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Asia

India: Journalist uncovers abuse in psychiatric hospitals

Gunjan Sharma did undercover research in Indian psychiatric hospitals and found inhumane conditions. Her report won the German Development Media Award.

Gunjan Sharma is a senior correspondent at India's largest English-language news magazine, The Week. For nine years she has covered the health beat, writing on health policy and exposing violations of the rights of patients and people with disabilities. Sharma's winning entry, "Damned lives and statistics", exposes the shocking state of India's government-run psychiatric hospitals and reveals how patients there are denied basic human rights. The institutions, which served as jails during the colonial period, lock the mentally ill in tiny dark and damp cells.

What prompted you to research the conditions of psychiatric hospitals in India?
I got a tip-off about inhumane conditions prevailing in government-run hospitals across the country - how patients there are ill-treated and denied even food and clothing. I felt I had to find out what was actually going on inside these hospitals. I approached the hospitals and sought formal permission to visit but of them most declined.

And then you got suspicious and decided to carry out an undercover investigation…
As I didn’t get permission I had no option but to enter these hospitals in various "disguises": as an NGO worker, a patient's relative, etc. I saw for myself how patients were kept in dark, damp and cramped cells and came across many horror stories of patients being mistreated. I found they were sprayed with insecticides to kill body lice, that many were made to sleep next to a toilet, that the food served to them was far below the daily requirement for human beings, and that they were beaten up by the hospital staff if they demanded more.

What was the reaction to your report in India?
It acted as a catalyst for many activist groups - which had been fighting for the rights of people with psychiatric illnesses - to step up their campaign. In fact, a few months after the story appeared, India's Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare drafted a new Mental Health Bill, which is presently under consideration in Parliament.

What does an international award like the German Media Development Award mean to you?
A lot! For one thing, it helped highlight a very serious human rights issue at a global level. And it helped me earn global recognition for my work as a journalist. The award has motivated me to do many more stories exposing human rights violations.

Gunjan Sharma together with BMZ State Secretary, Hans-Jürgen Beerfeltz at the award ceremony (photo: Thomas Ecke).

Gunjan Sharma together with BMZ State Secretary, Hans-Jürgen Beerfeltz at the award ceremony

In terms of journalism, what are your future goals?
I have been a health journalist for last almost 10 years and would like to remain one. India's health care system is facing several chronic problems and I'd like to bring them to the fore and offer solutions. I believe that the healthcare delivery system in India has failed people not because of a lack of resources or the right policies, but because of insidious corruption and a lack of political will. As a journalist I will continue to push for the right to quality health care, which is a human right.

In which ways are you expecting the Indian media to develop over the next five years?
The media in India has by and large been free and fearless; it exercises a great influence on the government's policy making process. In the last two years alone, it has exposed many big-ticket scams. India is perhaps the only country in the world where newspaper circulation is rising. I believe that despite the several pulls and pressures from various quarters - especially the corporate and political sectors - it will continue to be free, and fearlessly raise issues and concerns of ordinary people.

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