An Assamese proverb roughly translates as: A ginger trader does not need to know about ships.
The north-east, specifically Assam and Meghalaya, supplies the bulk of the ginger in Delhi’s mandis. So, do traders — and their clients — need to know what it takes to get their ginger, or should they only catch a glimpse of the bloodbath when it delays consignments?
Ginger or no ginger, the north-east is seldom considered newsworthy.
Even disasters in other relatively remote regions such as Kashmir — regions also described in most newsrooms as lacking real ‘relevance’ for the metro reader — are considered sexier than those in the north-east. Why is that?
“The north-east will always remain a periphery. It needs bombs and blood and dead bodies to make news,” says Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times.
Then again, she adds, the Kashmir floods were the worst in 50 years and “it is important for the Modi government focus on that election-bound state”.
According to Shillong-based former bureaucrat Toki Blah, the media have their own priorities and at any given time “their attention is on something more exciting happening somewhere else”.
Samudra Gupta Kashyap, the north-east representative of The Indian Express, adds that floods in Assam are quite a regular occurrence. “Even then we give adequate space, sometimes with more variety and insight than local dailies,” he says.
His counterpart at another major daily feels logistical constraints and failures of the government machinery in disseminating information in time dissuade proper coverage.
Communication gap is a factor, admits former Assam chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. “But most so-called national media have become regional entities catering to specific areas. Some leading brands have north-east editions, but the news generated here is rarely picked up by the parent editions. Television news channels are perhaps even more indifferent; many have wound up their bureaus in the region and rely on local part-timers for the occasional video feed,” he says.
A geographically disadvantaged region prone to influx and insurgency — both crucial issues of internal security — should not be weighed in terms of TRPs or returns on the investments on newsgathering infrastructure, says Dilip Chandan, editor of Assamese periodical Asom Bani.
“Captains of mainstream media are part of the mainstream society that has always had this exclusionary mindset about the region. The north-east is a complicated region even for locals to understand, and many media houses do it a disservice by parachuting in journalists with tunnel vision,” he adds.
Former Meghalaya minister Manas Chaudhuri blames it all on the Chicken’s Neck or narrow Siliguri Corridor (West Bengal) that connects the north-east with the ‘mainland’.
“The heartland has very little time for the north-east. The region is hardly ever on the radar of planners and politicians — or the media,” he says. “Besides, news is no longer called news. It’s all about stories. And a relatively peaceful north-east is, in that sense, no longer producing stories that interest the national media houses.”