second read

Uncomfortable Truth

P. Sainath reminds us that India is still a poor country
February 5, 2008

One evening, a couple of summers ago, The Times of India organized a free classical music concert at an amphitheater cut into a hill along Bombay’s coast. It was a stunning locale, with the sea in the distance and twinkling stars overhead. All around the stage, giant canvasses depicted idyllic scenes of a futuristic Bombay—a city whose contemporary counterpart is an urban nightmare so disturbing, it is the object of intense study by planners and social scientists from around the world. More than 55 percent of the city’s 13 million residents live in slums, while poorly built drainage systems leave even newly constructed office districts flooded after heavy rains. But in The Times of India’s utopian vision, Bombay was bathed in the colors of sunset, as birds swooped amid glass-and-steel buildings. To the immediate right of the musicians, for instance, was an enormous image of the completed Bandra Worli Sea Link, a bridge that is being built across an inlet of the Arabian Sea. When it is ready—though no one is sure when exactly that will be—city administrators hope the Sea Link will speed the crawl from the suburbs to the southern office districts. Rush-hour traffic in Bombay now moves at less than twelve kilometers an hour.

Before the musicians could really get going, the marketing manager of The Times—which claims to be the best-selling, English-language broadsheet in the world—came out to rally the audience. “Do you believe we have the potential to become a world-class city?” she shouted. The crowd of middle-class Bombay residents bellowed its assent, unmindful of the fact that when the Bandra Worli Sea Link is complete, it will conduct thousands of honking, roaring cars and trucks within 150 meters of the venue in which they were sitting, making music performances (and even lingering conversations) impossible. More alarming, environmentalists believe that the Sea Link was directly responsible for many of the 452 deaths that resulted from a freak cloudburst in 2005: the construction of the bridge narrowed the mouth of a vital drainage channel that flows into the bay, making it incapable of handling the heavy rain and causing a flood upstream that inundated several neighborhoods along the banks of the channel.

The audience’s enthusiastic approval of the dubious suggestion that Bombay (which I prefer to the official, Mumbai) stands on the brink of greatness was just another indication of the cocoon of willful ignorance in which India’s middle and upper classes have chosen to seclude themselves when it comes to their country’s economic situation. This sliver of India’s population—estimated at 200 million people—has disproportionately enjoyed the benefits of the country’s 9 percent surge of economic growth in recent years, and is now among the most courted groups of consumers on the planet. It has grabbed the attention of producers of so-called FMCGs—or “fast-moving consumer goods”—from around the world. Even luxury brands such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton have set up shop in India, encouraged by the fact that the country is home to the world’s fourth-largest number of billionaires. All the cheerleading about India’s future, though, ignores the reality that a full 77 percent of the country’s population of just over 1.1 billion is struggling on less than fifty cents a day. While a tiny percentage of the population, mainly in the cities, enjoys a level of affluence unimaginable a generation ago, rural India—home to more than 70 percent of the country’s population—is wracked by a man-made agricultural crisis that has driven nearly 150,000 farmers to commit suicide between 1997 and 2005, the latest year for which figures are available. But such stories find relatively little space in most of India’s English-language newspapers and on television news shows, which are the primary sources of news and information for the country’s urban elite. (Hindi is the national language, but most businessmen, senior bureaucrats, the higher courts, and the best universities use English. While Hindi- and regional-language newspapers often cover stories about the countryside more intensely, their increasingly local focus, facilitated by new technology that allows narrowly zoned editions, means that these issues are rarely seen from a national perspective.)

The journalist Palagummi Sainath says this growing economic gulf between India’s elite and the vast majority of its population has created a similar disconnect “between mass media and mass reality.” Sainath, now the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, one of the few remaining English-language broadsheets devoted to serious journalism, is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts, perhaps the most admired collection of reportage to have been published in India in the last two decades. His series of meticulously reported articles about the lives of India’s most underprivileged was written between May 1993 and June 1995 (the articles were collected in a book in 1996), soon after the country began to restructure its economy in accordance with the prescriptions of free-market advocates. But even that early in the so-called “liberalization” process, it was clear that the withdrawal of agricultural subsidies and ill-considered budget cuts were causing great distress in a country that is still overwhelmingly rural. Re-reading Everybody Loves a Good Drought today is a startling reminder of how much English-language journalism has changed in India—and how quickly. Today, it’s difficult to imagine most broadsheets investing so much money or devoting quite so much space to stories that don’t directly relate to their “TG,” or target group, an ungainly piece of marketing jargon that is commonly used in many newsrooms as a synonym for “reader.”

Though the crisis in the countryside has only grown since Sainath wrote Drought, forcing millions of farmers to abandon their plots and seek employment in cities, many of India’s English-language newspapers are transforming themselves into halls of mirrors, focusing only on news that they believe will interest their elite readers. This metamorphosis is the product both of a perfervid neo-liberal climate in which everything, including the news, has become a commodity that’s up for sale, and of a generational shift in newspaper ownership. As in many parts of the world, India’s newspapers are family-owned and run. In the four decades after independence in 1947, many of the proprietors were content to let journalists make the decisions about editorial content. This relatively hands-off approach was a legacy of the freedom struggle, which nationalist newspapers had shaped and help to sustain. But since the 1990s, a new generation of newspaper owners has adopted a number-crunching approach to journalism. Many of them view the news merely as the stuff between the ads. In some cases, they’ve even attempted to ensure that the editorial content is designed to create an environment that’s conducive to attracting advertising. Taking this attitude to the extreme, The Times of India has set up a unit called Medianet that actually sells editorial space to advertisers. With uncharacteristic coyness, the unit’s Web site says that it provides “comprehensive media coverage and content solutions to clients.”

So while the readers of English-language newspapers are served supplements with titles like “Splurge,” in which they can learn all about holidays in Monaco and the latest yachts, they are denied the information they need to understand how projects like the Bandra Worli Sea Link or the upheaval on the country’s farms are affecting their lives.

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The Times of India, which claims a readership of approximately 1.7 million in Bombay and 6.8 million countrywide, has advocated the concept of “aspirational journalism.” The paper, for which I once worked, is now run by Samir Jain and his brother, Vineet. They have often told their journalists that the Times must help readers forget the mundane reality of their lives and show them the possibilities of what their new affluence can bring. Famously, Samir Jain once ordered his journalists in Bombay to stop reporting on the garbage that frequently is left uncollected in the city’s streets because of inefficient city administrators. “Our readers have difficult lives,” he told me at the only meeting I ever had with him. “We should put a smile to their faces every morning instead of reminding them of their problems.”

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.

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.”

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. 

Naresh Fernandes is editor in chief of Time Out India.