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The Importance of Being P. Sainath

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February 2009
The Importance of Being P. Sainath

By Murali Kamma

[Cast: Palagummi Sainath; local activists; interviewer.]

Prologue & Act I: Emory lecture

P. Sainath is not an actor; he is an award-winning journalist and the rural affairs editor of The Hindu newspaper. All the same, Sainath is such a captivating speaker that his recent lecture at Emory could have been dubbed, with a nod to Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being P. Sainath.” Though he dwelled on serious issues like India’s agrarian crisis, and punctuated his talk with dire statistics, Sainath wasn’t dull even for a minute. Bristling with energy, he was witty, forceful and illuminating. And his barbs and bon mots, often lobbed furiously at the Indian elite, landed with devastating effect (the Forbes billionaire list was a favorite if obvious target). The performance was brilliant. Sainath’s own lecture title (“The Age of Inequity”) was quite appropriate, and he’d been appalled by any self-important alternatives, but it’s worth noting that few other journalists in recent times have had a greater impact on the lives of ordinary people in rural India.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award, which Sainath won in 2007, cited his “passionate commitment as a journalist to restore the rural poor to India’s national consciousness.” His other honors, numbering over thirty, include the Boerma Journalsim Award and the Amnesty International Award. A collection of his investigative articles, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, became an influential bestseller and led to policy changes in India. This book, whose royalties he used to fund prizes for rural reporting, was based on a tour of the ten poorest districts in five Indian states. Extreme deprivation was caused, Sainath showed, not by droughts but by inequality, structural inefficiency, corruption and endemic discrimination. Amartya Sen has called him “one of the world’s great experts on famine and hunger.” Sainath has spoken at, among other places, Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley, where he also taught last year.

[Place: A tastefully appointed house in Atlanta on a crisp winter afternoon.]

Act II: Sainath speaks to activists

When the interviewer enters the house, Sainath is engaged in an absorbing dialogue—some would say monologue—with youngish activists of the Association for India’s Development (AID), Atlanta chapter. Among other topics, Sainath touches on how they can make a difference in India while living in America. Don’t forget to involve yourselves with the local communities, he reminds his listeners at one point. There’s a break for refreshments, and the interviewer is graciously invited to join everyone at the table. Observation: Sainath eats something quickly, barely savoring the food, and jumps back into the conversation. Well-informed and articulate, he seems to live on words.

What follows are excerpts from a one-on-one chat.

Act III: Sainath speaks to Khabar

While speaking about the Mumbai massacre, you noted that the VT train station (aka Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) rather the Taj Hotel should be considered iconic. Why do you make the distinction? Was it reflected in the media coverage?

Bombay is a city of working people, 99 percent of whom have never been inside the Taj Hotel. Some have been there in a menial capacity, but not to have coffee or food in it, because the cost of having a coffee inside the Taj Hotel would be more than what maybe an average Mumbaikar earns in a day. So, I do not consider the Taj Hotel to be iconic in any sense of that word. Remember that the Taj Hotel is next to the Gateway of India, which is far more iconic—a monument that people actually visit.

I’d also say that the VT railway station, which is a classic heritage structure and caters to millions of people each year, is a far more iconic destination for Mumbai than a five star luxury hotel, where one night’s stay in a room is more than the average annual income of the average Indian family of five. So, to my mind, there is no dispute about which is the more important symbol of Mumbai. This was not reflected in the coverage at all. Five star hotels make good locales because the tourists are there. So the media congregate there and every anchor wants to be seen standing with the background of the Taj Hotel. By the way, as I mentioned in the talk [at Emory], the only terrorist captured alive was captured outside the VT station by two cops with lathis (batons). They didn’t have guns.

But isn’t it also true that there was a siege at the Taj, which was prolonged, while at the VT station and other places, you didn’t have the same kind of drawn-out battle.

I do not for a moment believe that’s the reason for the media attention. There was a much larger level of shooting at VT because they were just shooting into a thick dense crowd. The fact is the Taj is a place where beautiful people gather. And, yes, there was a serious incident there; I’m not belittling that. But I’m saying, relatively speaking, on every ground, VT was the more important center—and don’t forget that it’s there that 8 kilograms of RDX were recovered. They intended making a much bigger target of VT, not of anything else. I’m not saying one was important, the other wasn’t. I feel that VT was more important. As a newsperson, I’d say VT deserved far more coverage than it got.

As a grandson of V.V. Giri, India’s fourth president, you belonged to the nation’s political elite. How did that influence your decision to become a journalist and focus on issues like rural poverty?

A whole generation, which you would call the Freedom Struggle generation, had a lot of influence on me. Growing up in a political family meant that you were exposed to a very wide spectrum of political forces, from Gandhian forces to communist forces to right wing Hindu nationalist forces. These were all people who knew my family, so you ran into them. You learnt something about diversity, you learnt about different political trends and different political trajectories. There were various revolts, rebellions, political movements, mass movements. All that was educative and it had a deep influence.

You spoke eloquently about India’s growing inequality, especially in the last 15 to 20 years. But it’s also true that the current era of liberalization, globalization and privatization—what we call neo-liberalism—has brought tremendous change and unshackled India, as many point out, from socialism. So, despite the drawbacks, don’t you think what we have now is better than what we had in that stagnant era?

