Award-winning journalist reports from the world’s poorest communities
by Brian Kaller
Palagummi Sainath reports from Hell. One of India’s most respected journalists, Sainath is one of the few reporters to cover the several hundred million poor farmers of that country—perhaps the poorest people in the world, a population greater than that of the entire United States.
no formal training, he began reporting for the Times of India, receiving the
news agency’s highest individual award. In 1993 he began writing about
India’s poorest districts, describing for the newspaper’s upper-class
readers the crushing poverty, lack of basic health care and mass suicides of
the region. Public outrage over the series is credited with the Indian government’s
creation or reformation of public services in the area, and his articles became
a regular feature.
In a typical column, written in July of last year, Sainath described his visit
to an area where many villagers were dying and unable to get health care, already
in debt to the system’s exorbitant fees. One villager, Gunala Kumar, committed
suicide rather than pay his medical debt, as his father had done the year before.
One villager, named Janreddy, was dying and unable to get help until his previous
health care bills were paid. His daughter was in enforced servitude until the
debt of 500,000 rupees —about $11,500—was paid. He died a few hours
after being interviewed.
Some of Sainath’s articles were published as a 1996 book, “Everybody
Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts,” which
chronicled Sainath’s journey across 100,000 miles of India, 5,000 of those
on foot. The book became the world’s top non-fiction best-seller by an
Indian author in 1997-98, according to his press release. It also won 13 awards,
including the European Commission’s Journalism Award, and is being used
as a teaching aid or textbook at over 100 universities worldwide.
After finding that government data on poverty in the region was sketchy, Sainath
began a project in which newspaper journalists gathered and compiled information
themselves and assembled the data into a “human poverty database,”
according to various articles. The project also measures poverty more comprehensively
than the government, according to Sainath’s biography on the Asoka Fellowship
became the first journalist to win Amnesty International’s Global Human
Rights Journalism prize in 2000, as well as many other international awards,
and was the subject of a 2001 documentary, “A Tribe of His Own: The Journalism
of P. Sainath,” from Bullfrog Films. Ordfront publishing company included
one of Sainath’s articles in the compilation “Best Reporting of
the 20th Century,” putting him next to writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez,
Studs Terkel and John Reed.
For 18 years he has taught journalism students, both in colleges and in the
field. In articles and lectures he has harshly criticized the “McJournalism”
of the elite media, urging his colleagues to instead get out among the people
and focus on giving a voice to the voiceless. Many of the Sainath’s protégés
have themselves gone on to win major national awards.
Sainath has been described by venerated Indian journalist Nikhil Chakravartty
as “the conscience of the Indian nation,” by Nobel Laureate Amartya
Sen as “one of the world’s great experts on hunger and famine”
and in various articles as “the bad boy of Indian journalism.”
He will give two talks in the Twin Cities: “When Farmers Die: the Agrarian
Crisis,” Sunday Feb. 27 at 3 p.m., and “The Globalization of Inequality,”
Monday, Feb. 28 at 3 p.m., both on the U of M West Bank. He spoke with Pulse
the day after flying from India to Austin, Texas.
PULSE: Welcome back to the United States. Talk to me about where you
will be touring and what you hope to do here.
SAINATH: I will be visiting quite a few journalism schools here. I have
taught journalism for 18 years, and I teach two very different groups of students—one
group in classes at two universities, and the other by giving hands-on training
in the field as rural stringers.
I’m rural affairs editor of the Hindu, a very large newspaper in the south
of India, and I spend most of my year, say 270 days a year, in the countryside,
in the villages. Because that’s my view of journalism, I stay with the
people I write about. And I write about agriculture and deprivation among poor
people. That’s what I write about. So like, say, if you took the last
250 days since I joined the Hindu, out of those 250 days I have spent about
210 to 215 in the field.
When I work in the field, I teach a different kind of journalism; I work with
stringers who did not have any formal journalism school, just as I did not,
and they are a very different kettle of fish than the students I teach in the
They have a totally different class perspective. The ones you would get in the
universities generally belong to the upper class. And the stringers in the rural
areas are from the rural middle class, a much, much lower strata of society.
