But we still can’t speak of freedom of the press as long as journalists stay behind bars just for doing their job.
The end of the year usually leads to reflections on the year gone by. But let me break with tradition and instead set out a wish list for the kind of coverage we can hope for in the coming year. This could be wishful thinking given that 2023 is an election year with nine states going to the polls. But there’s no harm in hoping.
Even as the media is as usual dominated either by politics or, as in the case of TV news, nonsensical controversies – such as the saffron bikini drama – manufactured out of thin air to get eyeballs, there are some stories that somehow break through. It’s possible that only those of us interested in these issues read them (here I refer to print and the online portals). Yet, the very fact that a few stories of the kind I am going to highlight make it into print, gives us some hope that all is not lost.
The Mumbai edition of Indian Express has started a series on health care in rural Maharashtra. With the possibility of Covid once again rearing its head in India, health infrastructure is a relevant subject as we know from our experience of the last three years. As the redoubtable Dr Gagandeep Kang, Professor, Christian Medical College, Vellore has repeatedly reiterated, healthcare systems that are already stressed perform badly during an emergency – such as the pandemic we have lived through.
For rural India, the absence of adequate health infrastructure has been a tragic reality even as India struts on the global stage claiming to be a power that the world should reckon with. We remain mostly unaware of the extent of the health crisis in much of rural India because, in recent years, mainstream media has turned its attention away from such issues.
The series in Indian Express, by Rupsa Chakraborty, begins by focussing on one of the poorest districts in Maharashtra, Nandurbar. Some parts of this district touch the banks of the Narmada river, and many Adivasi-dominated villages in this district were submerged in the backwaters of the Narmada following the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat. The story of their struggle for adequate compensation and relocation is well-known.
The villages that escaped submergence continue to suffer much of the developmental neglect that affected those that had to move. For instance, even today, as reported by the Indian Express, levels of malnutrition and the number of severely malnourished children are higher in Nandurbar than in other districts in Maharashtra. The situation was no different in 1984 when I, then working in the Mumbai edition of Indian Express, first heard about Nandurbar.
Chakraborty assesses the state of the 11 primary health centres set up in the district in the last two years at a cost of Rs 6 crore each. They were brand new two years ago. Today, she writes, their condition is “abject”.
The one she visited in Bilgaon, inaugurated just a year ago in 2021, lacks basic infrastructure like electricity. The medical officer treats his patients using a torch once it is dark. This PHC covers 11 villages with a population of 14,221. The nearest alternative, a better equipped facility at the sub-district headquarters, is 104 km away.
Not just electricity, there is often no water either. After it was inaugurated, the PHC received water from a tanker. But this stopped well before a water connection was installed as late as September this year. Apart from these basic infrastructure deficiencies, the PHC is also poorly staffed, a depressingly familiar story.
Apart from these PHCs on land, several villages on the banks of the Narmada were supposed to be served by floating dispensaries and water ambulances. Their state is not much better, as described by the reporter.
She writes, “Over a decade ago, the state government had launched two floating dispensaries to provide healthcare to nearly 20,000 tribals residing in 33 hamlets – inaccessible by road along the Narmada river. These tribals were displaced during the construction of the Sardar Sarovar project…More than a decade later, one of the floating dispensaries has broken down beyond repair and presently lies in a godown. The other, around 20-ft long, is in a rickety shape, with medical staff as well as patients afraid to board it scared that it may capsize any moment.”
The point about narrating these details is that even though the stories are about a particular part of India, they reflect the reality in many parts of this country. Even during the pandemic, although there was some reporting from rural areas, it was inadequate. Most of the focus was on urban India where the media is based. As a result, even today, we don’t have the full story on how people – such as those living in districts like Nandurbar – dealt with the pandemic.
The last three years have clearly established the need for well-trained health reporters who can understand the science, but also the politics and the economy of health care. For instance, more probing questions need to be asked not just of the government but also of the pharmaceutical industry. And editors need to back reporting that requires going to areas away from the limelight, such as these backward districts, that tell us the real story of disease, health care and survival.
There are, of course, many more areas that mainstream media should investigate. But to start with, it could look at the state of health care and health infrastructure in India’s most backward districts. Even if the authorities don’t instantly respond to such stories, media scrutiny and civil society pressure represent the only hope for things to change for people living in these areas.
I cannot end this last column of 2022 without once again reminding readers about journalists who are still in jail. Siddique Kappan, who was arrested in 2020 on his way to cover the gangrape, and subsequent death, of a Dalit woman in Hathras, UP, has finally got bail. But as of writing he continues to languish in jail.
And in Kashmir, Fahad Shah, editor of Kashmir Walla, Sajad Gul from the same publication, as well as Aasif Sultan of Kashmir Narrator, are still in prison under the draconian Public Safety Act.
A senior Kashmiri journalist told me that up to 50 Kashmiri journalists have had to leave Kashmir and go elsewhere looking for jobs because working in the erstwhile state has become virtually impossible. A Kashmiri journalist told the Committee to Protect Journalists that the media in Kashmir “has reached a breaking point, where journalists are wondering whether it’s worth it to report from Kashmir”.
This then is the other reality that we must remember, and repeatedly highlight, as we go into 2023. We cannot speak of freedom of the press so long as journalists are behind bars just for fulfilling their professional commitments as reporters. Journalism is not a crime.
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