On the night of 8 July, more than seven hundred persons died in the swirling, turbid waters of the Meghna river southeast of Dhaka. The ferry, the Nasrin-1, sank to the muddy depths just below the point where the Meghna is joined by the Padma (Ganga). Only a handful of bodies were found. The knowledge of impending death as the triple-storey ship tilted and filled with water would have left the children, women and men screaming in the darkness.
Ferryboat deaths in Bangladesh, as we all know, fail to hold attention. The same as landslide deaths in Nepal, Andhra fishermen lost at sea, Bihar miners buried underground, or Karachi pedestrians killed in a hail of bullets. But when it comes to in the case of the Bangladeshis lost in the sea or river, the numbers are so much more. The ship that capsized on 8 July carried twice as many passengers as a fully loaded Boeing 747.
Once, a Unicef chief – James Grant – tried to shake up his Kathmandu audience by graphically describing child mortality in the country as equivalent to so many widebody aircrafts crashing into the mountains every day. But even that did not work.
News coverage of death is a class thing. When there are too many lives, life is cheap. And when the lives are poor, it becomes cheaper still. Supply and demand in the reporting of the dead and dying.
When Nepali, Jharkhandi or Andhra villagers die by the score, or Karachi’s street citizen’s are torn apart by bomb blasts, or when police hawaldars – the lowest in the totem pole of all security agencies – are liquidated by revolutionaries, the column inches are niggardly indeed.
Everywhere, of course, there are fewer rich people than poor. But the top of the pyramid is relatively cramped here in South Asia, and you have to imagine how incestuous it is. This affluent class is part of a trans-Subcontinental and trans-global network, so the reverberations from their meeting the maker carry further.
The news of rich folks meeting their doom is news across local markets and territories. When a Rajdhani or a Shatabdi express rushing between India’s large metros meets with disaster, it makes more news than the choti line carrying small town and village people. The dead of the Nasrin-1 would have hailed mostly from rural southeast Bangladesh, around the town of Chandpur. The chances that someone from Karachi, Kathmandu or Kolkota would be in any way connected with the poor souls that went down are minimal, even though they number the hundreds. Whereas if a Boeing or Airbus were to go down, it would touch lives in living rooms in every capital of South Asia. Despite the barbed wire fencing and overflight bans, there is only two degrees of separation among the elite of South Asia.
If South Asia were not ever-more rigidly defined within borders and boundaries, at least there would have been be more coverage of the Nasrin-1, say in the Assam press or West Bengal press. But our societies and economies are increasingly being pulled apart, and what this does is, it dehumanises us enough that we are not interested in disasters in the deep Bangladeshi interior. Before 1947, Calcutta would have felt a tremor when a ship with seven hundred went down in the delta. But now, that part of the delta is ‘Bangladesh’.
So it is left to those who are closest to mourn the poor. Mahtab Haider, reporting from Chandpur in The New Age:
There was Sadek who had lost his wife and a child of six months.
There was the widowed Rizia who had now lost her only son to these waters.
There was Khurshid, who had spent the most part of the last three days walking from village to village along the banks of the Meghna looking for his son.
Their grief came in waves, as many left in these restless waters their only reasons to go back home.