As in my last column, I want to discuss this week’s news priorities – what they should be, what they are and how issues of public and national importance get lost in the hype, noise and misleading headlines that we are relentlessly subjected to these days.

Let’s begin with terrorism and the issue of undocumented migrants. Both made a lot of headlines, as they emerged this week from parliament’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, which passed a new bill that dramatically expanded the reach and powers of India’s premier anti-terror agency, the National Investigation Agency.

Only six MPs opposed that bill, and we had the minimum possible discussion on the details of the bill, which now allows the NIA to investigate and prosecute crimes – or allegations of them – that include human trafficking, atomic energy secrets, cyber-crimes and counterfeit currency.

We are yet unclear what the NIA’s powers over these issues means because no one has discussed them in meaningful fashion, either in the media or in parliament. For instance, in the times we live in, it is relevant to ask, what kind of cyber-crimes? Will tweets, retweets or other social-media activity around, say, lynching constitute a cyber-crime?

Bail denied

It certainly did for three young Mumbai men denied anticipatory bail by a judge who agreed with the Mumbai police that sharing a video related to a lynching in Jharkhand on the mobile app Tik Tok fit the description of “promoting enmity between different groups”. The police said they wanted to interrogate the men to investigate if there was a “national or international conspiracy” involved.

By this measure, I should be in jail, as should millions of others.

I found the story about the arrest of the Tik-Tok video-sharers, Hasnain Khan, Mudassar Shaikh and Shadan Farooqui, buried at the bottom of page 4 of the Mumbai edition of the Indian Express, a measure of the recession of free speech and civil liberties – and our easy willingness to accept this democratic erosion – in the new India.

What we mainly heard this week from home minister Amit Shah were his government’s priorities.

One priority was his government’s determination to establish how many of India’s 1.3 billion inhabitants are citizens, root out undocumented migrants and deport them from “every inch of the country’s soil”. Imagine the mess and tragedy in Assam – where poor people who cannot prove citizenship kill themselves or are incarcerated in camps with no prospect of release – multiplied manifold. No one asked him for an answer to the big question: which country is going to accept our definition of “illegal immigrant” and take in those we define as such?

Credit: AFP

Shah’s other priority was the NIA (Amendment) Bill, 2019, to use its official name, and how that was “an important message to the people of India, the world, and to terrorists”.

Just how important is terrorism? How many Indians die at the hand of terrorists, compared to say, disease?

Well, in 2017, terrorism claimed the lives of 766 Indians.

That is not insignificant in itself because no life is insignificant, and terrorism is indeed an omnipresent danger. But my point is that terrorism is responsible for 0.007% of all deaths. Let me repeat that: 0.007% of Indians who died in 2017 were killed by terrorists while ill health claimed 6.6 million Indians, or 90% of all deaths, as my colleague Swagata Yadavar wrote recently.

India spends twice as much on defence as on health, but it is not my argument that defence spending must be lowered – indeed it is already lower than it should be. At a time when the government intends to borrow money from abroad, India has spent more than Rs 1,000 crore – we don’t exactly know how much – in the floundering process of establishing who is a citizen in Assam. If that process is to become universal, expect that figure to rise exponentially. It will, of course, lead to lots more headlines of the kind the government prefers.

The state of India’s health

Health rarely makes the headlines, unless a whole bunch of children suddenly die of encephalitis – or perhaps if an MP is infected with dengue. The best perspective on the terror-health faceoff came from K Sujatha Rao, a former Indian health secretary, who tweeted during the general elections: “India has high levels of premature deaths & more die of diabetes, suicides, infectious diseases & NCD’s [noncommunicable diseases] than terrorism. Yet, election debates r more abt nationalism & terror & not health. 1 needs 2 be alive 2 be a patriot.”

The ill-effects of not putting health at the centre of public debate has serious, widespread consequences for not just our lives but India’s economy.

Poor investment in health and education has affected India’s productivity and economic growth far more than we realise. Here’s my point: Indians are healthy enough to work at their peak productivity for six-and-a-half years.

Is that good?

It’s terrible actually.

Sri Lankans work at their peak for double that period, 13 years; Brazilians, 16 years and Chinese 20 years. That 2018 evaluation by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, a think tank, should lay bare the consequences of neglecting health as a personal, public and national issue. It is no surprise then that people in these countries live better and are substantially richer than Indians.

If we don’t change this discussion, it’s going to be difficult to get the economy to the $5-trillion mark, which we heard so much about this week. Even if we get there, in large measure by favouring the few and the powerful, it will be a $5-trillion dollar economy with millions of weak, sickly people.

A child with encephalitis symptoms being treated at hospital in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, in June. Credit: IANS

We already have a lot of sickly people dying from the things we rarely talk about more malnourished children dying than any other country, more anaemic mothers dying than any other country, more dying from TB, heart diseases, diabetes and respiratory diseases than any other country. There are more, but I’ll stop there.

Pollution is a complicating factor in a growing number of deaths caused by ill health, the same ill health that stands between us and our dreams of a new, glowing India.

Our air is poisoned, 15 of the world’s 20 most-polluted cities are Indian, about 80% of our dwindling water resources are polluted, by one estimate, and industries get away with –
or are allowed to get away with – violating environmental laws, which on paper are really quite strict.

So widespread have these violations been that this week the national green tribunal, the environmental equivalent of the Supreme Court, ordered every polluting industry in India to be shut down. Yes, every polluting unit, every factory, of which there are thousands. This is unlikely to happen because these factories play a significant role in making Indians less poor.

We heard this week from the United Nations that India lifted 276 million people out of poverty over 10 years to 2016. That’s more than the combined population of South Africa and Brazil – which is three times larger than India.

This is definitely good news and quite remarkable. It does not mean, however, that economic growth must come at the cost of poisoning our air, water and soil because this kind of development is counter-productive and risks progress itself: more than 50 million Indians are at risk every year of falling back into poverty because of India’s abysmal living and environmental conditions and our willingness to quietly accept a crumbling healthcare system.

So, terrorism. Yes, let’s talk about that. Let’s also talk about a whole lot else.

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