Book Review: This is not a conventional book review since this is not a conventional book. It is a narrative of an experience of reading this book. Twenty two years since these stories have been reported in the book, they still resonate with what millions go through even today. This write up is thus not just a review but an attempt to introduce those who have not read it yet and give them an opportunity to learn and be enriched from this collection of real stories.
Towards the end of the month of March this year, Al Jazeera channel featured a story under its section "The Listening Post" titled "The Indian media's rural blindspot" reported by Meenakshi Ravi. The story talks about rural reporting and the lack of it in Indian media. As a comprehensive report it combines statistics of media coverage with valuable insights from proactive proponents of rural reporting such as P.Sainath. For about 800 million of Indians living in rural India, the percentage of media coverage is negligible and moreover in a beat driven journalism industry there has been only a single Rural Affairs Editor post, that too once upon a time, occupied by Sainath for The Hindu, a position which remains obsolete with him stepping down from the position and stepping out of the newspaper completely.
The story of Sainath becoming a journalist, committed to representing a part of India which is seemingly invisible in a ratings and influence hungry media world, cannot be highlighted enough. However this journey itself started about 22 to 23 years ago. And there is no better documentation of its origin than a book called "Everybody loves a good drought". The book published by Penguin Books India in 1996 is an important watershed not only for socio-economic scenario of India but also its journalism. A compilation of Sainath’s stories written on subject of “rural poverty” after winning the Times of India fellowship in early 1993, this book has been structured with topical categorisations and introductions to various sections.
The fact that the topic of rural poverty has been categorized in so many sections reveals two important aspects about its coverage. Firstly, it reveals a lot about Sainath’s profound understanding of the issue who is able to visualize it from different vantage points thus proving that the subject is a multi-dimensional problem that needs to be addressed from different angles and approaches. Secondly, it shows how limited an understanding of rural poverty society and media has which looks at the issue in a limited scope of either failure of agriculture, drought or credit-debt dynamics.
This collection of reports has been divided into 11 sections covering various aspects of rural poverty. As difficult a task it is to make sections out of a bunch of reports, it is remarkable how coherence has been achieved among the various sections such that not only is there a discernible narrative within the sections but also in the arrangement of various sections within the book itself.
These stories come from some of the most backward, deprived and poverty ridden rural districts in the country; districts with names that most may not have even heard. These ten districts from states of Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh cut across geographical regions and cover a diverse range of socio-economic and historical scenarios.
The first section titled “Still Crazy After All These Years: A brief introduction to the absurd” is, as the name suggests, a small collection of stories reported with a satirical sense of humour. The focus of these reports is to bring out how the concept of “governance”, which is touted as the solve all trick for the public, can be so wrong and so ill conceived that it ends up hurting the people in the name of whom it is floated as an idea. This as the reports suggest is because policy makers and its implementers do not feel the need to factor in opinions of the very targets of this governance. In a report narrating a dairy project gone wrong in a district in Orissa a local activist is quoted as saying “The people marked out as “targets” are never consulted. There was no demand for a dairy project here. The authorities never realised that people were interested in employment and not in the subabul tree. Yet, such mistakes are repeated time and again.”
Sainath continues questioning development and its notions as laid down in the mainstream policy discourse in the second section titled “The Trickle Up & Down Theory: Or health for the millions”. Sainath is contemptuous of the urban middle class apathy towards the issues of the rural poor. Describing the attitude of the urban elite towards the “plague of 1994” he writes “Plague germs are notorious for their non-observance of class distinctions. Methods are yet to be devised to prevent their entry into the elite areas of South Bombay or South Delhi. Worse still, they can board aircraft and fly club class to New York. Too many of the beautiful people felt threatened.”
The section attacks the sorry state of affairs that public health exists in, in rural India. Different stories from many districts relate accounts of the neglect and ignorance that health facilities face and how rural poor are left to their own ill-equipped and ill-conceived designs. Since the poorest districts in India, which Sainath seeks to cover, consist of a large tribal population, their concerns recur in many reports. As he observes “On the one hand are those who over-romanticise tribal health systems. These are mostly people who do not subject their own kin to it. On the other hand are those who dismiss indigenous medicine as absurd. Their mantra is the unthinking peddling some form of allopathic treatment. Both stands lack balance.” The takeaway is that the poor in the India’s rural belt are left to their own devices and survive even in this modern day and age of governance on their own means, leading to either a disease ridden or ill-nutritious life or impending miserable death.
