Blogs have transformed from being personal musings to containing vital information about natural disasters and consequent relief work. Post the 26 December tsunamis, many bloggers shed their individual identities and rallied together to disseminate information individually and in groups. Some blogs virtually became valuable alternatives to coverage by large media organizations.
This article is about the blogging that has happened in India since the 26 December tsunamis. Still, it must be acknowledged that the tsunamis have caused unimaginable devastation and destruction of lives and livelihoods. Even has rehabilitation itself may take time, the psychological wounds caused by the disaster may take longer to heal. But whatever coverage the disaster gets will only aid the ongoing and future relief work.
As media channels broke the news soon after the tsunamis hit the coasts, bloggers had already started making use of their spaces by putting up detailed information about this natural phenomenon. They kept up the work with compilations of the latest death toll, names of missing persons, aid agencies, links to updated news about relief and rescue, the areas that are being sidelined by the media, the kind of relief materials urgently needed on the ground, requests for aid, and so on. (For e.g., Tsunamihelp.blogspot.com became popular very quickly.)
Historically, the earliest blogs, or weblogs, can be traced back to around 1998. They contained bits of information and links and were accompanied by commentary and personal thoughts. But they could be created only by those who knew how to create a Web site. A couple of years later, however, with the introduction of tools that allowed even novice users to create blogs and update them, blogs underwent a metamorphosis. Blogs have now become online journals -- a chronology of personal thoughts, ideas and happenings -- covering just about anything under the sun. But what has kept people coming back to blogs worldwide is that they allow online conversations to take place, day after day, both between blog author and readers and readers themselves.
The emotional element marking first-person accounts has been a key differentiating factor for blogs. Many bloggers personally visited the tsunami-affected areas; their eyewitness accounts communicated the horrors of the devastation to a distant audience. Their compelling narratives have been instrumental in garnering widespread relief support as well. In fact, many blogs become (and some remain) a focal point for aid activities -- spreading messages requesting specific aid, distributing collected resources, and also highlighting the relief work that is actually happening and beginning to make a difference.
As Kiruba Shankar from Chennai writes in his December 31 post (blog: www.kiruba.com) : "As we neared the first of the fishing hamlets, we noticed that relief camps have already sprung up. It was the general public that was the first to offer help. They had already pitched in to set up tents to keep the people from the cold during night .The government too swung into action. They dropped sacks of rice and new dresses for men and women. They did this for every single hamlet we passed by .Here, govt workers are spreading bleaching powder to make sure that there is no water-borne disease. They worked with surprising enthusiasm, the type I rarely get to see from government folks."
Take Shankar's blog again, dated January 3, describing the hamlet of Puthu Nemmeli Kuppam, about 50 kilometres from Chennai. He writes, "This is the hamlet that I had visited two days ago. When I reached there, the first thing I noticed were two water tanks installed. Good. The villagers were earlier complaining that the borewell that was sunk in was giving only murky water and they had no choice but to drink that. It's good to know they are getting drinking water supply."
Dilip D'Souza is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and is a regular columnist at India Together. He blogs at dcubed.blogspot.com. He posted on January 3, "Near the Kalpakkam nuclear plant is a neat colony for its employees . Of course it was clearly hit But an army of workers and earthmoving equipment are cleaning up. The school, which was flooded to a 3-foot depth, is so spotless now that you would swear that "tsunami" remains a somewhat unfamiliar term from one of its geography texts instead of the word on every pair of lips for miles around."
D'Souza also points out to a really interesting initiative of the students of that school. "Even though many of them suffered the wave's effects, they are writing letters to send to the families of other victims. Here are a few excerpts: We are feeling sorry for your loss. Be happy from this year. Be bold we will help you. God will bless all. Don't lose your heart. Don't worry about this incident."
Asha for Education's blog ashatsunamirelief.blogspot.com has been chronicling the updates received from their field workers. Asha for Education is a non-profit supporting basic education projects in India; the organization has 66 chapters worldwide. The blog reports include work done by Asha as well as glimpses of the situations in the affected areas.