They are very smart and very dynamic, but they have a lot of trouble negotiating
issues like politics and law. But they are far more connected than the urban
upper-class journalists to what’s really happening among the people. So
when you are a working-class journalist in district X, you know what the hell
is going on there, and you are plugged in to the politics of the region.
I learn a hell of a lot from hanging around with them. They are dynamite, they
get into places most people from the outside cannot and, while I train them,
they act as my network.
PULSE: It seems like much of your work has focused on writing about
the worst areas in the world. What conclusions have you drawn from your reporting?
SAINATH: For my book (“Everybody Loves a Good Drought”)
I chose the 10 poorest districts in India, which meant the poorest in the world.
I look at poverty in terms of deprivation: a lot of old words have been forgotten
these days, and one of them is exploitation.
Poverty is not a natural state. It is not a disease. It happens because of what
human beings do to other human beings. It happens because of the corporate monopolies,
because of the great number of resources in the hands of a few, because of the
relationship between landowner and peasant, between the people who own the land
and the people who work it. And it’s not something that will be solved
by housing projects or by teaching people to sew baskets for tourists. A lot
of the energy put into what is broadly being called “development”
around the world consists of trying to find technological fixes for what are
really political problems.
PULSE: What political changes would have to take place for there to
make a real difference in the Third World?
SAINATH: Any political change would have to address the complete absence
of resources among the poor. But far from doing that, worldwide the last 15
years has been the period of the fastest-growing inequality in history—worldwide,
not just in India—resulting in the greatest inequality since the Great
Depression. In India there has never been a greater period of inequality since
the British Raj.
There are two reasons why this has happened. First, there has been a complete
collapse of restraint on the power of corporations, and second the elites in
most countries have captured most of the power. So if you wanted to do something
about the massive poverty in India, for example, you would have to have some
very far-reaching land reforms.
When the mainstream media here talk about the changes that have happened
in most of these Third World countries, it’s talked about as being a good
thing —that these countries are “opening up,” that they are
becoming more “free.” Inequality is rarely mentioned, and when it
is it’s usually as the inevitable outgrowth of freedom.
SAINATH: It’s the same way they talk about India. It’s an
old scam to conflate unrestrained markets with democracy. Singapore is a very
free market. You will not find anyone on the planet who will describe it as
a democracy. There is a free market in Iraq right now for Halliburton and other
corporations, but not for Iraqis. How many Iraqis own anything there right now?
Take the gap between the richest fifth of the world and the poorest fifth. In
the last 20 years, the gap between those groups more than doubled. In 1998,
the top fifth consumed 86 percent of all goods and services. The bottom fifth
had to make do with 1.3 percent.
It’s very simple—when you have gross inequality in any society,
you do not have democracy. You cannot have democracy when a huge section of
society’s best hope is to become the servants of another group. If you
are absolutely poor and absolutely incapable, people stop treating you as a
human being. You are a subspecies.
That is the natural consequence of the free market. Just look at that gap: the
world’s wealthiest 200 people in the country more than doubled their net
worth in the four years leading to the millennium. In four years, they more
than doubled their net worth to $1 trillion. The wealth of the top three billionaires
in the world is more than that of all the least developed countries in the world
and their 600 million people put together.
Let me say that again: The wealth of the top three billionaires in the world
are more than that of all the least developed countries in the world and their
600 million people put together.
PULSE: I sometimes wonder why people aren’t more outraged about
that, and think perhaps the numbers are too big—we are just incapable
of understanding it.
SAINATH: The numbers are huge, but there is also a choice whether we
want to comprehend it or whether we want to evade those facts and feel better.
tell you a story. If you want to provide basic food, clean water and sanitation
to everyone in the world who doesn’t have it, it would cost us about $40
billion a year. On the plane here I was reading USA Today, and their cover story
was about people spending about $34 billion on the pet industry in this country
alone. That includes buying beds with dressers for the dog, hip replacements
for older dogs, low-carb diets for overweight dogs—all coming to about
$34 billion. I think that’s obscene.
