Jain’s enormously profitable publication has set an example that many other newspapers have followed. Many of India’s English-language newspapers have abandoned the responsibility of being the fourth pillar of democracy (a role that many of them had first begun to embrace during the struggle for independence against the British). Now, they claim that they are mere content providers devoted to delivering to advertisers the largest number of eyeballs possible. As a result, the increasing divide between rich and poor that is a consequence of new economic policies introduced in the early 1990s—which include a predilection for privatizing even profitable public enterprises and slashing subsidies in several sectors, including health and education—is not really part of the public discourse. India ranks 128th on the United Nation’s human-development index—which measures life expectancy, educational standards, and standard of living—below such economic tigers as the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and Guatemala. The themes around which Everybody Loves a Good Drought is organized—debt, health, education, displacement, irrigation—remain the biggest problems India must tackle if it is to improve the lives of all its citizens. Yet despite the obvious problems, large sections of the country’s English-language press operate as though they are allies of the state in a national project to convince citizens that India is predestined to soar to global supremacy. That sentiment was highlighted in a recent Times of India advertising campaign that had as its punch line the phrase, “India Poised,” suggesting that the nation stood on the precipice of imminent greatness. (Ironically, it was the Times that first published Sainath’s searing reportage that eventually became Drought. In fact, the newspaper gave him a fellowship to fund his research, when the father of the present owners was chairman of the company.)
I first met Sainath in 1992, when he wrote a column called “The Last Page” for Blitz, a left-wing tabloid that was then wavering in its political principles. Each week, his column would tackle a wildly varying subject—the injustice of international patent law, the absurdity of the government’s agrarian policies, the hypocrisies of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party—with the delicate wit and insight that would later characterize Drought. I’d already heard about his legendary charisma: Sainath had taught a journalism class at a local women’s college for several years, and after they graduated, his awe-struck students would gush about his talent during tea breaks in newsrooms across the country. He won the Times fellowship and went out on the road shortly after I made his acquaintance, but by then he’d already encouraged me to expand the range of my reading (he introduced me to Gunnar Myrdal’s Asian Drama and later gifted me a copy of Graham Hancock’s Lords of Poverty), and left me with the realization that poverty needed to be reported as a process, not as a series of glaring events, such as starvation deaths, or famine.
Magnitude is among India’s defining characteristics, and Indian journalists are often overwhelmed by—and myopically focused on—the statistics and those glaring events (consider that half of all Indian children under four are malnourished, the number of illiterate Indians today is larger than the country’s total population when it won independence, and one of every three people in the world suffering from tuberculosis is Indian). But in Everybody Loves a Good Drought, Sainath brings to life the tragedies that lurk in the gray print of official reports—he shows us the structural reasons for poverty. Few Indian journalists had undertaken the kind of rigorous reporting trips that he had, even in the pre-liberalization period, when journalism that sought out the view from society’s margins was a much more valued endeavor. Sainath traveled more than 80,000 bumpy kilometers through the country’s ten poorest districts—the basic administrative units that comprise India’s states—to learn how the country’s poor survive during the 200-240 days after the spring and winter crops have been harvested, when there is no agricultural work to be had.