An Indian journalist globally renowned as an advocate for the poor, Palagummi Sainath wrote his classic book “Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts” in 1996. He has won numerous international prizes, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award (the “Asian Nobel Prize”) and honors from the United Nations and Amnesty International.
Now Sainath, who until recently was the longtime rural affairs editor with The Hindu newspaper, is coordinating the launch of the People’s Archive of Rural India, an interactive multimedia website.
During lunch with The Progressive, Sainath engaged in a harsh critique of globalization and deregulation, which he blamed for the global financial crisis of 2008. Even today some people are still calling for less regulation, which reminds him, he said, "of medieval times when doctors tried to cure people by bleeding them, and when the patients died, the doctors said we should have bled them more.”
Sainath is best known for his spotlight on the epidemic of farmer suicide in India after the much-celebrated opening of the Indian economy. Approximately 300,000 farmers have taken their lives in the past nineteen years, a phenomenon that was almost completely ignored until Sainath focused on it.
Sainath is pessimistic about India’s new government, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with its combination of neoliberal economics and rightwing nationalism. He predicts that it will gut the social programs that the previous center-left government put into place, such as a rural job program that provides employment to a member of each rural family for 100 days a year.
“The upper class, industry, and landlords hate the scheme, since it provides a floor wage,” he said. “Joseph Stiglitz [the Nobel Prize-winning economist] recently told me that Modi can’t hope to expand the economy while at the same time lowering wages.”
Sainath says Modi intends to “reform” the financial sector, which would open up India to the very calamity that took down Wall Street. When the global financial sector melted down in 2008, he said, “the Indian bank unions saved the economy because they resisted the privatizers.”
Sainath has written extensively about the lives of rural Indian women, and says he is especially interested in the “worldwide predicament of the rural.”
“What George Monbiot of The Guardian has said for African women is true for women the world over: If wealth were a product of hard work, all African women would be millionaires,” Sainath said. “And now the work of Indian women has doubled due to the mass migration of men to the cities.”
“One-third of the waking life of Indian women is spent in the search of three things: water, firewood, and fodder,” he added. “And all of this is being made more difficult due to the massive displacement occurring as corporations and governments grab lands for projects and Special Economic Zones.”
Sainath offered a detailed refutation of the notion that globalization is reducing poverty in countries such as India. Between 2007 and 2010, he said, the government of India set up three expert commissions to assess the number of poor people in India. The first one estimated that a whopping 77 percent of the population was impoverished. Horrified, the government set up a second commission (on which Sainath served and issued a dissenting note) that pegged the poverty rate at roughly half the population. Still dissatisfied, the government set up a third commission headed by a rightwing economist that settled for an even lower poverty figure but still substantially higher than the government’s own numbers.
"There was a change by the hundreds of millions in people living in poverty,” Sainath joked, “without the actual condition of a single person changing.”
Sainath is now embarking on one of the most ambitious journalism projects ever: to comprehensively document the lives of close to 1 billion rural Indians.
"The project will cover 833 million people and approximately 880 languages,” Sainath informed his audience Saturday during his plenary session at the annual South Asia conference at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. “The complexity of the project can be seen by the fact that during my recent 280-kilometer journey in Eastern India, I encountered forty different languages.”
The website, set to be formally launched in December, aims to have a picture of a man, woman, and child from every single one of India’s almost 700 districts (the Indian equivalent of counties). All told, there will be thousands of photos, plus numerous videos, chronicling life in India’s rural hinterland.
"The decision on what to feature on the website is taken extremely democratically by me,” quipped Sainath. But he isn’t the only journalist involved. “A lot of media professionals are contributing their work for free, since they are getting satisfaction that they can’t get from the work they are doing for their own media outlets,” he said. And there are scores of volunteers contributing from all over the country.
The focus of the website is twofold, Sainath said: 1) labor, i.e., what people do and how they do it and 2) the linguistic diversity of India.
“The nature of rural India has transformed more in the past ten years than ever due to the mass migration to the cities,” Sainath said. “The 2011 census recorded migration numbers that are larger than during India’s partition in 1947.”
Sainath criticized the effects of free-market globalization on the rural population.
“It is strengthening that which is barbaric and regressive and smashing what is beautiful,” he said. As examples, he gave the death of traditional handicrafts, such as pottery, and languages. At the same time, he said, horrible institutions such as caste-based village councils are being bolstered as a backlash against globalization.
In addition to his groundbreaking reporting, Sainath played a pivotal role in a significant media operation when he helped bring WikiLeaks to India. While he was working for The Hindu, he met with Julian Assange and helped publish WikiLeaks' India-related documents that embarrassed the U.S. diplomatic corps in the country.
“I’m fond of saying there are two types of journalism: investigating and stenography,” Sainath said. “I was giving a lecture, and I repeated that comment, and during the question period, someone rose and said, ‘I’m a stenographer, and you’re not being fair. As a court reporter, I take down what everybody says. But journalists just take down what the officials are saying.’ So I said I’d amend my comment, and make it ‘stenographers of the powerful.” ”
To view Sainath's work, visit his website, ruralindiaonline.org.