This year will go down in history as the COVID-19 year that touched almost all lives, everywhere in the world. At IndiaSpend, we ran a tracker and released twice-daily updates on the number of cases and related trends for four months, evaluated the impact of COVID-19 on India's healthcare infrastructure and services, education and livelihoods--particularly of women workers.

But we also did a lot of exciting work unrelated to COVID-19: A five-part series on the environment clearances and how they affect protected areas; an ongoing deep-dive project looking at police and judicial reforms; another ongoing series on gaps in public data and how they affect policymaking; and a renewed investigative project on women in the workforce.

We also launched a mental health fellowship (see the first story here) and ResearchWire, a fortnightly newsletter on the latest research and thinking in development.

Here's a round-up of some of these projects you could add to your holiday reading list:

Police & judicial reforms

In a special reporting project on police, judicial and prison reforms, we are investigating the challenges that India's law and order machinery faces--from the policy level down to the ground, and bring out solutions.

Not a single state has complied with 14-year-old Supreme court directives for police reforms. On average, five people die in police or judicial custody every day, but few are convicted in these cases, but data are scarce. Further, three in five deaths in police custody occur within 24 hours of arrest. The low proportion of women in Kerala's police force affected its ranking on effectiveness of its police in a 2019 report.

Seven in 10 prisoners are undertrials, and every third undertrial is Dalit or Adivasi, who often cannot secure bail. More than 80% of India's population is eligible for free legal aid, but fewer than 15 million people have been able to access it since 1995. Nearly 2,000 children living in jails with their imprisoned mothers struggle for a normal childhood.

Death penalties for sexual offences are increasing, but most rape cases are stuck at trial. Yet, four in five cases disposed of by fast-track courts last year took anywhere between one and 10 years to be decided.

Environment Undone

In a five-part series, we explored the environmental, ecological and human cost of India's chosen path of development.

As India opens up more biodiversity hotspots for development, the odds of COVID-19-like zoonotic disease crossing over to humans rises. Between 2014 and 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) approved 87% of over 2,500 project proposals it received for environment clearance. Of these, 278 projects were proposed to be in and immediately around protected areas such as wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.

In the ecologically fragile Western Ghats region, the MoEF&CC has granted clearances to 76 projects since July 2014. We examined the consequences of building through a forest using the example of a small road widening project, the NH-4A, which connects Goa in the west to Belgaum in the east.

Envisaged over a decade ago, a new $1.6-billion coal plant in UP aims to pump more electricity into India's already oversupplied grids. The plant will add to air pollution in the National Capital Region of Delhi, already home to six of the world's 20 most polluted cities. Also under threat are tens of thousands of trees in a wildlife corridor in Madhya Pradesh, where the plant's feeder mine is proposed to come up, evicting hundreds of farmers and Adivasi families.

In 2019, the coastline along Karwar in Karnataka was categorised as one of India's 13 "critically vulnerable coastal areas". Now a port expansion project under the Centre's Sagarmala programme threatens the coastline.

Farming in drought-prone Bundelkhand is becoming increasingly difficult as temperatures rise, rainfall decreases and groundwater levels drop. The Centre's Rs 18,000-crore Ken-Betwa river link project promises to change the region's fortunes, but experts say the project is unlikely to solve the region's water crisis. Cheaper, climate-change resilient alternatives exist, yet the Centre is allowing a project that endangers forests and wildlife.

Data gaps

As data journalists, we routinely run into problems with data availability, accessibility and reliability. In an ongoing series, we highlight the numbers that are not measured, or not shared publicly, affecting policymaking and monitoring.

Nutrition inequities persist in India, with Dalits and Adivasis worse off. India's nutrition surveys, however, do not make adequate data for individual social groups publicly available in an easily accessible form.

Similarly, lack of sex-disaggregated data and other gender-related gaps in Indian government's official data sources are making it difficult to track issues such as girls' and women's employment, asset ownership, health, sanitation and education.

Women@Work

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen Indian women's workforce participation rates--already among the world's lowest--fall further. Eight months after the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed, 13% fewer women than a year ago were employed or looking for jobs, compared to 2% fewer men, data show. Urban women saw the deepest losses.

Over the next several months, in the second part of our Women@Work series, we will peel back layers of realities, experiences and motivations to explore how more Indian women can be empowered to join the workforce so as to unleash their economic and social potential.

Mental Health Fellowship

The lives of thousands of Indians with chronic mental illness and those of their caregivers turned tumultuous after the pandemic hit. Pandemics are known to exacerbate mental health conditions, and India's mental healthcare system failed to deliver during the COVID-19 crisis.

As part of our Mental Health Fellowship in partnership with The Health Collective, IndiaSpend examined how patients, doctors and institutes coped. The picture that emerged is one of an already overextended and under-resourced mental healthcare system unravelled by the COVID-19 crisis, leaving institutions and patients at sea and with little support from the central or state governments.

In subsequent reports, we will report on living with schizophrenia in India, and what mental health relief schemes must take into account during the pandemic and its fallouts.

ResearchWire

At IndiaSpend, we have always strived to tell stories using data, and in that endeavour, we dissect research studies and official reports, glean meaning from data and complement this rigour with stories of people from the ground.

In July, we started ResearchWire, IndiaSpend's first curated newsletter--a fortnightly email compilation of the latest research and thinking on India's health, education, gender, environment, and the economy.

Over 10 editions of the newsletter this year, we've learnt about a variety of research showing, for instance, the impact of COVID-19 on India's complex food value systems, how the mother-in-law matters to policy, the tricky relationship between growth and corruption, and why it is better to be a woman in south India than in the north.

We welcome feedback. Please write to respond@indiaspend.org. We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.

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