you are a very important personage you cannot possibly pay attention to what ministers say or to practicality. This is the oldest Must-Ignore by very important Indian people who just cannot miss a photo opportunity that is connected to other people’s sufferings. But there is a twist to this problem as well. If some very important people don’t go to the calamity spot, half the people hate them. If they go, then the other half hate them. So it all equalises in the end.
The other thread is that of the military and paramilitary forces involved in search and rescue and the great job that they’re doing. This seems more or less positive as far as the social media is concerned or at any rate, there isn’t much hate and venting. (Luckily for me I am far away from Indian television news which means I am spared the nightly hysterics.)
But there are some issues which I don’t see being discussed. For instance, the monsoon comes to India around the same time every year. Why should people be on pilgrimages at that time? If the sea in Maharashtra and Goa — for instance — becomes forbidden for travel from the end of May, then why not stop visitors to the mountains as well?
There is one problem which has to do with enormous tourist traffic and its consequences on local facilities and on the local ecology. But what about the people who live in these treacherous areas? I have some connections with Uttarakhand and it’s not as if they don’t have disasters which do not involve tourists and thus get international attention? As usual, India’s disaster management barely exists except on paper. We learn nothing from the past and one can tragically be sure that we will learn nothing from this either. Ritualised breast-beating is our most consistent response at times like this.
And in keeping with political one-upmanship vital in times of crisis, Uddhav Thackeray castigates Modi for his alleged “Gujaratis only” rescue but then doesn’t miss a chance to slip in a “Maharashtrians are better” line.
I refuse to bore myself and the rest of us with sentiments about “being Indian together” and such. Maybe we have just proved how small we all are in times like this?
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona