Monday, May 4, 2015

“It takes a while to come back from seeing so much death and destruction…”

Sikkim’s KARMA PALJOR, a senior correspondent at CNN-IBN, is part of an 18-strong team of his news channel covering the tragedy in Nepal. In an interview conducted over email, he speaks to NOW! about what reporting about Nepal’s Big One has been like, what challenges they overcame to tell the story and what the toll has been. Excerpts:

NOW: From what we have seen on TV thus far, CNN-IBN appears to be the news channel to have deployed the largest contingent to cover the earthquake and has also devoted the most airtime to continuing reportage from the ground. What is the scale of your news channels engagement in covering this story? And what convinced it to do so?
KARMA PALJOR: It was a human disaster of epic proportions. The numbers of the dead and missing are still coming in and we had to deploy the best and the closest available resources to cover this event. Our team from Patna entered Nepal two hours after the quake hit. It was also a coincidence that the entire team was travelling to Purnia for a different story. We always deploy to the fullest whenever there is a natural disaster, we did so in Uttrakhand, Kashmir and even in Orissa. We believe we have a team capable and good at covering such stories and have always proudly lead from the front. For Nepal we had a team of over 18 people covering the Earthquake- the highest deployment in and around Katmandu.
We also put our Calcutta team in Gorkha [district of Nepal]. They travelled from Kakarvitta border. We look at the scale of disaster, but I guess the India involvement is also key. The disaster happened to a country we are allies with, so movement of people was not difficult. Covering such disasters in Pakistan or Afghanistan would have been very difficult.

Natural disasters are understandably not easy events to report about, taking a physical as well as emotional toll on reporters. Could you share the challenges - logistical, physical and emotional - faced by you and your crew in reporting from Nepal?

We deployed immediately after the quake hit. I was anchoring the show then and as I was on air, my logistics team was putting together the strategy in place. As I came out of the studio, I had my plan, tickets everything in hand. When we reached Kathmandu, the first challenge was finding transport into the city - cabs were asking rates which were 1000% more than the normal rates.
We were uncertain of finding a hotel as the entire city had moved into tents. Finally we did manage a hotel and we had been out since 4 a.m. There is usually little to eat depending on where you are - I usually pack in a few protein bars, water purifier tablets and biscuits and I am glad I did it for this assignment. For the first two days we got very little to eat. On the third day, our hotel started a small basic breakfast buffet that's when we realised that things were indeed becoming normal again. The hotel we were staying in was also damaged but we were too tired to realise it.
Finding transport was the most difficult thing. Every day we struggled until the phones started working and there was electricity. Some of our old friends from Sikkim pitched in. My school mate Tenzing Norbu drove us around to do some stories. To reach the worst effected district, I got in touch with my good friend from my mountain guiding days Hiren Gurung, he got me in touch with his cousin Milan Gurung and his wife Dipshikha. They drove us all the way about 100 kms to the worst-affected districts.
Most of us have become immune to seeing dead bodies, but every now and then a moment touches us deeply. At a field hospital where a little boy was consoling his mother who had a very deep head injury had me in tears. It takes a while to come back from seeing death and destruction, death and destruction - village after village and you can do nothing but report! Helplessness and you are overwhelmed by all the suffering! I don’t think we think of ourselves when we enter a zone like this; for the first few days it’s just about running after stories and nothing else.

You clearly have the benefit of being fluent in Nepali and understanding the cultural nuances of the people. Has that helped in making your coverage more effective?

Yes knowing the language always helps. I always take one member in the team who is fluent in the language of the place and knows the area. It does help greatly if you are parachuting into a region you know little about. It’s not a feature story where you get to plan and work your way around. When you are covering a disaster, you are just thrown into the water and you have to start swimming, if you don’t know how to, you need a life jacket and that’s what language and knowing the culture of the region is.

When you arrive at a situation like Nepal, what is it that you hope to achieve through the stories you convey to you audience? Do you think you have been successful in achieving your set goals?

As a team, we have been successful and with the resources of our global sister network CNN, we have been greatly successful. For me, it’s important to report on the ground situation, reaching and being an independent observer gives a clear picture to the world. When teams reach they bring out the reality minus the rumours, but in this day and age of smartphones and 3G connectivity, it is slowly changing. Still, people prefer and trust the journalist… for how long, we don’t know? In Uttrakhand, especially Badrinath, the DM used data provided by us as an independent assessment to plan the number of sorties and relief work. Agencies also get a picture and it helps them focus. It is essentially the power of information that drives forward planning. If victims are being ignored or left out, we usually are the only voice; but sometimes, a small lobby can hijack all the attention and that is something we look out for.

You covered the Sikkim earthquake in 2011 and are now in Nepal. The Nepal Quake is clearly much more severe and much more destructive, but if asked, how would you say, the two situations compare for you?

This was far greater in scale and the number of casualties and also spread across a very wide area. For us, the logistics were a challenge - no transport, little support from the government or the army. We were on our own in most of the regions, the Indian Army and Air Force helped some teams tell the story.

Given your first-hand experience of two earthquakes in hill regions, what improvements do you think need to be made in disaster response protocols, what challenges need to be overcome, and what lessons need to be learned?

There is a lot that needs to be done for a quake above 7 on the Richter Scale. Gangtok, with its packed buildings, is like a time bomb. It’s scary when I think about it. Earthquakes never kill people but collapsing buildings and avalanches following it will do. For a small state like Sikkim, we need to put a drill in place like the Japanese have. We have to start thinking of small homes shelters if indeed we are to plan in the future. District wise disaster relief teams comprising of the govt, NGO’s and public need to be set up, communication lines need to be checked every now and then. Disaster drills go a long way in preparing the public. Kathmandu still had open fields for people to take shelter, do we? Governments can only do so much. It’s upto the people to think and plan for a secure future. Running scared and posting “earthquake!!” on FB every now and then is certainly not an answer.

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