Last week witnessed several of India’s festering, usually ignored problems exploding into prominence. Here are three issues that made it to the news – not in a meaningful enough way to be of widespread public interest but adequate, at least, to be dragged into the public eye. These are culled from news reports. The wider perspective is mine:

  • More than 100 children died of encephalitis in just one hospital, their deaths preceded by malnutrition, which obviously has not addressed at substandard creches and health centres.       
  • Millions nationwide abandoned their homes because villages ran out of water –in Chennai, the four reservoirs supplying the city ran dry – as drought ravaged a quarter of India and water tables sank lower than ever.       
  •   A third car bomb exploded in Jammu and Kashmir, and terrorists began to use armour-piercing ammunition, as India reported more improvised explosive devices than any other country over the last two years, the worst hit being Chhattisgarh and Jammu and Kashmir.   

In a normal country, with a concerned citizenry, responsible government and an alert media focused on the public interest, these would be issues of the greatest concern – to be investigated in depth, debated hard, to be protested and addressed on priority.

As children die, millions migrate and bombs explode, India’s new parliament spends its first day shouting and debating slogans, whether in praise of Ram, Allah, Bheem, Bangla, Hindustan, Inquilab or Mamta. Among the media and the public, the water, health and security crises are met with studied apathy or perfunctory, sensationalist attention.

A news anchor bursts into the supposedly sterile intensive-care unit of the Bihar hospital where children are dying and harangues doctors and nurses instead of investigating the administrative failures that create these situations. Other media debate the role of lychees in the tragedy and – with honourable exceptions – try to similarly lay siege to the hospital in question.

Skewed priorities

Even in states not as poor and desperate as Bihar, atrocious behavior and skewed priorities reign. In Karnataka, the chief minister, called to inaugurate a new ward in a cancer hospital, causes a giant traffic jam and shuts patients out: a father and his cancer-stricken child wait in a stroller on the road after traveling 160 km that morning, and an ambulance is stopped by the police despite the driver’s pleas. The chief minister arrives half an hour late.

The local media spend the week – in a state where 23 of 30 districts are ravaged by drought – reporting the intricate details and absurdities of a shaky, coalition government run by the Congress and the Janata Dal (S). The chief minister, we now know, is concerned by the perception that he likes five-star hotels, so he embarks on a programme of train journeys and village stays.

Many parts of Maharashtra are grappling with severe drought. Credit: Indranil Mukherjee/ AFP

The water crisis and the great distress migration it is causing appears to be of particular disinterest to the mainstream media – especially television – and the public, allowing politicians to ignore the emergency, get away with false promises and even profit from it.

In India’s richest state, Maharashtra, no one questions why the government’s much-publicised four-year-old programme of building ponds, earthern dams and recharging streams to make the state drought free by 2019 has failed. The government is aware that those who suffer do not regard drought as a political issue, and those unaffected are unconcerned. The government does not bother to even alter the target date on its website. Failure and broken promises are not cause for discomfiture.

This week we also hear – thanks to reporting by the Huffington Post – how some members of the ruling Maharashtra coalition of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena skim drought-relief money, perhaps up to Rs 14 lakh every day, by running cattle camps that inflate cattle numbers and skimp on water and fodder. The Sena also finds time to demand an end to “unlicensed mannequins” sporting female lingerie on Mumbai’s streets.

In this theatre of the atrocious and the absurd, there is little concern for the warning delivered by the government’s own think tank that 21 Indian cities may run out of water by next year and a quarter of the population may have no access to drinking water by 2030.

Meanwhile, the prime minister promises piped drinking water for all Indians within the next five years. No one asks where this water will come from, as rivers, lakes and other water sources are polluted and destroyed and trees cut by the thousands – 200,000 are to be removed for one expressway alone – with little or no public, media and government thought to the consequences. No connections are made between these developments, and no attention is paid to the big picture and the nation’s future.

Security personnel at the site where militants attacked a joint party of police and the CRPF on Wednesday. Credit: IANS

In Kashmir, more soldiers, policemen, terrorists and citizens died in 2018 than in a decade, and this year is on course to match that toll. Radicalisation and repression feed off each other, democracy is suspended, and despair has deepened. You would not know that if you lived outside the state because the only time the state’s tenuous situation comes to attention is through the polarised rhetoric of political discourse and social-media – or if the death toll in the latest bombing is too much to ignore even by India’s easy indifference. Government policy is failing more than ever, but this is not an issue of national concern and political deliberation.

As I write this, the priorities on television channels, social media and the government are the prime minister’s message on International Yoga Day, yoga events at glaciers, parks, schools and aircraft carriers; a redone bill – the old one failed – that will make triple talaq a crime; and the prime minister’s dinner for new members of parliament.

The new MPs, obviously fresh and eager to set the nation’s priorities, have the following questions lined up for the government: what is the government’s plan to plant trees at institutions of higher learning? What is the government doing to popularise the AYUSH system of indigenous medicine and yoga globally? What is the government’s plan for an FM station in Buldhana, Maharashtra, and a hospital in Rajkot, Gujarat; and what are its plans for direct-to-home television and misleading advertisements?

Oh yes, there are a couple of questions on the Nipah virus and malnutrition. Reality must intrude, sometime.

Samar Halarnkar is the editor of IndiaSpend, a data-driven, public interest journalism non-profit.