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The People who matter most

P. Sainath records the forgotten India

As a freelance journalist, P. Sainath has spent the last 9 years in rural areas, covering
a number of topics related to development - caste, poverty, agriculture, etc. He spends
between 200 and 250 days of each year in the villages he chronicles. Royalties from
the sale of his book Everybody Loves a Good Drought are used entirely to promote
rural journalism, so that people in the villages can tell their own unfiltered stories.
The following notes are excerpted from his talk at the Association for India's
Development (AID)'s annual meeting in College Park, Maryland in late May 2001.
Excerpts from the Q & A session following the talk are also included.

You would not know that there is an agricultural crisis in India, from looking at the
print media. The growth rate of food production in India is falling, from 3.5% in the
1980s to 1.8% in the 1990s. Investment in agriculture has collapsed. NSSOI (The
National Sample Survey Organization of India) reveals that the 1990s saw the lowest
level of employment generation since independence (less than 0.7 percent annually in
rural India). Non-farm employment doubled during the 1980s, but this too is
stagnating now. Rural development outlays are down, and rural credit has collapsed,
leading to faster rates of land loss among marginal farmers.

Eenadu, the biggest newspaper in Andhra, has its largest advertisements not from
Information Technology companies, which despite the hype lag their counterparts in
Karnataka and Tamilnadu considerably. Instead, Eenadu is filled with advertisements
from banks announcing the auction of the property of the small and marginal farmers
who can no longer pay their debts. 100,000 crores are owed to the banks in India.
62,000 crores of that debt is from 800+ large debtors not one of whom has ever been
followed and prosecuted, but the jewelry and household furniture of a small farmer is
auctioned for a few thousand rupees. In Rajasthan, the poor have resorted to rotating
hunger, choosing by turn members of the family who must go without food. Where is
our sense of outrage?

The crisis states are AP, Rajasthan and Orissa. In the single district of Anantapur, in
Andhra Pradesh, between 1997 and 2000, 1800+ people have committed suicides, but
when the state assembly requested these statistics, only 54 were listed. [see April 29
and May 6 issues of The Hindu, for more details]. Since suicide is considered a crime
in India, the district crime records bureaus list categories for suicide - unrequited love,
exams, husbands' and wives' behavior, etc.; in Anantapur, the total from these
categories was less than 5%. The largest number, 1061 people, were listed as having
committed suicide because of "stomach ache". This fatal condition results from
consuming Ciba-Geigy's pesticide, which the government distributes free, and is
almost the only thing the rural poor can readily acquire!!

Even the normal sources of migratory work, which typically provide some
employment to persons who are willing to displace themselves each year to take
temporary jobs, are failing. For e.g., people from western Orissa regularly go to West
Bengal, Andhra, and Punjab each year for migrant work, but this year so many people
left Orissa looking for jobs that wherever they went the cost of labor collapsed, and
many returned to Orissa, where the administration is unprepared for their unexpected
return. [As an aside, holding elections in May is disenfranchising; it denies millions
the right to vote because they typically migrate from their domiciled areas for labor at
this time, and cannot vote].

Some of these changes are the result of WTO regulations, We removed Quantitative
Restrictions on imports in April 2001 fully two years ahead of the time we are required
to do so by the WTO! The portrayal of the Indian farmer as non-competitive is also
sleight of hand; sensing the changing environment, the industrialized nations increased
their subsidies 2-6 times in 1980s, and are now reducing them fractionally, portraying
this as a scale-back of government support! It is a myth that the Indian farmer is not
competitive. There is no level playing field in India. The free market is a farce. Who
are the people who negotiated on India's behalf at the WTO? What positions do they
now hold? During the earlier round of GATT negotiations, we saw that many who
allegedly represented India instead sold the country down the drain, and took plush
jobs in the west for their own personal gain.

