I spent several days this week, wading through waist-deep water along the highways of India's West Bengal state. That's right, wading. For as viewers of BBC television will know, it's flood season again in Eastern India and Bangladesh. That phrase, "flood season", is one that I often use with cynicism when my colleagues at the BBC in London call to ask me about reports of dozens of people dead or thousands displaced in the low-lying regions of South Asia.
"Oh it happens every year," goes the refrain in a cynical tone."Too much monsoon rain and you have a flood." Usually I lose the argument and go forth grumbling into the flooded areas to report for my bosses at the BBC. I used to talk about something called "Natural Disaster Television", a channel given over to storms, fires, floods, earthquakes and calamities in general. Fellow journalists chuckled over such an idea, and made spurious offers of seed capital to start up the service. My friends and colleagues in the humanitarian aid business were probably appalled by such merr-iment at the expense of the suffering masses, and I don't blame them.
I suppose my cynicism, unforgivable really, came from the limited ways in which one can cover such events for the mainstream media, especially TV news. The dash to the scene of devastation often makes the reporter seem a hero, bearing relief for the hungry, unhealthy and deprived. In reality, all we can ever offer those whose misery we cover is a few minutes of airtime that might help international agencies raise money. Recently, I started to take a holistic view, if you like, of natural disasters and the relationship with poverty.
Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but it seems to me that the biggest disaster of all doesn't come from the sky, the sea or the earth, but from poverty. And that's an invention of the human race. When an earthquake hits Kobe, Japan, or California, lives and livelihoods are indeed devastated. But revisit the scene a few months down the line, and people are restoring normalcy - often on their own without much government help, using savings, insurance money and community spirit to rebuild. Poverty denies people many of those things. A marginal life without savings can end with the simple flooding of a subsistence crop, or the loss of cattle in a big storm. Families become beggars or day labourers, orphaned children enter prostitution. Communities cease to exist. What's the bigger disaster? Certainly not the one I'm covering with my sonorous
tones and my face in front of a flooded village. I'm accused on occasion, and rightly, of flippancy. But I am deadly serious in proposing "The Poverty Channel". Change the name if you like,but let it flourish. How else can we afflict the comfortable of this world with the challenges that surround them. I'm not suggesting an endless stream of tele-visual images of malnourished children with bulging bellies, or the hungry waiting for handouts in sub-Saharan Africa. We cover acute crises well enough already.What we rarely do is look at the aftermath, ways of preventing them, and success stories. There are some out there. The Poverty Channel would be given over to a mix of negative and positive. We need to show that some things work if not brilliantly and consistently, then occasionally. Micro-credit, local democracy, simple health and education reforms, encouraging women to play a fuller role, reforming police, curbing corruption, the list is endless and there are good and bad things to say about each item.
I'm not starry-eyed about the effects of television on bad situations. Too often it comes across as a way of underlining just how good the middle
classes of the world have it. But can it hurt to show that people can improve their lives, along with vivid illustrations of their problems? Can it hurt to show the poor as people, not just statistics, victims and illustrations of political points? Ideas and emails, and seed capital, all welcome.