So I touched ground in Mumbai, in India, at about 5am on the 17 February. I felt immediately the differences between travelling on a shoestring as a cheap freelancer and travelling this way. Two guys from the hotel were waiting for me at the airport at this inhumane hour. They kindly took me to a big car, where they offered me a wet towel to refresh myself and a wide range of drinks, plus two very good sweets that I ate at once. Then I was given a little tour of and introduction to Mumbai by one of the guys while they drove me to the 5-star hotel where we are staying. There I checked in and a lovely girl walked me to my room. Finally, and after sleeping for a couple of hours and having a shower, I had a huge and actually very good breakfast while reading the complimentary newspapers. And then I had a full day to explore Mumbai before the actual trip even began.
So, cheap freelance travelling: 0. This kind of travelling: 1
In the morning of the first day of the IRC’s reporting trip we had an orientation briefing and a talk by doctor Armida Fernandez, founder trustee of SNEHA, a Mumbai-based NGO focusing on women’s and children’s health.
At the briefing, IRP’s founder director John Schidlovsky talked about the organisation. He insisted on the editorial independence of the program, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As far as I can tell, this is true. John and the other IRP staffers have encouraged us to hold a critical point of view when talking to and about NGOs and other organisations during the trip and to make up our minds ourselves. Apart from this, of course the Gates Foundation will want the trips to be to places where they work, and they do a lot of work in India.
Then we introduced ourselves and it was interesting to see how not only we come from different backgrounds but there are several who are not journalists as such. I am very curious to see the stories the others will produce. And I believe the experience of being all here together may be enriching for each other.
Finally, Dr Fernandez gave us an overview of child survival issues in India. She began her talk by saying, yes, that India is the world’s biggest democracy and that she is proud of it. She said India has improved its maternal and child survival situation in the last couple of decades but a lot of more work has still to be done.
A personal note about the world’s biggest democracy. Saying this has become kind of a cliché to start stories about India. But in my opinion, it doesn’t say much on its own. Having a democracy is not the goal but rather the starting point. Then you have to make the democracy work and, ha, that’s hard. Not only in a huge, young state like India or in a developing African country like Kenya (where I lived for most of the last three years and a half) but anywhere in the world. Have a look at my country, Spain. It has quite a dysfunctional democracy, populated by many corrupt politicians who have done almost nothing good to stop the economic impoverishment of the country during the last years. Anyway.
Dr Fernandez then told us about figures and, actually and since these are public figures, let me quote from the notes the IRC gave us prior to this trip (cheap freelance travelling: 0 – this kind of travelling: 2):
“A September 2012 UNICEF report revealed that more than 6.9 million Indian children under the age of five died in 2011, a rate more than six times higher than China’s statistics. While India has improved its rate of child survival by 48% since 1990, it continues to lag behind poorer neighbors like Bangladesh and Nepal. India’s child mortality toll is more than those of Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo combined.”
This could be misleading. India does have the biggest number of children under-5 dying. But with such a big population, estimated at 1.2 billion people, India hast the biggest number of people living and dying in many ways. When it comes to the under-5 mortality rate (per 1,000 live births), India fares much better than many countries. According to the World Bank, in 2011 61 children-under 5 (per 1,000 live births) died in India, which makes it the 49th worst country in the world. Of course this is still bad but it’s much better than those rates of Sierra Leone (185), Somalia (180) and Mali (176), which are the top 3. As a comparison, those countries in the actual top have a rate of 2 (San Marino, Liechtenstein) or 3 (Iceland, Norway, Sweden but also Singapore, Slovenia and Cyprus, for instance).
During her talk, Dr Fernandez highlighted some of the important underlying issues when it comes to maternal and child survival in India. The role of family planning and how many husbands may oppose the use of contraception. The big differences between urban and rural India and how to reach to those people living in small places scattered around huge rural India. The relationship between health and nutrition (apparently not that obvious in some rural areas). The access to clean water (a most important and sometimes unregarded issue, in India and in many other places all over the world). The clash between some religious and traditional beliefs and health practises like immunisation. Urban poverty, the terrible living conditions in the slums and some contradictions like the fact that many poor families won’t use the free public health system, because they think if it’s free it mustn’t be as good as a private doctor (who may not even be an actual doctor). And of course corruption.
A funny quick note about this. I’ve seen a board over a café in South Mumbai saying: “Our politicians need to take a lesson from the Pope”. Ha, I think many of us not Indians identify with that (and again, just have a look at my country). But of course it’s not that politicians should take a lesson from the Pope. After all, this is a man who was running a hermetic, outdated and undemocratic organisation and who only resigned because of his old age. In my opinion, politicians should resign when they are caught in corruption scandals. And even if unfortunately we in many parts of the world are getting used to them, every corruption case should be a scandal, even small ones. Democracies aspiring to become functional should aim for zero tolerance on corruption, period.
As Dr Fernandez noted, corruption may cost lives. It is as simple as that. When it affects maternal and child health corruption may partially be the cause for women and children dying unnecessarily in India and in other places.
But she also told us about good things. The eradication of polio in India, which is one of the great success stories out there. And also, for example, how nowadays many more women, after being incentivised with some little money, go to hospitals to give birth, which greatly decreases maternal and new born mortality.
Finally, we were set for our first field visit to one of the slums of Mumbai, a rich city where an estimated 10 million people live in the slums. Talk about inequality.