In India, people have the perception of "subsidies" being given to farmers, and this is
one of the reasons why the urban folks think that farmers need to improve their act.
But the vast majority of this subsidiy is given not to the farmers themselves but to
fertilizer producers. The "farmers" who get this subsidy are called Birla, Tata and
Ambani! Also, this is given in such a way that the more you produce the lower the rate
of subsidy, and the smaller amounts you produce, the more higher the rate of subsidy.
In theory, this should support the "small farmers", but in fact the large producers
overproduce and understate their output, just so they can avail of the higher rate of

The poor farmer is sometimes portrayed as uncompetitive, and that he lives off
subsidies; many people take the view that if he cannot compete with global players, he
should try something other than farming. But the reality is that Indian farmers are
asked to compete with U.S. farmers who get $35,000 in subsidies per farmer! The
European Union conducts its milk and cheese bonfire each year, destroying surplus
which might depress prices if released in local markets instead. With markets forced
open by trade agreements, that produce is dumped in India (and elsewhere), and it kills
the livelihood of the everyday milkman.

Still, the WTO notwithstanding, many failures must be attributed to unilateral policies
from the Indian government itself. India has declared a "surplus" of 45 million tonnes,
which is really excess unsold stock. Pakistan and Bangladesh together claim a surplus
of 5 million tonnes. With the largest number of absolute poor in the world now living
in subcontinental Asia, how is this possible? The answer is that the surplus is built on
the declining purchasing power of the poor. If the grain produced in India is divided
by the minimum per capita requirement of food, the surplus vanishes! The claim of
"food security" is frivolous, and ignores the fact that some people don't eat! Between
91-94 food prices were increased by 100%. The current govt increased by another
100%. What is the expected effect on marginalized farmers? Hunger.

Despite this, the surplus food isn't really available to offset emergencies. For the most
part, it is improperly stored. Large transport junctions like Jhansi and Itarsi have
enormous heaps of "exposed" food stocks, these are stored at the carrying cost of
Rs.1500 a ton. But while we are "looking after" this stuff, it is uncovered, exposed to
the elements, and rotting. As a result, we have declining per-capita availability in
grains, and the healthiest rat population in the world! As each harvest comes along, the
govt buys the grain, does not release into the market, and does not care for it properly
either. The first consignments of food we sent (with much fanfare) to Iran and Iraq
were returned, because they had gone bad. Whereas the media covered the
announcement of the exports in great detail, their return was barely reported.

With high levels of malnutrition on the one hand, and large food stocks that are
inadequately stored on the other hand, any sensible government should have created a
food-for-work programme. The Rajasthan government has one, except that in the
middle of a serious shortage of water, the state introduced a food-for-work programme
that includes the construction of a golf course!

The obsession with export markets that drives government policy is extracting a heavy
toll in unexpected ways. Fish farming/prawn farming for export has resulted in the
closure of many rice mills. One acre of paddy supports 150 days of labor
(man/woman), 40 days of watching over the fields to thwart birds, etc. To tend one
acre of aqua field, on the other hand, takes far less labor. When the government asked
oil farmers to increase the yield they responded with great harvests. However, then
government then turned around and imported a large amount of palm oil, depressing
the prices that farmers obtained for their bounty.

When the governments made the decision to promote aqua-culture or oilseed

cultivation, there was no input sought from the poor themselves, and no assurance of
reward for their embracing these policies. The media has made heroes of both the
incompetent and the corrupt. People like Yashwant Sinha or Ahluwalia never asked
the rural poor for permission to make deals on their behalf, and have not cared to
examine the impacts of the deals they have made on the lives of the rural poor. Indeed,
the people sitting in decision-making rooms owe more than half of the debt to the
treasury. They are not the poor! Palaniappan Chidambaram is now portrayed as a
respectable opinion-maker on the economy, notwithstanding the fact that as Union
minister, he was forced to resign in the Fairgrowth scandal, and even prior to this he
had concealed his conflicting interest in the Enron issue.
But who are the poor? 40% are landless agricultural laborers. 45% are small and
marginal farmers. They are net purchasers of grain! 7.5% are rural artisans. Everyone
else is "others". Eighty five percent of the poor have problems directly connected with
land, the one issue that has not been on the government's agenda. Even the rural artisan
is generally landless. The bulk of Indian poverty is in 7 or 8 states, and in particular
regions within those states. East UP, interior Orissa, Telengana, the Hyderabad-
Karnatak region. Within these, the caste face of poverty is apparent. 50-55% of the
population in SC/ST communities is poor, whereas 36-39% of the overall population is
classified as poor. The more feudal the region the deeper the poverty. The bulk of the
poor are women and children. The majority of agricultural laborers are women, and
overwhelmingly Dalit women.

