Palagummi Sainath: Reporting the Rural Poor

Madhukar Shukla has a collection of quotes from the writings of Palagummi Sainath, who last week won the Ramon Magsasay award for developmental journalism.

P. Sainath started his career with the tabloid Blitz and was groomed by the late Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, who willed that after his death, Sainath would continue to write his column. He left the Blitz in 1993 when its proprietor BK Karanjia changed his political colours. Sainath’s book Everyone Loves a Good Drought published a decade back is a chilling indictment of the elite in India.

Excerpts from my own review of the book:

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, rinding one and one that is full of amazing contradictions.

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.

The book brings out 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 Dostoyevsky. 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 idiocy 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.

The complete review of the book Everyone Loves a Good Drought
Alexander Cockburn’s profile of Sainath at Counterpunch.

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One thought on “Palagummi Sainath: Reporting the Rural Poor

  1. ‘…who *willed* that after his death, Sainath would continue to write his column.’

    thinking of now and then – perhaps, it does seem like sainath has inherited abbas’ scriptwriting talents.

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