Penguin India 1996, Price : Rs 295/- Pages: 470
Palagummi Sainath is a bitter man.
On a Times of India fellowship in the year 1992, Sainath has toured some of the poorest districts in the country to know how the poorest of the poor citizens of free India live.
Exist might be a better word.
The book under review is a collection of reports that the author filed during his tours. Some of the reports kicked up controversies and in a few cases even led to some action on the part of the authorities. It is another matter that these were a drop in the ocean, and provide only an academic satisfaction in the otherwise grim scenario.
Sainath’s main findings can be summarized in one word- apathy. Apathy towards the victims of rural poverty in the country. Around this core, he weaves the stories about real people who generally lie hidden in the great piles of statistical data. In a way, he has given names to poverty. His stories are provocative, jarring and shocking to the point of being macabre.
The selection of the districts which the author chose to study were the 2 poorest districts each in the 5 poorest states of the country- Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. According to the author, there was near unanimity among the experts regarding their dubious status. Seeing the problem of poverty as a process rather than an event (in the form of outbreaks of epidemics or the infamous ‘sale’ of children in Orissa in the mid- eighties), formed the bigger challenge. The process, it turns out is a ruthless, grinding one and one that is full of amazing contradictions.
There is a story of the farmer who earns more money by selling water than by agriculture. A super hi- tech project in one of the most backward regions- Godda in Bihar, creates jobs for not more than 1300 people- many of them from outside the region, at the cost of Rs. 65 lakhs per job ! Meanwhile, the foreign consultant has been involved in transactions worth Rs. 645 crores, out of the total outlay of Rs. 966 crores. In the same district, loans have been given to members of a tribe to purchase cows, in some cases two cows per family, little realizing that the tribe does not consume milk products at all, and instead consumes beef in large quantity. At the end of the benign exercise, the cows ended up in the dinner plates of the lucky recipients, and the latter in a life long debt trap.
Sainath discovers that while there are schools without buildings and teachers, there are schools with buildings and teachers too. Except that while the ‘buildings’ are used for storing fodder and tendu leaves and the teachers teach non- existent students. There is a teacher who has not visited the school where he is ‘teaching’ for years, while drawing his salary all the time.
Then there is the case of the residents of a village called Chikpaar. The village was first acquired in 1968 for the MiG jet fighter project for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in 1968, the 400- 500 families were evicted on an “angry monsoon night” . They moved to another location (on the land they owned themselves) and resettled there. Nostalgically, they named the new village as Chikpaar.
In 1987, the families were evicted again for the Kolab multi- purpose project. The villagers again resettled at another place.
However, ‘development’ has chased them to their new place of residence and the residents have received eviction notices for the third time. Needless to say, the displaced persons were either paid a pittance as compensation and in many cases, the money took years to come by.
On the state of the Sekupani village in Gumla, Bihar, a government official himself demands from the author: “What if residents of Malabar Hill in Bombay have to evacuate each time the navy has an exercise ? And are paid Rs. 1.50 a day for their pains ? This is happening here because the people are adivasis. Since this is a backward, cut- off region.”
An adivasi artist, Pema Fatiah is discovered by a bureaucrat and goes on to win laurels for his murals. But that is about all that he earns, after his recognition, come the hordes of SPs, DSPs , SDMs and tehsildars who force paintings out of him free of cost, with a flunky or a havaldar looking over his shoulders all the while he paints.
There are stories upon stories like these- Sainath has captured an entire landscape of people for whom everyone from global agencies downwards to the mohalla politician and bureaucrat has a concern. Often this concern either gets diverted to the pockets of the local strongmen or lands up for the wrong cause, like in the case of the tribes gifted cow in a loan mela. Sainath has, in a fabulous sweep, captured this entire net of linkages in his stories, often peppered with ironic insights.
The book under review can be seen to be operating at a number of levels.
First and foremost is the actual state of affairs in which the poorest in India survive. These are tales of poignant misery, and at the same time of admirable courage. At another level, it is about the needs and aspirations of the “insulted and the humiliated”, to borrow a phase from Dostoyvesky. It is about policies, schemes and programs launched with great fanfare and soon left to take their own wayward course, making a mockery of the intended aims.
At another level, these are stories about the idocity of what has been termed as development. There are dams that have displaced people who will never benefits from the dams anyway. There are dams that are under perpetual construction, with the contractors assured of a perpetual source of income. There are missile ranges which displace village after village like Chikpaar, with the villagers and adivasis losing not only their land but also the very world they belong to. They form the multitudes migrating to big cities, ending up as virtual slaves of contractors in an alien world.
Finally the book is a scathing indictment of the elite in this country. What Dr. K.N. Raj termed as the “two Indias” pithily and epigrammatically comes out in the present work. No debates on the pros and cons of liberalization or Nehruism can substitute for the reasons for such grueling poverty. If the tales in the book sound other- worldly or chillingly macabre, it is because the Indian elite, specially the middle class, which has been reared on this very ‘development’, or in other words on the heads and shoulders of the poor in India, has come a long way from the victims of this ‘development’.
Sainath has given words to the adivasi in Govind Nihalani’s film Aakrosh (the role was played by Om Puri), whose tongue has been cut off and despite being the victim, is actually hauled up in jail.
Palagummi Sainath has reasons to be bitter.
NTC, 15 Aug 1997