Poverty in India is also defined in a strange manner, and conceals even greater depths
of deprivation than is usually reported. The definition is that if per capita income
permits the purchase 2400 calories of food, then one is not poor. The emphasis is on
income, not actual purchasing power. The reasons date back to the constitution, and to
the original vision of the state as socialist. Unlike the constitutions of most
democracies, the Indian constitution includes substantial language on justice, and from
this view, the state is urged to provide much for the people - housing, health,
education, etc. On the assumption that the state meets this obligation, one can treat
income as being available chiefly for food-procurement, and one may be considered
poor if income is inadequate to purchase food But in reality, much of the income is
needed to obtain the things the state should provide; notwithstanding this, the old
definition of poverty is nonetheless retained!

Government mechanisms to address poverty are also entirely arbitrary. For instance,
the poor are categorized into those below the poverty line (BPL) and those above the
poverty line (APL), but not well off. Quotas are set arbitrary, and even brothers in the
same family might belong to different categories. These categories are also pegged to
particular income levels without any basis. For e.g., people are given certificates
listing their income is Rs.4800, even when they earn far less, because the government
claims it has abolished poverty below that level!! Rather than have policies address
reality, the government distorts the truth to create the appearance of meaningful
policy! The desperately poor people are now selling their BPL cards!

The government's indifference is most obvious when it needs to make the case that it
cares. The most evident example of this is that official estimates of poverty always
take a dive before elections - I call this Sainath's Law. Right before the recently
concluded elections, for example, it was announced that nationwide poverty is now at
26%. The same institutions that put out 9 reports in a row that suggest little change in
poverty suddenly produce a 10th one that celebrates the grand success of poverty
reduction! Why, before the 1996 elections, poverty levels were down to 19%, from
twice that figure only weeks ago! If true, that would constitute the greatest
achievement in history, let alone Indian social reform! Expectedly, weeks after the
election, poverty levels were back up in the mid 30% range. The Govt. of India
Economic surveys freely admit the fallacies of these reports.

Private think tanks are also in the "poverty" business these days. Studies of purchasing
power conducted for transnational groups are turned into "poverty" reports, with little
regard to the fact that they were not designed to study poverty in the first place. Public
policy flows from the acceptance of such nonsense as research. Sometimes, the claims
are less than hazy, they are outright false. One study, for instance, claimed to have
covered 30,000 households and tracked over 300 parameters within each!

More on Sainath
Journalist and author P. Sainath won Amnesty Internationals first-ever Global
Human Rights Journalism prize in June 2000. This follows a dozen other
prestigious awards, including the European Commissions Lorenzo Natali
Journalism Award in 1994. Sainath received international recognition after he
spent two and a half years bicycling through Indias poorest districts, filing reports
about a class of people the press seldom deigns to write about. That work formed
the basis of his landmark book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought (Penguin Books,
1996), a devastating portrait of how the Indian governments development policies
have gone awry.

The book, which has been translated into three Indian languages as well as Swedish and Finnish, is now
in its eighth printing. It remained the number one non-fiction bestseller by an Indian author for over two
years. Covering Indias ten poorest districts, Sainath traversed close to a 100,000 kilometresincluding
5,000 on footlugging a heavy typewriter (there was never enough electricity around to recharge a laptop
battery). Despite their extremely critical content, several stories from his journey have been used as case
studies for trainees in Indias elite administrative service, the IAS. Other project landmarks include an
oral archive of taped interviews with people from the bottom one percent of society talking about
themselves and a unique visual archive of thousands of photographs of the Indian poor at work.

Sainath is currently writing a series of reports on the Dalits, formerly called

untouchables, who remain Indias most marginalized and discriminated-against
people. When not on the road, Sainath teaches at Bombays Sophia Polytechnic.
He has been a visiting professor at universities in Australia, Canada and the U.S.

