On Tarun Sehrawat’s death

Percentage of time devoted to rural news on TV

It had rung fifty kinds of alarms in my head when I first read the story without even knowing what would follow that Tarun Sehrawat drank what was clearly bad water straight without boiling or disinfecting it in any way.

I have certainly done my share of putting my mouth directly to a stream and drinking in the apline meadows of the Himalaya – like my horses, but I have also boiled water that was supposed to be for drinking in other places. It is about knowing enough to make an educated guess. To a large extent, it is also about developing immunity. I dare say the direct drinking from streams may not be as safe for me now. The story made me think that they were lucky to get away with it – little knowing that they didn’t get away with it.

There is no doubt that the issues raised by Tehelka are very important. The general condition of water and sanitation and health facilities in the red corridor (and non red corridor) leave much to be desired. There is a desperate need for medications, clean water and more. This is a known problem for India, and the conditions of Tarun Sehrawat’s death made it even more starkly visible.

However, the issues raised by journalists like Rahul Pandita or Aditya Raj Kaul among others are important. And reading Rahul Pandita’s account in particular made me realize that his knowledge, if available to others can save lives. Conflict journalism is a drastically different environment for the newcomer with unknown pitfalls that can be avoided if pointed out.

I am not a journalist, but I have done a heck of a lot of traveling in the wilderness and one basic rule is keeping an eye open for what is safe. If people from a village are desperate for medicines, that is a fairly huge clue to not take risks with infection, because where locals cannot cope with local infections, an outsider is guaranteed to be hit worse – and it can be avoided. But I learned that. I certainly didn’t think to look for such clues when I began.

I am astonished that the journalists were not vaccinated, or on anti-malarials, did not carry enough water purification resources, did not bail out on running out of water, did not take basic precautions with contaminated water, did not have effective shelter from the elements or mosquitoes, did not begin preventative measures on return, did not take initial illness seriously, initial doctors failed to raise the alarm… it is a chain of failures. Not only did no one think to stress safety, but no one connected the dots when BOTH reporters fell ill after a trip into a high risk area. It is less about negligence and more about the total absence of a protocol that factors in the risks. And they may be well publicized, but they are not alone, as Rahul Pandita showed.

It is important that there are basic guidelines – maybe as a part of journalism training, or a freely available “handbook” for people to refer – it is a project worth taking up.

There is a certain thing about beginners in high adventure pursuits – which I suppose conflict journalism definitely is. They thirst for challenge. This is natural and creates some amount of inclination for recklessness by creating a desire to take on problems that can be avoided. Many find that sense of achievement in wearing a thin shirt at high altitude and low temps. It takes a dialogue to cut through the excitement of an early challenge to help people see that the more problems they can avoid, the more meaningful adventures they will end up negotiating.

The initial “rough and ready” maturing into a pride in a calibrated response to the challenge was a deliberate promotion of safety standards by senior climbers guiding us. The de-haloing of recklessness is something I remember still. “No Vidyut, a good climber isn’t one with scarred forearms and scraped knees, but one with no marks on them at all, because he climbs well” From being rough and tough, to understanding the insignificance of man in the environment and developing accurate estimates of vulnerability and capacity. From trying to conquer the environment to navigating it with grace, strength and humility.

Lost track of how much information came up over the years. I have no clue how many people contributed to me being alive and well today. From safety and first-aid lectures by doctor-climbers to technical safety and rescue workshops, general grapevine on new cautions learned from recent accidents… something I would have thought impossible in our unorganized sport. Yet, seniors simply started doing it, and it happened. It allowed us to expand horizons faster and in turn pass on the culture to those who followed.

There are many random factors of risk and is more a problem of lack of method than deliberate neglect. So many factors need the creation of a culture of safety. They are not one time instructions. To me, this indicates a clear need for safety norms to be established and made available as a resource.

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