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.
However, Bachchan’s scriptwriter had a novel take on the crisis: he blamed the poor for preventing India from realizing its true potential. As he potters around the 5.6-kilometer bridge, Bachchan says, “One India is straining at the leash, eager to spring forth and live up to all the adjectives that the world has been recently showering upon us. The other India is the leash.”
At the end of the long spot (which runs two minutes, thirteen seconds), Bachchan declares, “The ride has brought us to the edge of time’s great precipice. And one India—a tiny little voice at the back of the head—is looking down at the bottom of the ravine and hesitating. The other India is looking up at the sky and saying, ‘It’s time to fly.’” Bachchan then strides off purposefully across the bridge, even though the middle span hasn’t been constructed yet. But the camera, as is often the case these days, doesn’t follow him to his logical end.