First, I should point out that it’s not as if you are making a choice only between these two alternatives. Secondly, those of us who are criticizing the present era were no less critical in the earlier era. Many of those who sucked up and were establishment lackeys in that era have sucked up and are still establishment lackeys in this era. Former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was a prime example. Before winning praise, he was a pillar of the old establishment and then a pillar of the new establishment. He was despised by the media until he became the prime minister and changed his views overnight—after which he became the intellectual prime minister, a man who knew nine languages, a big scholar. Narasimha Rao was the only man I knew who had nothing to say in nine languages.

But he and Manmohan Singh get the credit for opening up the Indian economy.

Manmohan Singh is a very nice man, but he is the first unelected prime minister in the history of India. He could not get elected from the South Delhi constituency. OK? So I’m saying you have to strip away the rhetoric about how wonderful everybody is. Being a very gentle person doesn’t mean it’s a good thing for India to have an unelected prime minister. In my opinion, it’s not a good thing at all. A prime minister must be someone who can have the authority to contest from anywhere in the country and win an election. And also show that he is of the people, that the people want him in that parliament.

With regard to liberalization, what are its achievements and claims? Number one, you have higher growth rates. Let me tell you, the Government of India exists only for one reason: to show higher growth numbers. It reminds me of a cartoon I saw at the height of the Reagan recession in the United States. Reagan was so popular, and every day his popularity grew because the media hyped him up as this wonderful, avuncular old idiot. There was a cartoon by Wasserman or Oliphant during the 1983 recession. A ship called USS Economy is sinking, with Reagan and his press secretary holding on to the bow. It reads: ‘Mr. President, according to the latest New York Times-CBS poll, your popularity rating has gone up 80 points. However, the voters have all drowned.’

That’s the great popularity of liberalization, globalization and privatization in India. The public hasn’t ever voted for it. They have repeatedly voted against it. If it was so wonderful, how come every government which made it a centerpiece was defeated, including the darlings of the media everywhere in the world: Mr. Chandrababu Naidu and Mr. S. M. Krishna (former chief ministers)? How did all these people take such a whacking? If it was such a popular thing with the Indian people, why did farmers in 2004 throw out governments in 20 states? Now, all the stories of ‘India Shining’ are absolutely true, but only for a very narrow segment of the population. That is the segment you can roughly call the chattering classes. They get to talk. The silent majority gets to vote and they do exactly the opposite of what the chattering classes claim. What have you unshackled? You have unshackled 8 million people from agriculture (between 1991 and 2000) without any other jobs for them. What is your growth rate in agriculture? Your growth rate in the dynamic decade of the reforms is half of what it was in the stagnant ‘80s. What is your growth rate in employment? Between ‘97 and 2002, we recorded the worst ever employment figures in rural India. Tata has boomed, Bajaj has boomed. Tata produced 1 million tons of steel with 84,000 workers. They now produce 5 million tons of steel with 44,000 workers. Bajaj now produces twice the number of scooters [than it used to] with less than half the number of workers. Somebody has done well—I’m not denying that. But stop celebrating only those who have done well. Look at the larger number of 836 million who are living on less than 50 cents a day, according to the Government of India.

Right. But to address that, we can't go back to the way things used to be, obviously. So what’s the solution?

First, let’s not evade the answer to your question. Look at the United States. What we’ve done in India for 15 years, you did in the U.S. for 25 years. You widened the gap between CEOs and workers. CEO salaries were ballooning and exploding, while the real wages of American workers were either stagnant or declining. And now you are in a mess and saying that you can’t go back to the way it used to be. It’s like killing 10 million people and saying ‘oops!’ The model I’m criticizing in India has brought the much larger U.S. economy to its knees.

So does the current fallout in the U.S. (financial meltdown, economic downturn) vindicate your thinking?

Absolutely! The financial liberalization agenda of India is exactly the same as what happened on Wall Street. Privatize the banks, deregulate, and unfetter the flow of capital. In India, luckily, people who are critical [of the agenda] opposed and criticized this. The bank unions prevented it from happening, the left partiers prevented it from happening. And today, Chidambaram and Montek Singh and Manmohan Singh take credit for having insulated the Indian economy against the global fallout! It was Manmohan Singh who in 2006 said that our aim is full convertibility of the rupee. They’ve spent $40 billion in the last three months trying to stabilize the currency exchange rate. Now, if we had gone in for full convertibility of the rupee, the exchange rate might be at 150 rupees to the dollar! How would you survive?

Everything that we did in India was modeled on what was going on here. And it’s been going on here longer than it’s been going on there. If it could cripple the largest economy in the world, imagine what it would have done to India’s much poorer people had we gone the full nine yards. That’s my point. I don’t want to hear the encomiums and axioms and praise. Who was that scientist who said, ‘In God we trust, everybody else produces data’? Growth can be very misleading. India’s growth comes from what?

The IT (information technology) sector plays a big role.