We want to find and solve the problem, but we don’t want to face the problem,
even as it worsens. I’ve covered poverty most of my life and I’ve
never seen the kind of wealth and poverty that I’ve seen in the last 10-15
PULSE: What are some of the changes you have seen in the Indian countryside
in that time?
SAINATH: The availability of food has fallen to World War II levels—in
2003, the amount of food available to the average Indian was less than it was
during the Bengal famine in 1942. What misguides a lot of people is that, even
if you are looking at India’s top 10 percent—as American correspondents
always do—their lives are improving. And that 10 percent is not a small
number—10 percent of India is half of the European Union. But if the top
10 percent is consuming fabulously more than ever before, and the overall cake
is shrinking, it does raise the question, doesn’t it, what the heck are
the bottom 90 percent eating?
So worldwide there is more wealth in the world than there has ever been, yet
there is more poverty than ever. There is a really easy way to measure this.
Just take the 13 years or so that the U.N. Human Development Report has existed.
Look at the earliest reports of 1991, and look at the reports of 2003. You will
find that, whatever has grown for the better, inequality grows. And that’s
a look at 170-odd nations.
In the case of my own country, India, the more we were being praised the more
we were sliding down their index. The concept of the market right now is the
leading religious fundamentalism in the world right now. It’s a very religious
idea—you will either be punished by God or by the market.
PULSE: A few months ago I spoke with American author Thomas Frank, who
has made similar observations.
SAINATH: Yes, his book, “One Market Under God,” was brilliant.
He got it exactly right.
PULSE: I noticed this in our own country, where people describe the economy
only in terms of how the big corporations are doing. There is a business section,
but the people section is about fashion and food, not the economy. I remember
a few years ago an expert saying that the economy was doing great, it’s
just that the people weren’t.
You’re right. The amazing achievement of the corporate media in the
last 20 years has been to completely diverge how an economy is doing from how
a people are doing.
And the people can be dying. In India since 1997, we’ve had tens of thousands
of farmers commit suicide. I’ve written about some of them. How much of
a success story can you be when your farmers are committing suicide? And yet
the party goes on—there’s something very obscene about it.
In India now, we have something called the Sensex—the sensitive index
of the Bombay stock exchange. It is watched with the fervor and passion of ancient
religious cults watching for portents. The entire Indian economy is now being
conflated with the Sensex. The total number of people having any money in the
Sensex is 1.15 percent of households. That’s the figure of the Confederation
of Indian Industry, which would be the most conservative figure. And how they
are doing is supposed to be how India is doing.
Sixty-five percent of rural Indians don’t have a bank account. So when
the media says that cell phone sales are booming in India, they are, but mainly
among households that already have cell phones or land lines.
PULSE: I know lots of people in the anti-corporate movement, and it’s
heartening to see things like the WTO protests in Seattle. But these ideas often
seem stuck in a marginal subculture, a campus clique whose hobby is complaining
about corporations. I don’t see many people explaining to the general
public about how these issues affect them, or coming up with things people can
do in their everyday lives to make the situation better.
SAINATH: I think there are a lot of things people can do in their everyday
lives, and there are many people, including some Americans, already talking
about that—just not being given much media attention. I also would not
underestimate what happened in Seattle and elsewhere. I will also tell you that
I think right now you are beginning to see the unraveling of the game.
The way the media and elite businessmen are talking about the market now is
very different than how they were 10 years ago. You have people on the business
pages saying that we shouldn’t exaggerate the power of the market, backing
off from what they used to say, feeling the backlash.
are right now very successful campaigns against corporations. To take one little
example, take Venezuela. This is one tiny country with all the power of global
corporations and the United States government attacking it, but people went
out and elected the government they wanted. They fought back, and no one expected
it—and then there was an attempted coup, and that failed. All over the
world, there are similar agitations that you don’t read about because
your media doesn’t publicize them.
Something similar happened in India, with a movement against Coca-Cola. Coke
and Pepsi are draining farmers’ water in India, so that the farmers are
dying. But you know that in parts of India, Coke now cannot put up a sign, because
it will be firebombed?
