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“Rural India Is Either Absent Or Very Poorly Represented”: In Conversation With P Sainath On PARI

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By Akhil Kumar and Kainat Sarfaraz:

“We are losing worlds and voices within rural India of which future generations will know little or nothing. Even as the present one steadily sheds its own links with those worlds” says Magsaysay award-winning journalist and former Rural Affairs Editor at The Hindu, P Sainath, in the about page of People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). This sentence succinctly describes the need for PARI, which aims to serve as “a living journal, a breathing archive” covering the “The everyday lives of everyday people”.

Sainath’s monumental work on rural India has been widely acclaimed, and with this massive project, he has taken his journalistic passion to yet another heights. PARI aims to extensively document the 833 million people who inhabit “the world’s most diverse and complex countryside”. Archives, which are mostly set up and maintained by states, have historically served the interests of the ruling elite by various tools of manipulation, suppression and alienation. It is in this context that we understand the significance of a ‘People’s Archive’. The people tell their own stories – through audio clips, videos, pictures, reports etc., all of which is made available for access free of cost under Creative Commons. Anyone can contribute to the archive as long as the content meets the standards of the archive. You can film, write, click pictures or even record audio clips documenting the everyday lives of people in rural India and send it across to contribute.

The archive has already seen active participation from a large number of journalists, academicians, tech professionals, even students, who have voluntarily worked hard to provide the initial push to this ambitious project. From ‘talking albums’ to video documentaries, the methods of communication used are also very innovative and engaging, which would appeal to the young audiences as well.

P Sainath

Youth Ki Awaaz spoke to P Sainath ahead of the Delhi launch of PARI, about the significance of the initiative, the challenges, the approach, and more.

1) A significant chunk of the people who would access the archives come from a privileged socio-economic section, how do you think will this project initiate a process of reflection, discussion and change in attitudes towards rural India?

That point would apply to almost any media activity other than cinema (and that too, is mediated by diverse languages). So, it could mean that we should do nothing! As a professional journalist of 34 years – I have been writing in the English language press, surely read by a privileged section of society. Should I have desisted from working as a journalist? The fact is that that the media platforms I have worked on have had significant impact. What I wrote in English was almost immediately translated into about nine other languages (not by arrangement, but spontaneously) and reached a wider audience thereby. However, even then, newspaper readers are not an underprivileged section of society. There are also groups that cannot be described as privileged – but are not underprivileged either. By its nature, and by the nature of our class and caste divided society, these inequalities are bound to be present in the media as they are in the institutions of higher education, law etc., (And ‘social media’ probably has the narrowest, most privileged profile of all). That should not be an excuse for doing nothing.

Secondly, the point of taking to digital media in the way we have is precisely to try and democratise it. Rural India is either altogether absent or very poorly represented in our media. By focusing on this giant continent within a subcontinent, you could say this is inclusion, democratisation. A significant minority are accessing information and entertainment on their cellphones. The most recent example is of a 19 year old driver whose vehicle I hired for a trip from Raipur in Chhattisgarh to Malkangiri in Odisha. He was from a village in Punjab, now working in a village on the edge of Raipur. He had never lived in a city. Through my journey, he was watching what we journalists were doing – and posting it on his Facebook page (in Punjabi) and showing us the response. Ten years ago, cellphones were a very privileged minority – as broadband is today. We expect that broadband will spread in the next decade the way cellphones did, to bring in far more people. That will also mean far more schools and colleges get onto broadband. And some of our techie friends are also thinking up tablets and apps that will enable the less privileged to access this site.

I should also mention that our platform is entirely based on open source software and not on proprietary stuff.

Above all, get onto the site and see who is speaking in our videos, photos, stories. It is not the privileged. And if there are some you might consider privileged – see whose voices they are trying to bring to the audience.

Godda Koilawallah 2002

2) When you started the process of documentation, what strategies did you have in mind? Did you try to experiment with the style and content presentation to make it more relatable to a wider audience?

Obviously. Many of us are professional communicators and will always be trying out things that way. The digital platform permits us to do things, experiment with things the way we cannot in any other kind. You will find multiple storytelling formats on PARI. From talking albums, to an online library to video films that come with subtitles in multiple languages. Take for instance the film on just now: Kali, the dancer and his dreams. It is a Tamil film with subtitles in (the default) English language. However, volunteers have done painstaking translation work and we have positioned these in a way that lets you go on choose to watch this film with Marathi, or Bengali or Hindi subtitles. That obviously widens the appeal and reach, extending it to countless more visitors/viewers. Likewise, there are many things we do that relate to very young audiences as well. Do have a look at Kynja’s Day at the Anganwadi in the category ‘Small World.’ You’ll see what I mean. It can be read and appreciated by very young people.

On the road in rural India mini v 2

3) How do you think mainstream media is likely to respond to this? Do you think this might encourage a deeper journalistic engagement with rural issues? And do you see this leading to a process of transformation in the general conscience of the public?

In terms of covering the launch of PARI, the response in the mainstream media has actually been good and, from our point of view, positive. I certainly hope it will impact on the media’s coverage of rural India and think it will. But one should not get carried away by the expectation. Their coverage is driven by corporate interests and is therefore profit-driven. However, within the spaces that exist in the media where there are some zones of autonomy, we do believe it will have an impact. I would not go over the top and speak of transformations of the conscience of the public – for one thing, you may wrongly be assuming that the mainstream media control the conscience of the public. They might condition and influence it to a point, yes, they do impact on it, yes. We hope we can utilise that. But we’re also hoping to make many other levels of impact. Directly, in the schools and so on.

Godda Koilawallah 5005

4) Will PARI function only as an archive or would it also go on to a deeper policy level engagement with the Govt. through campaigns etc. to appeal to the govt. for crucial interventions to highlight, encourage, and preserve rural culture, traditions, and occupations that have been historically ignored and thus have suffered?

We appeal to the public, not to governments. We engage with governments, we scrutinize policy and cover the intent and impact of those very closely – which is what I’ve done in all my years in journalism. However, we aim to do that through storytelling – an art that has been lost to much of journalism. We believe that governments will act when there is significant pressure from below. And yes, if governments want to step in and try preserving some of what is best in rural India, then that’s a good thing and we’re all for it.

However, I do not believe everything in rural ‘culture’ or tradition is wonderful and worth preserving. Rural India has both the beautiful and the regressive; the brilliant and the barbaric. However, the nature of the transformation underway in rural India – and this is very largely policy driven – is such that it tends to strengthen the regressive and undermine what we need to cherish. So, some of the best schools and traditions and skills of weaving are in collapse – but the khaps of Haryana are doing quite well!

I should also clarify that our focus is on the human being, the labourers, the farmers, the artisans and artists – rather than on the beautiful products of weaving, pottery and the like. Our focus is on the work and labour ordinary Indians do. Only by respecting that do you have a chance of saving what’s worth cherishing.


5) There is an existing mindset which glorifies professions like doctors, engineers, lawyers, marketing professionals etc.. This leads to belittling the contributions of farmers, weavers and artists. What will be PARI’s role in addressing this mindset?

PARI declares its position on that in its very slogan and philosophy: The Everyday Lives of Everyday People. We’ll leave the glorification of the elite to their own platforms. And we are not in the glorification game at all. We’re covering everyday life – that can throw up the glorious, but can also throw up the reprehensible. We cover both. At the same time, there are quite a few doctors, engineers lawyers etc., who agree with us and who are fed up of the narcissism of the elite. You’ll find some of them volunteering for PARI – some of them already have.

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