News Channels, Chasing TRPs, Ignore The Necessary

In the new year, Television Rating Points (TRPs) should be renamed by media networks. To reflect the content being churned out every evening, the abbreviation could just as easily stand for Third Rate Programming (TRP)! Controversial, cynical statements that polarize are a prime time favorite. A Chief Minister of a BJP state will try and outdo a woman MP from his party to spew communal venom. An easy way to earn points in the Modi-Shah era.

Ninety per cent of the narrative on Indian television today lingers on these contrived, divisive issues. When was the last time you saw a TV programme discussing the plight of manual scavengers risking their lives or the importance of safe drinking water for all ? Sadly, the same illness affects the quality of the output in Parliament- but that’s a story for another day in 2023.

Prime time news is now a cacophony of triviality, a chorus of anchors turned cheerleaders. In all this madness, there have been worthy exceptions- a credible network or two, built over decades of trust and following the rules of good old-fashioned journalism. One such gem is NDTV.

Which is why I am writing this piece here – not to garner ‘Likes’ or re-tweets or ‘Views’. Instead, allow me to draw attention at the beginning of the new year to an issue that will – God forbid- cause national and international strife. Not oil, nor gold, nor data. This is about safe drinking water.

Safe drinking water is not only crucial to human health and well-being but access to it is also a fundamental right protected under the ambit of the Right to Life (Article 21) in the Constitution.

India has about 18 per cent of the world’s total population, but only 4 per cent of the water resources. This makes us one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. Many Indians face high to extreme water stress caused by lack of availability and poor quality of available water, according to the NITI Aayog as well. On top of that, chemical pollution of water remains a health burden, whether natural in origin or anthropogenic. It affects livelihood, school attendance, standard of living, people’s dignity and the environment.

More than 60 per cent households do not treat their water before drinking. According to UNICEF, only 1/4th of the total population in the country has drinking water in their households and approximately three-quarters of all illnesses in India are caused by impurities in the water supply. About 38 per cent children under the age of five are stunted, and 50 per cent of malnutrition cases are linked to diarrhoea. Around 30 diseases are a consequence of unsafe water, poor sanitation, and hygiene. According to the National Family Health Survey 5, diarrhoea was prevalent in 7.3 per cent children under five years of age.

The existing sources of data for tracking water and its safety are the Census, National Family Health Survey and Integrated Management Information System. The first two do not dwell upon the quality and reliability of water and the third lacks data on sufficiency of water and is not standardised and comprehensive for rural areas. Delay in the Census and data gaps such as these provide a big lacunae in handling water resources to the optimal level. There is an urgent need to strengthen, standardise existing reporting and expand the scope of surveys to cover more indicators of safely managing the drinking water services. This is critical to good policy-making and planning of welfare schemes.

All individuals should be entitled to clean water and sanitation without any discrimination. Marginalised populations, including women, children, refugees are frequently disregarded by and excluded from access to supply of safe drinking water, based on their societal positioning.

Article 14(2)(h) of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) provides: “States parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in rural areas in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, that they participate in and benefit from rural development.” But the burden of water collection often falls on women who have to travel long distances and stand in long queues to fetch water. This makes them lag behind in school attendance, work, childcare etc, and positions at the front of verbal, sexual and physical violence and discrimination by societies.

The denial of access to safe drinking water in public spaces is a big manifestation of the existence of discrimination. Caste plays an important role in the same. More than 20 percent of Dalits lack access to safe drinking water and often face violence for trying to access these resources. Harmful concepts of purity and contamination govern the thinking of individuals in affected areas even after untouchability had been abolished.

The Union government controls the regulation and development of inter-state rivers which are a major source of water in India. Making these channels safe for drinking needs to be prioritised. The Jal Jeevan Mission that targets providing tap water in every household too misses out on making this water safe for drinking. Such weak systems and lack of funding from the Union have hindered the reach in India. India’s water sector has faced an investment gap of 21 lakh crores between 2015-2030 according to the G20 Infrastructure Outlook.

Hence there is a need to make the sector more attractive for investment, along with increasing the budgetary allocation specifically for making drinking water safe so states can make a bigger difference. The issue of access to clean drinking water cannot be looked at in isolation. It is dependent on other factors of gender, class, caste, education among others. Involvement of stakeholders in the making of policies at each level is imperative in minimising the discrimination in such access.

[This article appeared on | Tuesday, January 3, 2023]