Narmada: planted news vs genuine reportage

IN Media Practice | 13/09/2008
The tenor of the news story went on to present the speculative conjecture of ‘an official’ as if it were a fait accompli.
HIMANSHU UPADHYAYA asks whether the emotive appeal of Narmada in Gujarat determines the way a story is presented.

On 27th August, a news story appeared on the Times of India’s Ahmedabad edition with a headline, ‘NCA okays building piers on Narmada Dam’ (can view online here. The news indicated that the source of the news was ‘an official’ rather than an official press release or press conference. The news claimed that ‘at a meeting held in Delhi earlier this month, the NCA (Narmada Control Authority) cleared decks for building piers and overhead bridge’ but swiftly added in the next line, ‘but this would happen only after clearance from NCA’s two sub groups: for environment and for resettlement and rehabilitation’.

 

The tenor of the news story went on to present speculative conjecture of ‘an official’ [read: source] as if they were a fait accompli. For instance, "Officials now expect the work for constructing 31 piers and overhead bridge to start by November. ‘In between we would get NCA permission and start inserting radial gates…’, an official said."

 

Further it sought to represent constitution of an independent committee of experts – as per an official memorandum from Union ministry of Environment and Forests dated July 09, 2008 a copy of which is on the file with the author/ The Hoot – as if ensuing from lobbying by ‘environmental lobby’. It would be fair to note here that as per an official memorandum, this independent committee of experts headed by Dr Devendra Pandey was asked to undertake an assessment work relating to mitigation of impacts generated by raising of piers and overhead bridge of the Sardar Sarovar Project, following a decision taken at 46th meeting of Environmental Sub Group of NCA. From when did The Times of India start endorsing a Gujarat official’s view to regard Ministry of Environment and Forests or Environment Sub Group of NCA as ‘environmental lobby’?

 

However ‘an official’ eagerly sharing news with the Times of India went on pushing more conjectures, as if they were a ‘fait accompli’. For instance, "As for the Pandey committee, officials said after Gujarat strongly protested against its formation, its new role would be decided at the NCA¿s next environmental subgroup meeting next month. ‘It can go ahead with doing studies on environment, but its reports will have no bearing on raising the dam¿s height further,’ a senior official said."

 

The very next day, a news story appeared in The Hindu, with a headline, Narmada authority no to raising dam height (can view online here: http://www.thehindu.com/2008/08/28/stories/2008082861521200.htm). The news reported that ‘the NCA in its meeting chaired by Water Resources Secretary, U N Panjiyar decided that no permission would be given until Rehabilitation and Resettlement sub group and the Environmental sub group were consulted’. Quite in contrast with the tenor of the news story in The Times of India that had claimed that "the NCA took the decision setting aside the environmental lobby’s view that there would be an additional submergence," the news story in The Hindu stated that "The NCA overruled the submissions of the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) for construction of the piers and the gates even while project affected families in the basin States are yet to be rehabilitated".

 

Rather than reporting conjectures from ‘official/s’ about meetings scheduled to take place at future dates and yet to be taken decisions as if they were ‘fait accompli’, the news story in the Hindu just reported that "The State governments of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra were asked to submit Action Taken Reports (ATRs) on the rehabilitation and resettlement of dam affected people. They were also advised to consult the Grievance Redressal Agency in each State."

 

When one reads both the news stories side by side, one is faced with a question: which one appear to represent the semblance of what transpired at NCA meeting earlier this month. However, one doesn’t have to be a seasoned media analyst or a journalist with a water resource ministry beat to find that out. Even if one is curious enough observer scanning news on this controversial dam, one would find out that the tenor displayed by The Times of India news story was simply unwarranted. Especially, given the fact that just five days ago, on August 21st pronouncing an order on a petition, the Jabalpur bench of Madhya Pradesh High Court sought to probe charges of corruption in the resettlement and rehabilitation of project affected people displaced by Sardar Sarovar Dam in Madhya Pradesh and still The Times of India news story preferred to conclude by stating, "asked if R&R issues in Madhya Pradesh would in any way come in the way of building the dam, an official said, ‘al R&R work is complete up for FRL 138.68 metres. There is nothing to worry. It requires only formal nod from the NCA¿s R&R subgroup after grievances redressal authorities (GRAs) of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.’

 

To present such an over zealous claim by ‘an offical’, even as PTI correspondent as well as UNI correspondent in Jabalpur had covered the MP High Court order on August and the news agencies in turn had carried the news in its August 21st evening dispatch (can vie online here: http://news.indiainfo.com/2008/08/21/0808212009_hc-nba.html and here http://www.indlawnews.com/Newsdisplay.aspx?uid=bff2e215-607c-4899-8d27-6bf70d647b2e&type=2) is quite unfortunate. But what is even more unfortunate is the fact that news on this significant order by High Court, although flashed by two news agencies of repute was ignored by newspapers from getting coverage that it rightfully deserved.

 

Is the media so fatigued by this prolonged controversy that it doesn’t find it worthwhile to ascertain the claims made by version of ‘an official’ [read: source]? Or does the Narmada issue and its emotive appeal in Gujarat predetermine the stylistic and editorial cuts in such a way that ‘an official’s version’ is zealously embraced, putting aside all the qualms about verifying the truth?

 

 

The author work with Environics Trust and has a keen interest in media coverage of environmental issues.

See also: Overflowing with the official view, India Together, 18th August 2005, http://www.indiatogether.org/2005/aug/med-overflow.htm

 

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