How many people does that IT sector employ, which has now begun to lay off people in the tens of thousands? Agriculture is a sector on which 58 to 60 percent of the population depended. What was their growth rate? The problem is, everything in India has an opposite. Averages can be very, very misleading and that’s why you sometimes need to disaggregate. India’s literacy rate never tells you India’s literacy rates. Why? It’s an average of East Uttar Pradesh and Kerala. When we disaggregate the states, Kerala’s human development indicators rival the U.S. and its literacy rate is probably superior because it is across all the sections of society. In Kerala, 86 percent of Dalits are literate. In America, if you were to divide up the literacy into black, white, Hispanic, inner cities, you will see many third worlds. We can't take Kerala and Orissa and make an average.

Please tell me that it’s a huge achievement to keep 836 million people on less than 50 cents a day while 51 people (billionaires) own what is equivalent to 31 percent of GDP! I find that appalling and obnoxious and it’s the worst level of inequality since we were a colonial nation. At the time of independence, wages at the top end of Indian society had meant that the top 1 percent earned or was worth 150 to 200 times the average income of the rest of the population. We are more or less back there now. So the growing of inequality is not something to celebrate.

It’s been said that you need a strong and efficient, not to mention accountable, government. But the problem with India is that you get weak and corrupt coalition governments. You can't depend on these netas (leaders) to deliver the results.

I think there are a number of assumptions in your question that I question: that somehow coalition governments are weak and corrupt. But non-coalition governments aren’t necessarily efficient and they aren’t necessarily successful. George Bush did not head a coalition government. He headed the worst government this country has seen in 30 years. The most stable governments in India have included coalition governments. The government that has ruled for 30 years in West Bengal is a coalition government. They have managed it. In Pakistan, you’ve had very strong men running governments without any political opposition. You had Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf. Can you call a single one of them weak? They were all strong men, all musclemen. They have destroyed that country and left it in shambles.

I think [the economic changes in India] have benefited a narrow, parasitical set of the population very brilliantly. Are there wonderful successes? Yes, there are. I’m putting it on record. Are there brilliant ideas? Yes, there are. Does it work for the maximum number of your people in a democratic, decent and humane way? Absolutely not.

Manmohan Singh said that Naxalites (Maoist rebels), who operate in large parts of eastern and central India, are the biggest threat to India’s internal security. But you think the government is exaggerating the problem. Why would they do that?

You know, I don’t even know that I have to dispute it, because he is not saying it anymore [after the Mumbai massacre].

I think both the government and the Naxalites have a mutual interest in exaggerating their strength. The one meets the other in many ways. What I’m trying to say is that it helps state governments become far more repressive, curb far more civil liberties by exaggerating the strength and hold of these people. Do the Naxalites exist? Do they have power? Yes, they do. They exist in extremely feudal backward areas where there is a lot of oppression and people are alienated from the state. But they are not in control.

Have respect for those people that go out and change governments in a peaceful, democratic manner. I look at the U.S. and see two wings of the same corporate party. You’re between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Now, the Indian masses go out and experiment. For all the fun and abuse that people pour on the state of Bihar, if you start a new party in Bihar, 10 percent of the population will vote for you. They are searching. For me, that’s the best guarantee of democratic progress. Whether the Naxalites believe in that process or not, the fact is that the people of India seem to believe in it.

Atlanta, as you know, is the home of Coca-Cola. Also, Indian Americans tend to be proud that Indra Nooyi is the CEO of PepsiCo. Why did you decide to stop drinking Coke and Pepsi?

The short answer is that 18 spoons of sugar in a bottle is not a good thing for you. [Laughter] But also, soft drink companies—especially these two—are drinking into the water resources of India farmers. I was a very big consumer of Coke because I’m a teetotaler. There’s a village in Andhra Pradesh called Nallamada. That is an arid zone, but this village sits atop an aquifer. And the water there used to be so lovely that we would go through there just to drink it. In 2001, I landed there and asked for water. But though the sun was blazing, people offered me tea and coffee. They were very reluctant to give me water. When I insisted on it, this embarrassed guy shuffled in and gave me a glass. He said, ‘Please don’t drink it, sir.’ The water, which was once beautiful and sweet, was brown and green sediment. He looked at me and felt I was seriously offended, because I was shocked at the water of Nallamada. Then he brightened up and said, ‘Don’t worry, we have Coca-Cola.’ And I felt utterly miserable that the village now had no water, but it had Coca-Cola. Various companies, including those making soft drinks, had completely sucked the water out. That day, I stopped buying Coca-Cola or Pepsi.

Given the changing media landscape and competition, not to mention economic pressures, how does one make the kind of journalism you do viable and engaging?

Readers are human beings. They are worried about how others are doing, so it’s not as if there is no connection. You have the same experience. Have you not relatives who are even now on farms? You tell stories, and it’s also a question of treating the reader as a moral person. And it’s how you tell the story. There is a bleeding heart way that has its audience, though I shut my ears and my eyes. You can tell the story in a technical way or a sensational way. All these are elements that have their roles. But the real story is through the everyday life of that person and those things that come up and ring a bell in the reader’s head and make him say, ‘I know how this happened; I know exactly what this fellow experienced.’


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