"Volunteers from Kanpur - students of the IIT reached Chennai on 9th morning, helped with the Bhoomika Trust and then have gone to Nagapattinam for further work The Pattinapakkam survey..is far from complete We urgently need sarees and babies and children's clothes. We urgently need sarees and babies and children's clothes. We have enough and more of bedsheets and men's clothes and do not want them for now . The enquiries for livelihood rehab from the beach and roadside vendors and shopkeepers have started increasing. This would need support from anything between Rs5000 to Rs20000. We will be discussing this area amongst our volunteers...," writes Asha worker Lakshmi from Chennai on January 10.
The same day, Shankar describes two charity organizations that had established themselves in Puthu Nemmeli to constantly monitor the relief work they were providing. The Lions Club from Chennai was distributing school materials and hygiene products to children. The government had begun work on roads, so that the relief vehicles could reach the interiors, he says.
Through their relief activities and their own interactions with the affected, the bloggers are able to provide pointed and helpful inputs about what more is needed. In some cases, they have actually returned with the materials that had been asked for.
"Based on the survey that we had taken on Friday, we realised that people needed cooking utensils more than food. Many villagers had said that they have been receiving enough rice and dal but they didn't have utensils to cook them. So we decided to use the first installment of funds collected though blogs on cooking materials," writes Shankar on January 3.
On his blog India Uncut indiauncut.blogspot.com, Amit Varma, a resident of Mumbai working as a volunteer in Tamilnadu, writes, "AID India, an organisation I can't praise highly enough for their unflagging relief work in the state, have taken a pragmatic approach, tying up with anyone who shares their vision and work ethic. They have adopted two villages in this area, Pudupettai and Pudukubbam, in association with DYFI and another group called SFI - Students Federation of India." AID (Association for India's Development) is a non-profit organization that advocates for and supports sustainable development projects.
Varma continues to report that AID had by then structured relief work into three levels. "Level one - providing immediate emergency necessities like food, drinking water, medicine, shelter etc. Level two - building them huts and houses to live in and looking after their health needs. Level three - giving the affected people back their livelihood, which could involve buying boats for the fishermen who have lost everything, forming cooperatives so they can compete better in the marketplace etc", he paraphrased in his posting.
Bloggers often take us into interior corners that have not caught the media's lens - to places that are mobilizing their own relief work, at times due to lack of aid from outside. Varma tells us the story of Vailakanni, near Nagapattinam, which is reknown for the famous shrine of Mary, calling it "a lesson in disaster management."
"The waves struck there after Sunday mass, with 1000 people on the shore to take a dip. At least 800 could not outrun the killer waves. The state administration did not kick into action, but the church did." Varma goes on to say that unlike other villages, bodies did not like unclaimed for days there. "Whichever ones were identified by relatives were taken away by them, and buried or cremated according to their preference. The rest were photographed and disposed of, with the photographs put on a bulletin board so that relatives could identify their kin. A counselling unit with 12 counsellors came up, and the volunteers were assigned specific tasks", says Varma.
But with its rapidly growing presence and popularity as a new mode of interactive journalism, blogging has come under scrutiny from journalists, the media and the legal community. Blogging may be relatively new to India, but the US has already seen plenty of it. 9/11 is widely acknowledged as a turning point for US blogging and since then the debate has been gathering momentum. On the table are issues of credibility, accuracy, and ethics. The Harvard Law School, the American Library Association, and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government are organizing a conference to be held on January 21 and 22, titled "Blogging, Journalism and Credibility: Battleground and Common Ground."
As that matter gets sorted out, it also appears that bloggers and journalists have a lot to learn from each other. In his article on Poynter.org - an online resource for journalists brought out by the Poynter Institute, USA - Steve Outing writes, "Bloggers and mainstream journalists likely won't end up as twins, but perhaps cordial cousins." He goes on to elaborate in this and subsequent articles that unpolished thoughts and unrefined commentary do have value in a lightning paced environment. Similarly, the importance of doing journalistic legwork, having a system of checks and balances, and keeping accuracy in focus can only serve to enhance the reputation of blogs, he adds.