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An Evening With P. Sainath

By Niranjan Ramakrishnan

07 March, 2005

“Come with me to Orissa, to Puri - a holy place and a sanatorium, where you will find soldiers and the Governor’s residence during summer months. Within ten miles’ radius of Puri, you will see skin and bone. With this very hand I have collected soiled pies* from them tied tightly in their rags, and their hands were more paralyzed than mine were at Kolhapur. Talk to them of modern progress. Insult them by taking the name of God before them in vain”.

“The poor sisters of Orissa have no saris; they are in rags. Yet they have not lost all sense of decency; but, I assure you, we have. We are naked in spite of our clothing and they are clothed in spite of their nakedness”.

--Mahatma Gandhi (1927)

[* A Pie was the smallest denomination of coin in British India.]

"Only five of the twelve nations affected by the recent tsunami have a functioning stock market", the speaker began.
"And all five markets registered historic or near-historic highs in the week following the Tsunami!" With that opening, it was impossible not to retain the audience's full attention. Palagummi Sainath, the Indian reporter and writer well-known for his coverage of rural drought and poverty, was speaking last week at a small college campus, to a crowd of around 200.

Fluent in his subject and familiar (rather too well, it appeared at times) with the American lecture circuit, Sainath sprinkled his talk with interesting factoids about the rich-poor divide, the politics of SARS, why he stopped drinking Coke and Pepsi, and a host of other gems. A few examples:

> 30000 homes were destroyed by the tsunami in the town of Nagapattinam in South India. Over 84000 hutments were forcibly demolished in Bombay, and the occupants evicted, all by the government. (See Mumbai's Man Made Tsunami)

> Structural Adjustment affects the West too: some 15000 people died in France in the heat wave, in just August of 2003. Their benefits had been cut.

> Farmer suicides are not a third world issue alone. They occur routinely in the USA -- only many of them are reported as accidents so that the family does not lose the insurance payment.

> Only 1.8% of Indian households invest in the stock market, per the Stock Exchange's apex body. But the Finance minister missed the opening day of the new parliament -- he was away in Bombay to assuage the fears of the market mavens.

> Last year, the fastest growing economy in the world was.......Afghanistan! Over a quarter of its GDP came from......opium!

> An official body in China concluded that the two fastest growing segments of the Chinese economy were (a) Corruption and (b) Prostitution.

> India's Human Development Index dropped, during the post-liberalization era of 'economic resurgence', from 124th in the world to 127th. This puts it behind El Salvador, Botswana and the Occupied Territories of Palestine.

> There are now 'theme weddings' in India, where a two-acre plot turned into Hollywood-like set, featuring, say, the Taj Mahal. The cost runs to some 30 million rupees (about a three quarters of a million dollars).

Sainath's talk was entitled, 'Globalizing Inequality'. This could be interpreted in two ways: one, that inequality was now a global phenomenon, with disparities even in Western societies reaching near-Eastern potentate levels. Or two,how globalization raises inequalities in local arenas. Sainath's talk consisted mainly of examples of the former. The only references he made to globalization were in passing; one got the impression that he was dismissing any notions of rolling back globalization as pointless, adding mysteriously that the old days of 'think globally, act locally' were long gone, and we had now all to act and think globally and locally.

Recalling that he was a history student before becoming a journalist, Sainath described Emperor Nero's open air party for the Who's Who of Rome. As dusk fell, lights were called for, and Nero's staff came up with a novel solution: the party was illuminated by prisoners and poor being burnt on stakes all around the arena.

The thing he had always wondered about, Sainath said, was the attitude of Nero's guests. Why did they go along with this atrocity? How did they continue partying on? He ended his talk with by asking, "Are we going to be like Nero's guests?"

Brilliant as it was as rhetorical allusion, evidence would suggest that too many of us had already shown we were willing, even eager, guests. Sainath did not talk about the growing ranks of the middle class elite in India and elsewhere, determined not to be left out of Nero's party, inuring themselves to the pain of their fellow citizens while simultaneously proclaiming nationalism in every breath, often with genuine belief.

Though the lecture was full of interesting observations, one felt it would have been great if they were tied together to provide us an insight into why things were the way they were, leaving the audience with inspiration for things to do. Perhaps Sainath felt the facts spoke for themselves.

A couple of post-lecture questions deserve mention. One lady asked about a well-known local dairy cooperative trying to battle Monsanto and resisting the use of a growth hormone in its products. The question: how can we make sure the big media covers this big story? It seemed the perfect question, given Sainath's background. The answer was woefully inadequate. After a long-winded reply, much of it irrelevant to the question, all he finally provided were some predictable old chestnuts about writing letters to the editor, etc.

