Reporting the Realities of Poverty

Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India's Poorest Districts
P. Sainath
Penguin Books Canada Ltd.
1996, 470 pp, $24.85, ISBN 0-14-025984-8

Reviewed by Barrie Zwicker

P. Sainath. A journalist destined to gain world stature. Everybody Loves a Good Drought comprises cautionary tales with fundamental implications for Canadians and others being herded into an economic compound called "Globalization."

The book provides compelling substance. Many of the stories of injustice - of the outright theft of tribal lands, of corruption in aid agencies - defy belief. But they are carefully documented.

The book also is one manifestation of a new form of journalism that Sainath has pioneered. The second new form of journalism he has pioneered.

His first, "Extra-Visual" Journalism, was born in August 1983. Sainath then was Deputy Editor of BLITZ, a weekly published in Bombay. It and four sister publications have a combined readership of six million. "Extra-Visual" journalism is a supplement to a mass distribution paper. It deals emotionally and statistically with fundamental questions. "Picture of India 1983" relied on official government statistics - about housing and hunger and the place of women, for instance. The statistics were, however, juxtaposed with photos. The photos showed the statistics were lies, or self-serving spins, or at best constituted emotionless masks for the realities they supposedly represented.

Sainath's May 1985 supplement "BLITZ Against War. Apocalypse No," was a labour of love that took 2 ½ years to complete: two years to collect photographs from nearly 30 countries and six months to write, design and produce.

Sainath has also devoted 2 ½ years to visiting and recording the realities - again delving into the fundamentals, the why of the realities - in India's 10 poorest districts. This took years of preparation and all his savings. He gave up his 10-year job at BLITZ. With the help of a fellowship, he bought a camera, sound recording equipment and supported himself initially for 10 months (devoting about one month to each district), covering his own travel and communication costs, film and tapes.

He worked on spec. The editors of The Times of India (who have since offered him the post of Roving Reporter) agreed to look at stories Sainath would write. His first one ran on page one. Sixty-seven followed; most were published front page. Within months, the editors of the Times instructed all their district correspondents to file one story each month similar to Sainath's.

Here's a condensation of a typical story, but typical only in that the willingness of the rich and powerful to squash the poorest and most defenceless appears to know no bounds. Chikapar is a village of 450 large families. The villagers have been displaced three times since 1968 in the name of development. First the land on which Chikapar had existed for millenia was acquired by Hindustan Aeronautic Ltd. (HAL). HAL built a factory there to manufacture MiG jet fighters. The people were forcibly evicted on an angry monsoon night.

In 1987, all Chikapar residents were tossed from their second location, what might be called Chikapar-2, to make way for the Upper Kolab irrigation and power project and naval ammunition depot. At that time, many had received no compensation for their eviction 19 years earlier.

Recently the residents of Chikapar-3 received eviction notices from the Military Engineering Service (MES) of the Indian Army, claiming the village poses some problem for MES. "If the last reason is true, says one official 'little Chikapar will have, in succession, taken on the air force, the navy and the army. If it were not so tragic, it would be almost comical.' "

Part of the tragedy is that the media paid no attention to the illegal land grabs of these mainly illiterate tribal people. The main reason for their illiteracy is that the state refuses to fund schools for them.

Broken promises litter the pages of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. At their original ousting, Chikapar villagers they were offered one job per house and one home for each displaced family. Fewer than 15 finally got jobs at HAL, which employs about 4,500. And the jobs were very menial. The promise of houses was treated similarly.

One villager, Mukda Kadam, was a young mother of five during the first eviction. A grown daughter was evicted with her during the second. A grandchild was with her during the third. On the first and third evictions she took shelter from monsoon rains under bridges for days.

Publication of some of Sainath's stories resulted in crackdowns on the corruption he uncovered. At least one led to the murder of one of the people who spoke with him. All the stories had significant impact, individually and collectively. He also mounted, with his own funds, an exhibition of dozens of photographs from among the thousands he took. His work has earned 13 awards, most of which he did not apply for. In November 1995, Sainath was awarded the European Commission's Lorenzo Natali Prize for Journalism - someone in Finland nominated him. He is the first freelance journalist to receive this award for a solo effort. Speaking tours and interviews have followed.

N. K. Nautiyal, editor of Nutan Savera, says: "Sainath has done more than restore poverty to the reporting agenda. He has redefined all three - poverty, reporting and the agenda." Earlier, the late Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, India's longest-standing and leading columnist, wrote: "He is incorrigible, indefatigable, incorruptible, and at times, infuriating… the most irreverent voice in Indian journalism… I do not know another journalist who can make compassion so compelling." Abbas, in his will, passed his column on to Sainath.

Visiting a Toronto bookstore with Sainath, I came across one of the current books revealing, 50 years after the revelations could have some positive effect, collaborations of governments and corporations with Nazi Germany. "Why does this stuff always come out so late?" I asked in frustration. "It comes out when it won't cause trouble and somebody can make money from it," he replied. He has the skepticism of an I.F. Stone, the stamina of a Khariar bull, the courage of a Tom Paine. He's written about the first two, and plans a book about Paine and other towering figures of journalism. He's qualified for the task.

Barrie Zwicker is publisher of Sources and Vision TV's
resident media critic. This Fall, CBC Radio's Ideas will broadcast two one-hour programs about Sainath's journalism of the poorest. A CBC television show is planned. Three interviews Zwicker recorded with Sainath in May will be aired in the coming season on Vision's human affairs program Skylight (7 p.m. Eastern and Pacific).


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