AAP: bitten and bruised

The media have lynched the party over the health crisis. Fair enough. But why are its excellent mohalla clinics being ignored?
JYOTI PUNWANI points out the biases


The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is at the receiving end of both the media and its political rivals for its handling of the dengue-chikungunya  outbreak in the capital. This criticism might well be well-deserved, but what’s new? The youngest party in the country has been at the receiving end of criticism forever, or so it seems.

What’s really news is when the AAP is not making the headlines. For example, how many journalists know that it is currently running 105 mohalla clinics in the capital?

Mohalla clinics are basic health care units located in Delhi’s slums. A few run all day, most just half the day. Some run from rented rooms, others in porta-cabins. At these clinics, basic tests are carried out, patients examined, and medicines given free of charge.

This is the first attempt in any metropolis since Independence, to bring state-sponsored free basic health care to the doorstep of the poorest sections, for whom a trip to the nearest public dispensary means at least half a day gone and a hole in the pocket, if not on medicines, then on transport costs and earnings lost. The alternative for slum dwellers is to shell out fees to the nearest private doctor. Slums have an abundance of these, who may or may not be qualified.


“This is the first attempt in any metropolis since Independence, to bring state-sponsored free basic health care to the doorstep of the poorest sections,”


The first mohalla clinic in Delhi opened in July 2015, followed by 21 more in March this year.

The AAP’s mohalla clinic experiment drew the attention of The Washington Post. Its article (`What New Delhi’s free clinics can teach America’, March 11, 2016) was also carried by the Chicago Tribune. A University of Southern California delegation came to study mohalla clinics  in July.

But our print media didn’t think this important experiment was anything special. Not all covered it; of those that did, some didn’t carry the report in all their editions.

DNA, which does not have a Delhi edition, was the earliest  newspaper to cover the experiment comprehensively. In August 2015, soon after the first mohalla clinic opened in Peeragarhi slum, the paper carried two stories in three days (`Are mohalla clinics an answer to Delhi’s burgeoning health problems?’  `Delhi’s AAP mohalla clinics a hit’). Both appeared in the Mumbai edition. The paper has since done regular reports as new clinics have opened.


“But our print media didn’t think this important experiment was anything special. “


The Indian Express carried a long report in April, after the second batch of clinics opened, in its Delhi edition (“In rented rooms across Delhi, part 2 of ‘mohalla’ clinic project takes off’’).  Livemint hada detailed report last month, after more than 100 clinics had opened (`Mohalla clinic: AAP offers affordable healthcare model at doorstep’); and earlier this week, The Hindu evaluated their performance in its Delhi edition (`A thousand promises of prompt health care’).

Among news websites, Newslaundry did a lively report immediately after the first clinic opened (`Mohalla clinics come to town’). In January, Catch News did a report  (`#MohallaClinics: AAP has diagnosed Delhi’s health problem. Can it cure it?’), and a follow-up in April after the second batch opened (`AAP Mohalla clinics: rented homes turn clinics, private docs appointed’).

A two-part article appeared in Scroll.in in May (`The clinic at your doorstep: How the Delhi government is rethinking primary healthcare;

Will Delhi’s mohalla clinics be a viable replacement for overcrowded government dispensaries?’)

Finally last month, Firstpost carried a long article  (`AAP’s mohalla clinics are proof that healthcare in India doesn’t need to be a luxury’), with another piece last week (`Merchants of death? How Delhi’s mohalla clinics battle against 40,000 ‘jholachap’ doctors’). Indeed, news websites, rather than newspapers, seem to have given the new experiment the space it deserves.

Early on, in January 2016, a long piece (`Maximising Potential: Delhi’s Mohalla Clinics’) was published in the Economic and Political Weekly, which has a worldwide readership but mainly in academic circles.

All reports praised the clinics for their attempt to bring health care to the poor, while pointing out their limitations and their failures. Better health care had been one of the AAP’s poll promises. In its first budget, presented in June 2015, the AAP government increased the allocation to health by as much as 45 per cent compared to the previous year when Delhi was under President’s Rule and the Union Finance Minister presented the Budget. The new party was delivering on its promise in a sphere vital to the lives of people.


“Indeed, news websites, rather than newspapers, seem to have given the new experiment the space it deserves.”


Despite this, news appeared earlier this month that some of these clinics may be closed.

The news was in the form of a tweet by AAP’s Health Minister. The North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) had issued an order stating that no porta-cabins would be allowed on footpaths without permission from the Corporation. Including in his tweet a picture of this order, Delhi’s Health Minister tweeted that the Corporation was planning to demolish some mohalla clinics, adding that since these were temporary structures, they didn’t need prior permission.

Firstpost quoted the Mayor of the NDMC saying he wasn’t targeting mohalla clinics specifically, but all structures which had been erected on footpaths. So, was the minister being paranoid, following the example of his Chief Minister? Should the media have just ignored him?

Those who followed up on the story found substance in his fears. An NDTVreport quoted the Mayor as saying:  “no unauthorised structures will be allowed on pavements and roadsides. As a civic body, it is our duty to remove any illegal structure. If the government has put up porta-cabins for mohalla clinics without permission, we will certainly remove those. Illegal structures will not be permitted.”

