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Magsaysay award winner P. Sainath speaks at Emory

January 2009
Magsaysay award winner P. Sainath speaks at Emory

The rural affairs editor of The Hindu delivers a highly informative and impassioned talk about the alarming inequities in India, and about the plight of Indian farmers who are committing suicide by the hundreds—even as the media continues its surreal obsession with the “India Shining” mantra.

With his animated style, impassioned delivery, a vast storehouse of data and knowledge, timely and relevant quips, and satirical humor, award winning journalist P. Sainath managed to keep his talk on a depressing topic lively and thought provoking

In April 2006, in a single week, over 400 farmers in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra committed suicide—a particularly nasty week in the sad saga of the spate of farmer suicides in India in recent years. Only about six journalists travelled to the region to cover this widespread tragedy. In the same week, in the same state of Maharashtra, the Lakme India Fashion Week had issued over 500 media passes, and the event was a media frenzy of significant proportions.

Citing this and many such incidences of contrast in a riveting one-hour presentation, veteran journalist Palagummi Sainath demonstrated why he is recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on widespread global inequity and its acute impact on Indian farmers. Using his deep knowledge and trademark wit, Sainath spoke about the unparalleled plight of farmers who are being squeezed out of sustenance, and about the media’s unconscionable lack of coverage of this pervasive rural tragedy of a massive scale.

The Ramon Magsaysay award winner spoke at Emory University on Thursday, December 4th in an event presented by the Association of India’s Development (A.I.D.)-Atlanta and co-sponsored by the South Asian Studies Department at Emory University, with support from Amnesty International, Students for Bhopal, Raksha and Atlanta’s UDHR 60 Celebration Coalition.

Titled, “The Age of Inequity,” Sainath’s talk covered a wide range of issues including the inequity of media coverage during the recent Mumbai attacks, the alarming disparity between India’s urban and rural populations, the crumbling state of the rural farm industry, and the hype surrounding microfinance. He managed to deconstruct the media rhetoric about India’s rise as an economic power, saying that it has largely bypassed the masses, especially in rural areas, where most of India lives. On the international front, Sainath spoke about the global myth of the “trickle down theory,” and about the deteriorating state of individual farmers even in America, where farming is heavily subsidized.   

The event started with a brief skit and poetry recitation by Alka Roy of A.I.D.-Atlanta, along with local artists, Hana Stepanek and Jen Leong, highlighting the quest for justice that survivors of Bhopal’s 1984 Union Carbide tragedy are still engaged in, even after over 20 years from the fateful day when a poisonous gas leak killed 20,000 Bhopalis.

Deepika Bahri, associate professor of English at Emory then introduced Sainath, who consequently held the audience of community activists, students, professionals and professors, captive for over an hour. He drove home the point of massive inequity by citing Forbes (March 2008), according to which, India’s 51 billionaires had a combined net worth of $334.5 billion. That, Sainath said, is 31% of India’s GDP. “In other words, a mere 51 individuals account for a third of the GDP of a nation of a billion people. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of Indians live on less than 50 cents a day!”

A veritable contrarian, Sainath drove home the farce behind labels such as “India Shining” and “Incredible India”—in the spirit of drawing attention to the grueling realities of the increasing marginalization of India’s rural populations, particularly its farmers. “India is in its biggest agrarian crises ever,” said Sainath while placing the blame largely on government for having induced farmers to switch to cash crops such as cotton, from food crops such as paddy and vegetables. Cash crops, he pointed out, are subject to global price fluctuations, subsidies and other factors that have colluded together to squeeze out the Indian farmers’ out of their livelihoods. Suicides amongst farmers are occurring at an alarming rate of eight per day, said Sainath, citing Indian government figures, which, he added, do not count women who are not classified as farmers as they are not the landowners.

Connecting the struggles of farmers in America’s Midwest to the villages of India, Sainath spoke of his investigations of family farms in Minnesota and cases where farmers make their suicides look like accidents so that their families can collect their life insurance and survive.

Anjana Muralidharan, a graduate student from Emory who attended the talk, was struck by the facts presented by Sainath, such as how low India falls on quality of life indices despite emerging as a major economic power. Muralidharan said that she was struck by the fact that, “in child malnourishment, we rank lower than Ethiopia and are on par with Burkina Faso.” She added that these facts made it appallingly clear to her “that India’s recent economic gains are not benefiting the majority of its people.”

Sainath also spoke of the pesticides that Union Carbide (Dow Chemical) was making in 1984, the time of the Bhopal Gas Leak that killed 20,000 people and exposed half a million people to the poison. The inter-dependencies of the farm crisis and the disaster in Bhopal were highlighted along with the shared experiences of corporate impunity, government’s lack of accountability, and the continuing suffering and struggles of the common people.

In an engaging Q&A session after his talk, Sainath talked about the over-hyping of microcredit, and the government’s failure to provide programs, processes or support systems for generating a livelihood for the displaced farmers.

Utpal Aradhye, a professional from Atlanta, captured the sentiment that was echoed by many attending the event. “For all the talk about democracy and equality of human beings, there is a staggering, nearly criminal amount of inequality out there that our greed, selfishness and ignorance have spawned. But whoever has power also has the responsibility to use it for good.”

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