So, "the longest war", as the US media insists on calling their country's engagement in Afghanistan, has ended. But is this really the end of the story? And has war and conflict really ended in a country ravaged by both for decades?
As you scroll through the extensive coverage in the international media leading up to the American withdrawal, there is next to nothing about another war that Afghanistan has been facing well before the takeover by the Taliban.
Of course, the repatriation of Afghans wanting to move out of the country will continue to engage the international media and, to some extent, what happens to women's education and employment. But alongside this is the humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding in the country even before the Taliban took over on August 15. How will Afghanistan's economy, so heavily dependent on foreign aid, survive? Who will be hit the hardest by this drastic downturn?
Apart from the economic crisis, according to , Afghanistan has been reeling under a severe drought. An estimated 12 million people, out of a population of 36 million, are facing “a food security crisis of not knowing when or where their next meal will come from”. This is in addition to rising food costs across the country. So, irrespective of the political developments or the kind of government that is eventually formed or whether it is recognised by the world, the harsh reality facing millions of Afghans will be finding food for their next meal.
The healthcare system in the country is also close to collapse. A representative of Médecins Sans Frontières is quoted in saying: “The overall health system in Afghanistan is understaffed, under-equipped and underfunded, for years. And the great risk is that this underfunding will continue over time.” As a result, the existing health facilities are already running short of supplies, even in the cities. One can imagine how much more dire the situation must be in the rural areas.
With the media restricted, will we ever know the suffering of ordinary Afghans who live away from the cities? According to , less than 100 of the 700 women journalists in Kabul are still working. “Women journalists are in the process of disappearing from the capital,” it notes as many Afghan journalists, women and men, are leaving the country. At the same time, the international media have drastically reduced their presence. So, who will write these stories?
It is perhaps inevitable that geopolitics and speculation about what the Taliban will do will continue to dominate the news. This is, in any case, a given in most countries, including in India. Here, political news and government pronouncements hog news space while reports about drought, floods, hunger, and environmental crises are barely reported, if at all.
For instance, even as newspapers were spilling over with advertisements and sage pronouncements about “India at 75”, marking the beginning of India's 75th year of independence, an estimated 2.25 lakh people in 15 districts in Assam were . Just going by numbers affected, this is newsworthy. And even if floods are an annual occurrence, in the past, such natural disasters would be reported and featured in the "national" pages of newspapers. Today, you have to work hard to find such news except in the newspapers of that region.
Then take healthcare. One of the positive outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic has been that health coverage in the media has been given importance. In the past, reporters assigned the health beat scarcely got any recognition. Today, many of them, the majority of them being women journalists, are names we recognise for the excellent and persistent coverage they have done of the pandemic.
But there are other diseases too that afflict and kill Indians at all times. Many of these diseases, such as malaria, dengue and encephalitis, are closely linked with the appalling sanitary conditions in which millions of people live in cities and villages. The boastful advertisements and statements about the success of campaigns like Swachh Bharat, etc have failed miserably to make a dent on innumerable fetid open drains and sewers around which poor communities live because they have no option to move elsewhere. These are the people who struggle each monsoon with vector-borne diseases, and the poor state of our health infrastructure makes their lives even more precarious.
This distressing report in of an apparent “mystery illness” that has already killed 34 children in Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh, is just one of similar reports you can find in the media if you look hard enough. The media's neglect of these stories compounds the crisis as governments, like that of Yogi Adityanath in UP, can get away with boasting about what a superb job they are doing in looking after the health of people living in their states.
Then take another perennial, the impact of global warming. This is drawing considerable attention worldwide, partly due to the increase in forest fires in Europe and the US, as also flash floods and now hurricanes. The environmentalist , who has been writing and campaigning on the links between global warming and the continuing burning of fossil fuels with extreme climate events, reiterates yet again in a piece in the New Yorker that the latest hurricane to land on the shores of the US is the result of simple physics. No one can put it better than he does when he writes:
“Hurricanes...draw their power from heat in the ocean. If there’s more heat, the hurricane can get stronger. Physics. Warm air can hold more water than cold air can. So in warm, arid areas you get more evaporation, and hence more drought, and hence more fire. Physics. The water that’s been evaporated into the atmosphere comes down: more flooding rainfall. Physics. The earth runs on energy. We’re trapping more of it near the planet’s surface because of the carbon dioxide that comes from burning coal and gas and oil. That energy expresses itself in melting ice sheets, in rising seas, in the incomprehensible roar of the wind as a giant storm crashes into a city of steel and glass. It’s not, in the end, all that complicated.”
But in India, our coverage of the impact of climate change remains sporadic. In Mumbai, for instance, the municipal commissioner is quoted as saying that (a business district), and Mantralaya (seat of the state government) will be underwater by 2050. He was speaking at the launch of the Mumbai Climate Action Plan website. He also said that in the last 15 months, Mumbai had been hit by three cyclones.
Yet, the city's municipal corporation that he heads is hell-bent on building a coastal road that will increase fossil-fuel guzzling privatised transport, benefit only a small percentage of the population, and add to the city's existing burden of air pollution besides contributing to global warming. There has been practically no discussion in local media questioning the municipal commissioner or debating how India's financial capital will survive if large parts are submerged in just 30 years.
Apart from the impact of global warming, a report by the University of Chicago's Air Quality Life Index finds that in the world. Air pollution, it states, could cut life expectancy by nine years in north India and 2.5 years in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. While organisations dedicated to environmental issues like the have been campaigning for action, mainstream media also needs to find ways to illustrate how this will affect the lives of people, particularly the poorest and most marginalised. Without that, there is little hope of policy makers feeling any kind of pressure to take action.
Even if subjects like climate change, pollution, health care, sanitation, and nutrition don't grab headlines, they affect the survival of millions of people. And just on those grounds, they are “newsworthy”.
Unfortunately, given the nature of the dominant media India, namely television news, the concept of what constitutes news has been so distorted that not just the subjects that I've mentioned, but entire regions and populations of this country, are being permanently obscured. Unlike in Afghanistan, there are plenty of journalists in India who can cover these stories. But the space for them to report on these issues is shrinking by the day.
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