A municipal corporation is well within its rights to have footpaths and roadsides cleared. But given the need being fulfilled by the mohalla clinics, was it necessary to remove them? Specially since, as Firstpost pointed out, the Health Department had been finding it a problem to find space to construct the clinics, and they had 900 more to build if they were to fulfil the party’s promise.

Incidentally, this news was reported to this columnist by an Indian student in the US, who reads Indian news online. It was not reported outside Delhi.

From August 31 till September 6, the saga of the sex video featuring then AAP minister Sandeep Kumar was being reported across the country. Of course that incident was newsworthy. But wasn’t the impending closure of some of the newly-opened mohalla clinics, only because the government had not taken the municipal corporation’s permission before erecting them, also newsworthy? But then again, since their opening had not been considered worthy of national attention, why would their closure?

Going through the reports on mohalla clinics, it became clear that the possible removal of some of them was only the latest move against them. A few days before the NDMC issued this order, the Lieutenant General (LG) of Delhi had got into the act. Consider the sequence of events:

On August 5, the Delhi High Court ruled that the LG was the administrative head of the capital. After the judgment, Deputy CM Manish Sisodia specially requested Najeeb Jung not to transfer the Health and Education secretaries as these two bureaucrats were essential for the AAP’s new initiatives in these sectors.

On August 31, Delhi papers reported the transfer of these two officials by the LG. The man put in charge of Health was the Environment Secretary. Reportedly, the AAP government had recently sought action against this gentleman for delaying the ban on the deadly Chinese manjha used for flying kites. To further twist the knife in the wound, he was not transferred out of the Environment ministry and made Health Secretary, but given additional charge of health.

This action was taken after chikungunya had started wreaking havoc in Delhi. The transfer was reported on August 31; on the same day, The Quint reported more than 400 cases of chikungunya and dengue each in the capital.

Again, there was no news of this transfer in the Mumbai papers. At any rate, even had the Mumbai papers reported it, it would have meant little, since Mumbai’s readers knew hardly anything at all about the way the public health scene had started being transformed in Delhi.

Days after the transfers came the NDMC’s order about the removal of porta-cabins. The NDMC is BJP-controlled.

Both Jung’s actions and the North Delhi Municipal Corporation’s order,  so far as it affected mohalla clinics, were arbitrary acts which endangered the health of Delhi’s poorest citizens. Enough space has been devoted to the AAP-Jung fight. But such actions form the nitty gritty of the dispute. Without knowledge of how exactly the LG is thwarting the measures being taken by a government elected by an unprecedented mandate, the AAP-Jung conflict  ends up looking like a fight between two executive heads, one of them hysterical. That’s exactly the way the media has projected it. Why?

A long piece in the website, The Wire, by senior journalist Prem Shankar Jha entitled “What Drives the Modi Government’s Systematic Onslaught on AAP’’ (August 4) spelt out how exactly Jung and the Union government were going around nullifying every bona fide decision of Arvind Kejriwal’s government. Reading it, you understood why the Delhi CM is paranoid. Why couldn’t other papers have done this kind of analysis?

Maybe newspapers don’t have the kind of space The Wire does. But had newspapers reported every action of the LG and Modi’s government with its implications, readers would have realized just how much damage these two authorities were doing to Delhi’s residents, only to serve the BJP agenda. The PM’s “dignified’’ silence in the face of Kejriwal’s accusations would then have acquired more meaningful overtones, as would Kejriwal’s “obsession’’ with Modi.

In Jha’s words: “Reports of the BJP’s onslaught on the Delhi state government have appeared in scattered, usually brief, news items spread over almost two years. The underlying issues have been further obscured by being presented to the public as a personal war between Kejriwal and Lieutenant Governor Najib (sic) Jung, i.e an opportunistic politician and an arrogant bureaucrat. It is only when we create a timeline for the onslaught that its full, systematic nature gets revealed.’’

The AAP’s failure to anticipate the chikungunya outbreak and take preventive measures is blameworthy, and the media is right to go hammer and tongs at it. But the party’s efforts to fulfil its poll promise of making medical services accessible to the poor are equally worthy of media attention. Why the blitz of negative reports for one and the silence on the other? Can the answer only be that bad news makes better headlines than good news? And what about the LG’s role in contributing to AAP’s failure? And the NDMC’s sudden concern – in the midst of a health crisis – about footpaths and roadsides being encroached by mohalla clinics? Should the media remain silent on these aspects?

Incidentally, the newly appointed Health Secretary (only additional charge) was granted 15 days leave by Jung soon after he was given the portfolio – when the chinkungunya-dengue crisis was at its height. That wasn’t worth highlighting?

Interestingly, there’s a dengue-chikungunya epidemic currently on in Mumbai and Pune too. But we haven’t seen Mumbai’s super-rich municipal corporation being hauled up on national news. But then, a sneeze in Delhi is equivalent to an epidemic in Mumbai. But by the same token, the opening of 105 public health centres in Delhi for its  poorest citizens should also be big news.http://www.thehoot.org/media-watch/media-practice/aap-bitten-and-bruised-9659