Analysis Scicomm

A tale of two myopias, climate change and the present participle

The Assam floods are going on. One day, they will stop. The water will subside in many parts of the state but the things that caused the floods will continue to work, ceaselessly, and will cause them to occur again next year, and the year after and so on for the foreseeable future.

Journalists, politicians and even civil society members have become adept at seeing the floods in space. Every year, as if on cue, there have been reports on the cusp of summer of floodwaters inundating many districts in the state, including those containing and surrounding the Kaziranga national park; displacing lakhs of people and killing hundreds; destroying home, crop, cattle and soil; encouraging the spread of diseases; eroding banks and shores; and prompting political leaders to promise all the help that they can muster for the affected people. But the usefulness of the spatial cognition of the Assam floods has run its course.

Instead, now, we need to inculcate a temporal cognition, whether this alone or a spatio-temporal one. The reason is that more than the floods themselves, we are currently submerged by the effects of two myopias, like two rocks tied around our necks that are dragging us to the bottom. The first one is sustained by the members of our political class, such as Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma and Union home minister Amit Shah, when they say that they will avail all the support and restitution to displaced people and the relatives of those killed directly or indirectly by the floods.

The floods are not the product of climate change but of mindless infrastructure ‘development’, the construction of dikes and embankments, encroachment of wetlands and plains, destruction of forests and the over-extraction resources and its consequences. A flood happens when the water levels rise, but destruction is the result of objects of human value being in the waters’ way. More and more human property is being located in places where the water used to go, and more and more human property is being rendered vulnerable to being washed away.

When political leaders offer support to the people after every flood (which is the norm), it is akin to saying, “I will shoot you with a gun and then I will pay for your care.” Offering people support is not helpful, at least not when it stops there, followed by silence. Everyone – from parliamentary committees to civil society members – should follow the utterances of Shah, Sarma & co. (both BJP and non-BJP leaders, including those of the Congress, CPI(M), DMK, TMC, etc.) through time, acknowledge the seasonality of their proclamations, and bring them to book for failing to prevent the floods from occurring every year, instead of giving them brownie points for providing support on each occasion post facto.

The second myopia exists on the part of many journalists, especially in the Indian mainstream press, and their attitude towards cyclones, which can be easily and faithfully extrapolated to floods as well. Every year for the last two decades at least, there has been a cyclone or two that ravaged two states in particular: Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal (the list included Odisha but it has done well to mitigate the consequences). And on every occasion plus some time, reports have appeared in newspapers and magazines of fisherpeople in dire straits with their boats broken, nets torn and stomachs empty; of coastal properties laid to waste; and, soon after, of fuel and power subsidies, loan waivers and – if you wait long enough – sobering stories of younger fishers migrating to other parts of the country looking for other jobs.

These stories are all important and necessary – but they are not sufficient. We also need stories about something new – stories that are mindful of the passage of time, of people growing old, the rupee becoming less valuable, the land becoming more recalcitrant, and of the world itself passing them all by. We need the present participle.

This is not a plea for media houses to commoditise tragedy and trade in interestingness but a plea to consider that these stories miss something: the first myopia, the one that our political leaders espouse. By keeping the focus on problem X, we also keep the focus on the solutions for X. Now ask yourself what X might be if all the stories appearing in the mainstream press are about post-disaster events, and thus which solutions – or, indeed, points of accountability – we tend to focus on to the exclusion of others. We also need stories – ranging in type from staff reports to reported features, from hyperlocal dispatches to literary essays – of everything that has happened in the aftermath of a cyclone making landfall near, say, Nellore or North 24 Parganas, whether things have got better or worse with time, whether politicians have kept their promises to ameliorate the conditions of the people there (especially those not living inside concrete structures and/or whose livelihoods depends directly on natural resources); and whether by restricting ourselves to supporting a people after a storm or a flood has wreaked havoc, we are actually dooming them.

We need timewise data and we need timewise first-hand accounts. To adapt the wisdom of Philip Warren Anderson, we may know how a shrinking wetland may exacerbate the intensity of the next flood, but we cannot ever derive from this relationship knowledge of the specific ways in which people, and then the country, suffer, diminish and fade away.

The persistence of these two myopias also feeds the bane of incrementalism. By definition, incremental events occur orders of magnitude more often than significant events (so to speak), so it is more efficient to evolve to monitor and record the former. This applies as much to our memories as it does to the economics of newsrooms. We tend to get caught up in the day-to-day and are capable within weeks of forgetting something that happened last year; unscrupulous politicians play to this gallery by lying through their teeth about something happening when it didn’t (or vice versa), offending the memories of all those who have died because of a storm or a flood and yet others who survive but on the brink of tragedy. On the other hand, newsrooms are staffed with more journalists attuned to the small details but not implicitly able to piece all of them together into the politically and economically inconvenient big picture (there are exceptions, of course).

I am not sure when we entered the crisis period of climate change but in mid-2022, it is a trivial fact that we are in the thick of it – the thick of a beast that assails us both in space and through time. In response, we must change the way we cognise disasters. The Assam floods are ongoing – and so are the Kosithe Sabarmati and the Cauvery floods. We just haven’t seen the waters go wild yet.