The next section titled “This Is the Way We Go to Schools: Getting educated in rural India”, is a smaller one with only three reports. Sainath writes in the introduction to the section, “There could have been a little bit more on education in this section had there been a little bit more of education in the places I went to.” The theme of exposing the neglect meted out to basic human development infrastructure continues here as well. Mismanaged and misdirected funding, poor facilities in schools and learning centres and a sense of helplessness for rural poor and tribal population when it comes to education, are some of the lessons that one take away from these stories. For that matter, conditions of children from poor families with regards to education is not better in urban areas. (Two stories from this blog itself, “Costs of Cleanliness” and “शिक्षा से महरूम। ज़िम्मेदार कौन?” also explore these issues.) And yet we get a glimpse in this book, of human endeavour and spirit when the very people who faced neglect in being educated wish to give back to their society with whatever little they have learned.
The next section is a collection of heart wrenching stories about the displacement of thousands and lakhs of people for the sole purpose of satisfying the needs of national development and growth without any hopes to partake in the fruits of this development themselves. Titled “And the Meek Shall Inherit the Earth”, this section fills in those empty sketches with bleak colours that are drawn with statistical data on the displacement of people. Individual stories of those whose lives were left with nothing of their pasts and only a few fragments to build a bleak future upon, due to the projects initiated by the mighty state, give an impression of how insurmountable a challenge it is to stand against the designs of the state in which the sovereignty of these very individuals resides.
To be displaced in a lifetime thrice due to three projects once each from Army, Navy and the Air force is nothing short of a cruel irony. And then there are dams and other development projects that won’t let these residents in remote areas be. To put things into perspective it would be wise to bring in an international perspective. The World Bank has recently admitted to having failed the poor who have been displaced by the projects funded or backed by the international body. It is worth mentioning that World Bank has been one of the organisations who have been driving the liberalisation and economic restructuring project in developing economies for more than three decades now. Until now World Bank has been downplaying the damage caused by these development projects in terms of massive human displacement. The fact, that this admission comes now, is little consolation for the many that have faced the scourge of development and progress over the years.
“Beyond the Margin: Survival strategies of the poor”, the next section is a collection of stories of some of the poorest individuals in the country who strive to find a way to survive. For those who are comfortable in their lives, it would be pretty hard to empathise with the people in these stories. For those who can it would be devastating. From people risking their lives climbing palm trees for tapping jaggery to those defying limits of human endurance carrying up to 250 kg of coal over forty kilometres, to those breaking their backs all day collecting tendu leaves, these stories are about people who everyday nearly kill themselves or tire themselves to death to etch out a day’s worth of living and no more and sometimes even less.
One gets the sense of how loosely everything is tied up together and how easily can everything fall apart. As Sainath quotes Dr. K. Nagraj from Madras Institute of Development Studies, “It is an extremely fragile survival game... This sort of footloose migrant lives in a permanent zone of very low income and very high insecurity. It just takes one illness in the family, or one wedding, for the whole thing to fall apart.” Sadly the conundrum is that it is hard to decide which is worse; the fact that there are so many of such stories dispersed in all parts of the country or that their monumental struggles of everyday survival go unnoticed by the mainstream media and society in general.
The rural societal and socio-economic structure does not contribute in mitigating the trials and tribulations of the rural poor. This remains the theme of the next section titled “Lender, Losers, Crooks & Credit: Usury, debt and the rural Indian”. Financial conditions of the rural poor are incomplete without accounts of soul crushing debts, bonded labour, mortgaged lands and houses. The stories highlight on the one hand the futility of official schemes and measures for the rural poor who in no way get benefitted by them since these always overshoot the poorest and the neediest and on the other hand show how the local moneylenders, middlemen etc. exploit these people. The situation is so melodramatic that Sainath is led to compare the situation to a nineteenth century novel. Here he also expresses his disappointment over how others including social scientists have failed to understand and represent this reality. He writes, “Maybe the authors of nineteenth century fiction were more effective in expressing the reality of their times than some late twentieth century social scientists have been in capturing the reality of ours.”
The next section “Crime & No Punishment: Targeting the poor” is a nuanced look at how social stigma of being poor, most often borne by dalits and adivasis, impacts upon their encounter with the law. The law, which is supposed to protect those who are vulnerable in society, in the hands of human authority paradoxically makes the vulnerability itself a crime. For remedying the lack of adequate land for some can actually make them end up losing what little they have or being able to afford a little rice with hard work could make them suspect of being a thief and get punished or financial inclusion through industrial or mining projects could lead these people to lose their existing resources and with no compensation as promised. These are the crimes that are committed against them regularly but no one gets punished.
