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.”
Driven by the conviction that, as he suggests, “the press can and does make a difference when it functions” because “governments do react and respond” to reportage, Sainath’s commitment to telling the stories of the neglected was obvious from his enormous personal investment in Drought: his fellowship grant was too small to match his ambition, so he kicked in all his retirement savings. Ironically, by the time the pieces were finally collected as a book in 1996, the business managers who had wrested control of newsrooms from the journalists weren’t interested in supporting this kind of journalism. Though the book had fired the imaginations of young journalists across India, almost no publications have been willing to invest the resources necessary to allow lengthy investigations into the causes—or processes—of poverty and deprivation. (Today, only The Hindu, its sister publication, Frontline magazine, and Tehelka, a weekly magazine, seem to regularly find the space for stories about the millions who have been left behind by India’s economic surge.) Nonetheless, the book earned Sainath a string of awards both at home and abroad. He has used some of the money he’s received from these awards to establish fellowships for rural reporters, giving journalists in small towns who write in regional languages the opportunity and the training to more effectively tell the stories of the countryside. For his part, Sainath, now fifty, continues to write for The Hindu about the economic forces that have pushed thousands of debt-ridden farmers to commit suicide in recent years.
In the last chapter of the book, Sainath considers the role the press could play in promoting genuine development in India. He notes that even when rural stories do find their way into the newspapers, journalists often tend to turn the nongovernmental agencies that have proliferated across the subcontinent into heroes, even though their strategies are often suspect. Covering development “calls for placing people and their needs at the centre of the stories. Not any intermediaries, however saintly,” he stresses. He also suggests journalists must begin to pay more attention to rural “political action and class conflict,” even at the risk of being labeled leftist. “Evading reality helps no one,” he writes. “A society that does not know itself cannot cope.”
But that’s unlikely to happen as newspapers devote their attention to providing infotainment to consumers, rather than news to citizens. Nonetheless, readers of The Times of India were pleasantly surprised a few months ago to wake up to a new advertising campaign for the newspaper featuring the subcontinent’s most famous film star, Amitabh Bachchan, admitting that the burst of economic growth had failed to benefit the country’s poorest. “There are two Indias in this country,” he declared in a television commercial shot on the contentious Bandra Worli Sea Link.