The coping strategies he found were astonishing. As he writes, “Some of them [are] quite ingenious, all of them back-breaking.” In Godda, in the northern state of Bihar, Sainath followed a man named Kishan Yadav on a sixty-kilometer journey as the laborer pushed a reinforced bicycle piled with 250 kilograms of low-grade coal scavenged from the waste dumps of mines all the way to the market. The three-day ordeal, repeated twice a week, was how 3,000 men in the district kept their families alive—a miracle, it would seem, because they earned only about ten rupees (about twenty-five cents at the time) a day. In Ramnad, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Sainath spent time with twenty-seven-year-old Ratnapandi Nadar, who eked out a living tapping palm trees for sap that could be boiled into a sweetener called “jaggery.” Nadar worked a sixteen-hour day that began at three in the morning, climbing at least forty trees. “That is roughly equivalent to walking up and down a building of 250 floors daily, using the staircase,” notes Sainath.

In a country where poverty is depressingly visible all the time, many middle-class Indians have developed blinders to the distress around them. Sainath’s great achievement was to make readers start to pay attention to their poorer countrymen. His lucid writing, so evident in these powerful portraits, had much to do with this. Too often, reportage on poverty is unremittingly grim, weighed down by a severity that deters all but the most determined readers. But Everybody Loves a Good Drought, in addition to being marked by a profound empathy for its subjects, is leavened with black humor. That quality is especially on display when Sainath describes the absurd theater of poverty-alleviation programs and the industry that has sprung up to help “uplift” the less fortunate, to use a verb frequently employed by Indian bureaucrats.

Among the pieces that best illustrate this tragicomedy is a story from Naupada in Orissa, in which Sainath tells of Mangal Sunani’s delight when the government gifted him a cow as part of a poverty-reduction scheme. Officials told Sunani that he and scores of others in the district (who were also given cows) would prosper after their animals were impregnated with the semen of a Jersey bull, thereby producing high-yield cows and other bulls. The officials even gave Sunani an acre of land for free, so that he could grow fodder for the cattle, and offered to pay him the minimum daily wage to work the plot. To ensure that the cows didn’t accidentally mate with a local bull, all the male cattle in the region were castrated.

Two years later, the community only had eight crossbred calves; many other calves had died shortly after they were born because the crossbred cows were susceptible to disease. By then, the local, hardier species of cattle had been wiped out because of the castration drive and the cow herders were forced to buy milk from the market. When they attempted to grow vegetables on the patches of land they’d been given, officials were annoyed: they wouldn’t be paid their wage if they raised anything but fodder, the villagers were warned. Sainath dryly headlined the piece, VERY FEW SPECIMENS—BUT A LOT OF BULL.

The ludicrousness of the situation even creeps into the names of some of the places from which the dispatches have been filed. One report is from a region of Orissa state that is officially called Cut-Off Area, home to the residents of 152 villages who are stranded on islands in a reservoir created by a dam built in the 1960s to generate hydroelectricity. Though these villagers saw their farms submerged when the power project was constructed, almost none of them actually has electricity at home. Sainath points out that between 1951 and 1990, more than 26 million Indians have been displaced by development projects. But the rewards of these dams, canals, and mines have rarely trickled down to the so-called beneficiaries. It’s a section of the book that has special resonance today, given that the Indian government has recently approved the creation of close to four hundred Special Economic Zones, which has resulted in even more farmers being pressured to sell off their land cheaply. The government hopes to attract more investment by giving firms that open offices in the SEZs incentives such as tax holidays and flexible labor regulations. As of early October 2007, just over five-hundred square kilometers had been acquired for these zones. In Drought, Sainath writes, “If the costs [the poor] bear are the price of development, then the rest of the nation is having a free lunch.”

Naresh Fernandes is editor in chief of Time Out India.