The other memorable question of the evening came from a gentleman who waved about a card he wanted people to sign. It was an appeal to Coke about the Plachimada plant in India. Sainath had refered to this in his talk, mentioning how local people were protesting Coca-Cola's deep-drilling which was draining away the all the ground water in the area. The questioner wanted to know if such campaigns were useful. Sainath's answer was not noteworthy. It would have been interesting to learn why, when people in Plachimada were being deprived of water because of a Coke plant, so many people in India still continued to drink it. Second, and this was relevant -- why did Sainath not once mention the name of the most successful practitioner of such protests in the past century -- I mean Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi would have shamed the country with the moral question whether it was ok to use a product which deprived people of their very source of drinking water.

Sainath was entirely accessible and easy to talk to. I asked the latter question after the lecture ended. He grew somewhat indignant, first explaining that it was not a prepared speech, then saying Gandhi was not some kind of deity to be mentioned ritually in every talk. When I persisted, he invoked cloture with a firm, "I'm not a Gandhian". I remained unconvinced, for at the heart of all this was the matter of how aware people were of what they used, and the consequences of their unconcern. The genius of Gandhi lay in making urban India confront its conscience, and establishing the connection in the urban mind that it could make no viable progress while rural India was being bled white. I should have liked to know how the methods used in Plachimada compared, or to learn of current non-Gandhian innovations.

Right outside was an exhibition of photographs by Sainath of women in rural India. Sainath gave an informal but painstaking tour of the exhibit, recalling how he had come to take each picture, and what it represented. He held the small group enthralled with his storytelling, pointing out little things in each photograph which would surely have otherwise escaped the audience.

Hoping for more of Sainath's insight into the why's of these facts he had cited, I sought permission to join him and his hosts for the remainder of the evening. Why had the political class surrendered so meekly to the onslaught of the phenomenon of "Structural Adjustment"? He gave an impatient, "Everything will be fine, don't you worry" sort of answer: people are fighting, even if some battles are lost, there are still gains. True, but it didn't address why established bastions of social support systems were collapsing all over the world with little political dissent.

After dinner, we repaired to his host's apartment, where Sainath asked if we wanted to see photographs of families of farmer-suicides in Andhra Pradesh. Over such 25000 recorded deaths, Sainath said. "And God knows how many more that have not been recorded." As he laid out each photograph on the table, he related the story behind it -- who had died, why, the victim's name, his village, his family members, how much he (or she -- several women had committed suicide too!) had owed, how the family had responded, what they are doing now...It was a numbing rendition. How do people take their lives, asked someone hesitantly. By consuming chemical fertilizer, came the answer. With the seeds gone bad, it was all it was good for. But why were the seeds bad? Because the government had silently diluted its standards for seed quality, and then abdicated its responsibility even to impose the watered-down standards. Chalk up one more for Structural Adjustment.

But why had these people committed suicide? And why so many? The loss of hope, the defeat of honor, in most cases. He read out the suicide note of a middle aged man -- a matter of fact statement with not a trace of self-pity -- saying he had come to his decision because he saw no hope of being able, at his age, to work and pay off his debts and avert dishonor.

Among the suicide photographs was one of a man defeated, a hollowed out shell of a human being. As we tsk-tsked at that image, Sainath extracted an older photograph of the same man taken a few decades before -- alive and virile, holding a tall uncastrated bull on each side, a danger few would dare risk.

The photographs might be a metaphor for the predicament of the political class everywhere -- hollowed out.

Just twenty years ago, David Stockman wrote a book complaining about The Triumph of Politics. Today's title might be more like The Demise of Politics. Comprehending and addressing this sea change may be the most crucial component of social activism everywhere.

Sainath is a remarkable journalist, with an incredible memory and eye for detail. He spends over 9 months a year living in the villages. He writes and speaks about poverty and inequity with feeling and sincerity, with great knowledge and understanding. His book, "Everybody loves a good drought", has run to 13 editions and several translations. His articles appear regularly in the Indian press and on the web. The big question is, has all this moved our hearts? Perhaps his next book should be titled, "Everybody loves a good book about a drought". Sainath himself captured this paradox in his lecture. India has progressed, he said, to where a Dalit (Harijan) woman may now be elected to parliament. However, she arrives there at a stage where parliament itself may be passing into irrelevance. Institutions remain in name, but their intents and purposes have long fled. Hollowed out. We all realize this but we go on pretending not to notice.

To paraphrase Gandhi, the farmers who committed suicide had not lost their sense of honor, but most assuredly, we have.











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