Covering disasters in vulnerable communities: Q&A with The News Minute’s Azeefa Fathima

One of the criticisms the public has of the coverage of disasters is that the media tends to focus on the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe and the spectacle of destruction, forgetting the impact on people’s lives, particularly the poor.  And once the news cycle moves to the next pressing issue, reporters leave only to return on the anniversary of the tragedy, if ever.

When several regions in north Chennai, India were devastated by heavy rains in early December, Report for the World corps member Azeefa Fathima took a different approach for her coverage for The News Minute: she focused on telling stories of the flood from the perspective of the area’s residents, mostly the Dalits, one of the most marginalized groups in India’s rigid caste system.

Her reporting showed not only how that marginalization translated into a delayed response from the government to the floods and a lack of relief for thousands of families, but on how the community itself organized to rescue and provide shelter to victims and how the residents saw themselves during this crisis.

We spoke with Fathima to hear how she approached the subject and how she was able to develop sources and paint a comprehensive and respectful picture of the affected community in a short amount of time. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Report for the World: One of your stories focuses on how the Vyasai Thozhargal collective stepped in to fill the gaps left by the government’s neglect. For those who are not familiar with caste dynamics in India, can you tell us why such a large community is left adrift by the government?

Azeefa Fathima: Caste dynamics in India is a complex social hierarchy, deeply rooted in the country’s history, which classifies people into different social groups primarily based on their birth and occupation, which in turn assigns them to a social status.

In the case of Chennai floods, Dalits — also known as Scheduled Castes (SC) — were isolated and neglected during the relief work. The area from where the story was done — North Chennai — is populated by Dalits and other marginalized persons, who form the majority of labor power in the city.

In times of disasters or crises, there are several factors that contribute to the vulnerability of Dalits, including social discrimination, economic disparities, and geography.

The economic vulnerability of Dalits, who are often poor, is exacerbated during disasters. They lack resources and infrastructure to cope with the impact of disasters. In addition to this, the government also did not adequately prioritize their needs in relief and rehabilitation efforts. One of the main reasons for this is attributed to their geographical location.

Dalits are often pushed to the margins of any city or region by means of forced displacement, resettlement, or distress migration. They are forced to live in these remote areas, which are often several kilometers away from the heart of the city. In addition, they have limited access to resources and services, including network coverage and electricity.

During Chennai floods, what we saw is precisely this geographical isolation of the marginalized people. Living near water bodies and with no electricity or internet, the news that the region was flooding started to come out perhaps on day two of the flood relief activities. Even after the main areas of Chennai returned to normalcy, we saw many parts of North Chennai struggling underwater, as there was a delay in resources to reach them.

RFW: Your reporting focused on the aftermath of the flood, rather than the immediate impact of it. What were your priorities when you arrived in Chennai and how did you develop the angles that became the stories you published?

Fathima: The News Minute has always focussed on caste disparities that emerge in almost every aspect of our lives. Even as news about the disaster started coming up, the initial days were marked by stories of people helping each other and how humanity prevails over our individual differences.

But when I arrived in North Chennai, what I saw was starkly different from this narrative. While several NGOs and individuals were distributing food and other relief materials all over the city, North Chennai was devoid of any such help. There were a few people who donated money and raw food materials to the NGOs in the locality, who in turn cooked and distributed food to the people.

Having said this, our priority was to try and see the flood through the eyes of the residents in the area; to focus on their collective strength and resilience. As you can see in the story, while we have narrated the history and the problems faced by the people of North Chennai, the tone of the story was how they were systemically oppressed rather than focusing on their present struggles alone.

RFW: What challenges did you encounter when reporting this story and how did you overcome them?

Fathima: The primary challenge was to establish a rapport with the members of Vyasai Thozhargal and the residents in the area, because they were angry and irritated (rightfully so) that it took days for the mainstream media and government to turn the focus towards them. However, once they were able to see the body of work done by TNM up until that point, they did turn around a bit and were forthcoming to tell their story.

RFW: Your story about the young Dalit photographers who documented the flooding has great insights from its subjects, as if they had known you for a long time. How did you build trust with them in a short period of time?

Fathima: That story was an interesting one for me personally because the photos themselves set a narrative on how they view themselves and how they want others to see them. We’ve come across multiple photographs and visuals of the floods, many of them taken from an aerial perspective covering the entire region, or from an angle from the ground. If we notice the photos of these photographers, we can see that all the images with people in them are taken from a linear perspective and at the eye level of the subjects, indicating that the photographers were really concerned in treating the subjects as equals. This struck a chord with me and when I asked them about this, they were glad to talk more about it.

Both Nandhini and Rasiya — the photographers — were keen to talk about their process and lives. All I had to do was probe a bit more about what prompted them to select a subject or scene for photography, which gave us an idea about how their lives are also shaped by these experiences.