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Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum

Rumours, perceptions and technology.

Posted By: R. Sudarshana
Date: Tuesday, 8 June 1999, at 9:23 a.m.

In Response To: Perception of disasters. (Gillian Cambers)

You have made some very careful observations. Thanks for the attention. I would right away answer your questions.

1. MISCHIEVOUS RUMOUR: Yes indeed, the rumour was mischievous. But the roots are not as simple as you thought. In fact, May 8 was predicted as 'Doomsday' in India. Being a poor and lowly literate population, the average rural Indian is influenced by rumours easily. Hence, this kind of game goes on in this country every year for various reasons. May 8 was first publicised in some not so popular newspapers as the day for 'PRALAY' which in Hindi means deluge. The north Indian hill states interpreted this as a day for a disastrous earthquake. South Indian coastal states interpreted this as a day for huge cyclones. River valley areas interpreted this as a day for floods. It was nationally and notionally accepted by the average Indian as a day of disaster and destruction. Panic gripped the rural population while the urbanites were amused. But the rumour gripped the entire nation. It worked well also since the nation had just recovered from a huge earthquake and a big cyclone in the beginning of the year. For that matter, disasters happen every second month here and hence disbelieving rumours at the village level could be very difficult.

Two reasons were attributed for this. Firstly, the Government has been politically weak for a couple of months and it is widely guessed that the ruling party may have initiated the rumour for the purpose of diverting people's attention from their dismal performance. The Government neither confirmed the rumour nor denied it. In some places where the ruling party is weak, the local party workers were seen engaged in manoeuvres of relief operation in order to be seen as saviours in the minds of voters.

Secondly, it is also argued that some small time newspapers started this rumour in order to increase their sales. Once it was spread, there was no stopping it. But no one, including the Government, consciously attempted to deny the rumours and assure the people of security.

In a country as large and complex as this, true reasons will never be known. Everyone forgets these things very soon but will start believing a new one when it emerges. There are many instances like this that we know of.

2. SATELLITE DATA RELAY: Well, you may be partially right at that. Village elders or community elders could render some good service. But we have tried satellite data relay to the fishermen around the country for fisheries forecasting and it has worked to a large extent. It requires a lot of money, but we have a national mission on fishery. It should have worked here also to show INSAT, NOAA and such other data and interpret these to those in the labour camps in the affected regions. We could not have done it in the case of an earthquake, but definitely it was possible in the case of cyclones. Only the resources were not there and the Government was not willing to deny the rumour officially.

3. TRADITIONAL FOLKLORE: I fully agree with you. You are very right in this. The average less educated man, and even some very well educated ones, can be extremely superstitious in certain matters. When I meet you personally, I will tell you orally (not on record) about my own superiors in the Department of Space who perform some superstitious ceremonies before major projects. They think count-down procedures should also be complimented with other things. Details of this - only over a cup of tea.

4. IN ACTUALITY: A WISE PRACTICE: Good interpretation, this one. But they were unwise too since many of them lost their jobs when they returned. The bosses had already hired local persons when the distant labourers returned from their faraway houses. Time is money in the scrap iron business and the yard owners had to start breaking ships soon after May 8.

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