P. Sainath answers questions

As the discussion dragged into the third hour and beyond, with Sainath a continuing mine of
information to the audience, it was resolved that specific questions would be taken up, in the interest of

Why not give capitalism a chance; after all a lot of other systems have failed. And why
blame the WTO for the failings of the govt?

The WTO and GATT type of agreements are very undemocratic. Corporate leaders
make policy, not the elected representatives. When people in Geneva draw up
regulations, some local panchayat leader cannot be asked to address the consequences
of those decisions, when his/her input was not sought in making the decision itself.
The idea of different systems is superficial, the most striking aspect of free-market
capitalism is that it has benefited the exact same people who gained from socialism! It
isn't unexpected, either. After all, the South Commission report was signed by
Manmohan Singh 90 days before the liberalization process, can he really have changed
his views that much in that time? Political opportunism and media management have
provided the appearance of different choices and systems, without any meaningful
changes in outcomes.

What sort of medium can reverse the desensitization of the non-poor to the misery of
those who are suffering?

The Indian intelligentsia have always had an association with the poor. From Gautama
to Gandhi. There are major currents in the world and these cannot be escaped. But
some choices can be made. Those who own the media have a vested interest. Take the
Rs 1 at which the Times of India is sold, for example. The cost of producing it is
Rs.7.50, and the distributors pay about 0.57, and only 0.43 is gained from the readers
on the basis of content. The rest is obtained from advertisements.

At the same time, we must not abandon mainstream journalism. The Indian press and
its freedoms have been won at great cost, and boast an extraordinary tradition. Every
freedom fighter of repute doubled as a journalist, informing the public. Speaking for
myself, I will not cede this high ground; it is extremely important that mainstream
journalism include the true stories of India. Everyone should know what the freedom
struggle was for, who fought, who died, who gained the benefits? In the ToI I did a
report called Forgotten Heroes. My next project is about the last remaining Freedom
Fighters in India. For all its flaws the Constitution of India is a great social contract,
that we should reflect on.

Why is the media indifferent?

A: The readers are sensible, and in most publications, the Letters to the Editor column
is the most sensible one. Media is sometimes simply unable to identify indicators of
change. Weight loss clinics exploded in urban India, the media called it the war
against obesity. But rural Indians were trying not to lose weight! The automobile
revolution - despite the hype, with 3 television programs a week, there are only 5
million autos on the roads. But the rate of growth of sales of bicycles fell dramatically,
and no one cared, even though it is a far better indicator of the state of the nation.

What were some positive reactions to the publication of your book?

A: It is not that I write articles and the world changes! But there were a few good
things that resulted. The Indira Aawaas Yojna program was changed to allow people
to design the houses built for them in ways relating to their habits and culture, rather
than force them to live in uniformly designed housing that was often inappropriate to
their needs. The Rajasthan story killed the golf course [see above]. Many of the rules
of Panchayati Raj were changed to stop people from hijacking the Panchayat. On a
more personal level, the success of the book has opened doors for me, that I use to
exhort influential people.

Have droughts, or other natural calamities, been responsible for problems in rural
India very much?

A drought makes things worse, but doesn't cause them. The agricultural crisis cannot
cause the drought. The rainfall data shows no variation across 100 years in some
'drought' areas.

Tell us about things that are working.

1. The Indian Republic today is far more federal than it was in 1947. Dismissing
a state government is not as easy. Voices count far more at local and regional

2. The public is increasingly assertive of its rights. The body language of the
public is changing from servility, to demanding service from public

3. Political space is having to be held by negotiating. The idea of blind followers

to leaders is eroding. The 1996 and 1998 elections were turning points. Much
of the violence we now see is the collapse of servility to traditional overlords
and representatives.

4. The rulers are unable to rule the old way and the ruled are increasingly
unwilling to be ruled the old way.

Microcredit has received a lot of attention, what is your view of this?

Microcredit is a tool. Every ten years the lending institutions get a new fad; the fad of
the last decade has been microcredit. Is it good? Yes. But credit is not liberating. It is
not transformative. It works when it is local and micro-managed by the participation of
the lender. Not when it is overarching. Grameen Bank for example, for all its touted
success, worked on a fairly small scale compared to the needs of Bangladesh. The
Grameen Bank and all its lending affiliates accounted for less than 0.6% of the credit
in Bangladesh.

