Monday 29 December 2008

Modern Muckraker

Originally published in Pulse magazine, February 2005.

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.

With 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 2004, 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 website.

Sainath 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.”

KALLER: Talk to me about where you will be touring and what you hope to do [in the United States].

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 formal institutions.


SAINATH: 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.

KALLER: 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.

KALLER: 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.

KALLER: 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 is more than that of all the least developed countries in the world and their 600 million people put together.

KALLER: 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.

I’ll 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 years.

KALLER: 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.

KALLER: Recently 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.

KALLER: 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.

SAINATH: 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.

KALLER: 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.

There 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?

KALLER: I 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.

The 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.

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.

KALLER: 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?

SAINATH: 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.


Anonymous said...

Worthwhile to watch the French documentary "The world according to Monsanto" to learn it's role in India's farmer suicides. It's available on

Motherhood for the Weak said...

Very sobering. Thanks for posting it.