PULSE: Pulse reported a few months ago about one such protest in India
that included a Minneapolis man, Jim Fasset-Garman —he acted as a liaison
between the Indian march and sympathetic protesters in the United States. After
he came back from India I met him at a house party for this cause, and I was
a little disappointed to see so few people there. But then there could be many
such gatherings going on, all over America, and it’s not like we would
hear about them.
SAINATH: We should not go to the other extreme of not kidding ourselves—the
power of corporations is greater than that of any power people have ever faced
in recent times. The power of corporate media today was unimaginable prior to
World War II. In the corporate media, you can sell the most horrifying things
as normal and vilify the most normal things as obscene, and the sheer reach
and power that the global media has really colors a lot of things.
I don’t believe there are a lack of protests, but that the protestors
have been incoherent and isolated. But they keep going, and sometimes they work.
Right now in east India there are huge battles going on against mining companies,
which having been kicked out of 20 or so other countries for obnoxious practices,
who now turn to India because the government will accept them. They know they
have perhaps 20 years to do their thing in a country before it becomes so polluted
that their con game becomes clear and people rise up against them.
I don’t see any victories for us ahead, but remember that most great movements
started as only two or three people. That’s how things always start.
And unexpected things happen that give us hope. In the last elections in India,
in May 2004, all the media and experts predicted a sweeping victory to the ruling
NDA coalition, led by our right-wing fundamentalist Hindu party. Every discussion
on television was undertaken as though the election were over—it was only
a question of who would get this or that government post.
Western elite’s favorite journalist was a guy from my own state on Andashpuresh
who was hailed as a “techie genius,” a successful businessman named
Chandra Babunaidu. He doesn’t actually know anything about technology,
he was just built up by the U.S. media. There was a piece written about the
race by a New York Times journalist that was the biggest bunch of bullshit I
have ever seen, about how this guy is going to win because he has “modernized”
my home state. This was the state where I reported 3,000 farmer suicides.
This article predicted that this guy, running in my home state where people
speak Telugu, had a natural advantage because, they said, he speaks Telugu.
All the other candidates were from the same state—did they all speak Esperanto?
This is the kind of stuff a lot of U.S. journalists write about other countries.
Did he bother to find out what the other candidates spoke? Can you imagine someone
saying that Tony Blair had a natural advantage in England’s elections
because he was the candidate that spoke English?
Despite all this, while all the polls predicted one result, the people of India
went out and gave them a different one.
PULSE: That’s not what happened in this country, though.
SAINATH: Yes, well, now you have a problem. (laughs) So do we—I
don’t mean that the party that won was perfect. The party predicted to
win was going to practice Hindu fundamentalism and market fundamentalism, and
the party that won will only practice market fundamentalism.
I cannot despair: all my life I have things suddenly change dramatically, both
for good and bad. People have a way of hitting back, and millions upon millions
of people living a subhuman life can hit back hard.
PULSE: When you speak here, you will be speaking to some of the minority
of Americans familiar with these issues. What would you have them read or do
in their daily lives to help change things?
I’m a little reluctant to give people a list of a few simple things they
can do, because it reminds me too much of the self-improvement book culture—books
with titles like “Seven Easy Steps to Spiritual Success.” The world
is a complex place, and solutions are rarely simple.
But you are right, a lot of people are concerned about these issues but don’t
know what to do about it, and there are certain principles that can guide us.
I think addressing corporate power is a crucial thing to do right now, and boycotts
are one good way to do it—it is the one thing that really scares them.
It is extremely important that Americans look critically at their own media.
This is a media-saturated society, and you have to wonder that Americans can
have the world’s largest media and some of its least-informed public.
But I find that the world works in curious ways, and sometimes people you don’t
expect to want to make the world better, people you don’t think of as
being on your side, will come to a realization. People can surprise you. ||
Palagummi Sainath will speak on the topic, “When Farmers Die: The
Agrarian Crisis, Farmer Suicides and the Media,” Sunday, Feb. 27 at 3
p.m. in Room 10 of Blegen Hall on the University of Minnesota West Bank, 269
19th Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55455. He will give a second talk, “The Globalization
of Inequality,” Monday, Feb. 28 at 3 p.m., in Room 255 of Blegen Hall.
Both talks are free and open to the public.