How effective has land reform been?

The fastest rate of growth on agriculture in India is currently in West Bengal. So land
reforms did help. Land reforms may not be solution but it can give a path to the
solution. Still, across registered surplus land held by the government, less than 2% has
been distributed. But what is the surplus land the government has? In every village,
there is a patch which the Common Property of the Village, but only in name. The CP
Resources are denied to laborers at the whim of landowners, as punishment. Landless
people need the commons to use as latrines for women, graze their cattle, etc., and
treating the CPR as the private domain of the powerful has defeated this reserve. Also
CPR is now being given away. When the tractor took over Haryana the number of
people needed to work the land went down, and with harvester combines, the numbers
are even less. Common property lands are being privatized. Delhi's farmhouse culture
is entirely built on common property lands. IAS and IFS colonies routinely come up
on such lands.

What does the Indian farmer think of GE crops?

A: It's difficult to give answers about people who span several strata of society.
Farmers themselves have historically attempted to grow various kinds of crops. The
difference is that if a farmer does it he/she lives with it. However, if a MNC does it
will impact half of the population. The scale of things now is different, and we are not
always sure of the health effects of the various things that go into crops. Some farmers
are willing to try it, because a lot of 'serious' people are telling them it is a great thing.
A lot of farmers are also paying the price for their embrace of the idea, though. There
is some demand now for public accountability and debate now, the technology needs
more public scrutiny.

How are urban poor compared to rural poor?

A: The urban poor are typically the rural poor who have moved. The urban poor end
up paying more tax than even middle class. Electricity in many municipalities, for
example, is charged according to the date on which the premises were constructed. So,
the middle-classes, who have had their apartments and houses for many decades, pay
lower rates, where the shanties pay a lot more, even though they don't get the power
nearly as often. This is the free market turned on its head, where you supply the lower-
rate payer first! The urban poor may be more visible to us, but their numbers are much
lower than that of the rural poor.

What can we do to alleviate all these problems you have discussed?

I make no great claim to wisdom. Simple solutions for complex problems can not
solve them. Once great starting point that anyone can do is to sensitize himself/herself,
and introspect. The fact that we have all gathered here means that we are at least
attempting solutions and sensitizing ourselves, that's a start. There is systematic
suppression, and we must open our eyes to it. There are 70 children in class 1 for every
100 who should be. 35 of them have dropped out by class 5, only 10 remain by class 8.
Fewer than 5 complete high school. In many schools, children are seated according to
caste at midday meal schemes. This should shame us. What we can do is sensitize
ourselves, and be aware of the privilege we have. Dalit bastis are always on the
southern outskirts because rivers typically flow north-south and the poorer sections are
given access only to the tail-waters.

Looking inward and being honest with answers is important. The President's speech at
Republic Day in 2000 was a great eye-opener, the first time that any president has
bothered to honestly examine his role in the constitutional process, and ask meaningful
questions. Supportive communities here can help in many ways. The most direct
answer is to recognize that there are those who are already in the fight to protect the
poor and to bring some measure of opportunity to their lives, and for us to join them
and support their needs.

Research and learn a lot more about Patents, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR's), etc.
It is very hard, intensive work with a lot to learn and absorb. A proper understanding
of these rules will help develop solutions, and to be watchful for their abuse.
Developing an Indian version of Lexus-Nexus would be very valuable, too. The need
to obtain related information on a number of topics is very high.

How can we contact you?


How do you train and develop journalists in rural areas?

There is enormous energy in rural journalism. These reflect the Dalit and Adivasi
upsurge in the last two decades. I learn from them as much as they learn from me. I
teach them techniques. Often, when they write stories these are picked up by the
national press without acknowledgements. Stories are stolen by the big papers. These
boys are turned into stringers. Acknowledging their effort must be more honest, and
more public. When we give prizes, for example, we give them in the community
where the winners are from, and we bring the big editors to give the prize, so the local
community recognizes them too.

Srinivas Krovvidy
May-June 2001