“Despots, Distillers, Poets & Artists: Characters of the countryside” is a section that is a very intricate combination of feature and development journalism and of personalities and phenomena. In doing so it tells stories of despots who defend themselves against charges of bonded labour, poor distillers who run illegal industry of arrack distillation but only earn a petty penny while the major profits are amassed at much higher levels of officialdom, poets and writers who situated in the remotest of areas write about their immediate reality and still manage to achieve such nuanced perspectives that they can be applicable to society and politics in general and artists whose art which is recognised and celebrated world over but can actually lead to their exploitation. These are the stories of those who do not fit the archetype of rural personalities in popular representation and still suffer the same fate which their archetypical counterparts, like the proverbial farmers, do just because of their social location and societal structures with built in designs of exploitation.
Perhaps the issues addressed in the next section are so vital and disturbing that its heading has been made the heading of the book itself. “Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Water problems, real and rigged” as the name suggests is a section featuring reports on water related problems and issues for the poorest of the poor in rural areas. Often television news features reports on water crisis in urban areas and the water tanker mafia. Imagine similar crisis and not even the water mafia to depend upon. Water in rural areas moreover is not just about sustenance through consumption but also the basis of their livelihood through agriculture. Sainath highlights the false notions and perspectives on water politics in India and the lack of basic infrastructure that yields this crisis of water in different aspects. At the same time he also reflects on how crucial the situation is for the rural poor when it comes to availability of water and the failure of policy and politics in dealing with it.
While in some of the stories featured prior to this, there have been examples of people surviving against all adversities, the section “With Their Own Weapons: When the poor fight back” is about stories where “People are not quite so passive.” Regarding their struggles he writes, “They revolt in many ways. And as long as that is the case, there is hope.” These are the stories of men and women who organise themselves with the assistance of various types of organisations and associations and try to take back every inch that they can and still keep coming back. Stories of ordinary rural women taking control of stone quarries and fighting off organised contractors and their various underhanded tactics and women fighting the power structures involved in illegal industry of arrack distillation to restore normalcy in their lives often disrupted by harmful effects of the illegal alcohol on their men folk, feature in this section. Also people fighting to protect the forests with which they share a symbiotic relationship of nurturing and sustenance ironically against the encroachment of both the timber smugglers and the forest officials and women defying both their economic conditions and patriarchal norms to learn cycling and assert themselves not only as earners of living but members of society also find place among these stories. All of them drive the point home about human spirit not just to survive but to create a life worth living.
The last section is like an epilogue by the author himself. Titled “Poverty, Development & Press”, this note includes Sainath’s thoughts on the idea of development, how this idea approaches poverty and what role does press play in addressing both. Sainath’s musings do not come from ivory towers but, as is evident from the extensive work he has done in those areas of the country which represent the majority of the country’s population, his theories develop from praxis. Thus when he says “Development is the strategy of evasion” he is not speaking merely from anti-neo-liberal ideological stance, rather he has acquired much evidence which exposes the falseness of the idea of development. This is especially true when development is sought to mitigate the effects of poverty. At the same time he also mounts a consistent attack on press and media in the way they treat poverty as an event and not a process. Thus when some poor in a remote area does something drastic out of poverty or helplessness it becomes news, but the very processes that culminate in these drastic measures are ignored.
But one paragraph that sticks out the most in the entire concluding remarks is the following: “If ‘change’ is to come, those who seek to author it must have credibility. And that, a credibility of record. Not one invented by a media chorus that has no link at all to what hundreds of millions of Indians are thinking. This growing disconnect of the ‘mass’ media from mass reality is getting worse.” 22 years since he has written these words, they ring truer than ever before. The book and its constituent reports consistently do this throughout, i.e. remain relevant for even present times. It seems that written just after Indian economy opened up to liberalisation, globalisation and neo-liberal economic reforms, this book became a prologue for the times to come. But what is more significant is that Sainath went into the deepest of strata of society to look for his case studies. Yet his emphasis remains on telling stories of these people, individuals in their own right and not just targets of policy or reporting.
To look at poverty and that too in rural areas, when most journalists, cinema makers and ethnographers have a tendency to romanticise the village and tribal life, he shows the way for media professionals how to really soak themselves in these stories and not just dip their toes. If today Sainath has felt the need to launch PARI (People’s Archive of Rural India) it is not surprising since mainstream media, even after him having sowed the seeds of rural journalism more than two decades ago, is not ready to embrace this “beat” of journalism which incidentally represents more than 70% of Indian society.
(The book was bought from Modern Book Depot, Sadar Bazaar in Agra)