An Evening With
By Niranjan Ramakrishnan
07 March, 2005
me to Orissa, to Puri - a holy place and a sanatorium, where you will
find soldiers and the Governors 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.
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.
[* 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
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
> 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).
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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.