If only someone could walk up to P. Sainath and blurt out on his face, “The monstrosity, the silliness, the grinding misery and brazen exploitation that you describe are all lies; figment of your imagination.” Or better still, “All you wrote twenty years back are relics from the long forgotten past. India is rising. Look at the GDP curve. We have the fastest growing group of billionaires in the world. Don’t you follow TV channels or read newspapers?”
Alas! How little has changed. The first accusation would have to be immediately dismissed. Some of his reporting back then shook the nation to the core, forcing Prime Ministers and Chief Ministers to rush to those forgotten far-flung hamlets. Unfortunately, those were just token measures with no institutional changes; which Sainath foresaw. As for the second part, despite all growth stories, poverty in rural India is still endemic and perhaps far more complex than it was 20 years back. Let’s dwell on that too later.
Sainath’s account of the lives in our poorest villages in “Everybody Loves a Good Drought”, where a large percentage of Indians live, is as alive today as it was two decades back. Some have called the book, “a history of rural India”, others have called it “the conscience of India” and it was included in part in The Century’s Greatest Reportage (Ordfront, 2000). In the foreword, Gopal Krishna Gandhi writes, “There are books and there are books. Many sell, but a few of them never stop selling. More, they never stop being read. And reread.”
How pertinent. I was reading the book for the second time. Having worked and lived most part of the last decade in rural India, his description of the struggles and travails of people in the rural parts of our country still hits the proverbial bull’s eye. And some of the quotes in the book are just mind-numbing. Let me start with my favourite and intersperse this piece with a few others.
“When poor get literate and educated, the rich lose their palanquin bearers.”
The name of the book almost sounds like a marketing gimmick but it was not Sainath’s idea. A peasant activist from Jharkhand had wryly remarked that drought reliefs are a bonanza time for some- teesri fasal (third crop). So, basically many in power love a good flood or a drought as bigger the calamity, the larger is the cut for any sanctioned work. But the book is much more than a natural calamity devastating the lives of the poor in India’s hinterland. The first section of the book is about the developments (or the complete absence of it) in rural India four decades after independence.
It is on ignorant yet arrogant policies wrecking havoc in the lives of the neediest among us, about lack of even minimum health or education service delivery to the poor and above all the hollowness of many, so-called, development strategies. In short, as he puts it –a brief introduction to the absurd!
“Denying the poor access to knowledge goes back a long way……if a Sudra listens to the Vedas, his ears are to be filled with molten tin and lac. In a modern polity, where the base-born have votes, the elite act differently. Say all the right things. But deny access. Sometimes, mass pressure forces concessions. Bend a little. After a while, it is business as usual”
The second section is full of anecdotes on the survival strategies of the poor. It is tragically beautiful. Rantapandi and the other tree-climbing Nadars in Ramnad district of Tamil Nadu hop up and down about 40 palm trees a day. He then has to extract the juice and climb down. There are another 39 trees before his 15-hour slog ends. During the peak season, he would have to climb a height greater than New York’s Empire State Building- every day. Dharmi Paharini of the Paharia tribe from Godda, Bihar (now in Jharkhand), weighing less than the 40 kg firewood on her head, covers 31 kilometres to sell them for a pittance. Then there is Mangal (Tuesday), the Bonda tribal from Malkangiri in Odisha, whose wife Saniwari (Saturday) and their son, Budh (Wednesday) and two daughters Raviwari (both called Sunday) who survive on shifting cultivation, hunting and gathering.
The book makes you question if the lengths to which the poor go to meet their basic needs gives them a sense of living in a free country. Their bondage to fate has changed little irrespective of whether the British ruled India or Indians ruled India.
“Yet, their hard work, their dignity in the face of such circumstances, and their quest for self-reliance begs one question. Is there anything these people cannot achieve if given the right opportunities?”
The subsequent sections are about lenders and crooks, powerful landlords and despots in a maze of exploitation, the Kafkaesque of bureaucracy, banks and police as well as poets and artists. The final part is about how the poor fight back with very little means. Terrific stories of illiterate women running stone quarries to destroying illegal country wine-shops. Stories of forest revival by communities to women cycling their way to freedom give reasons for so much hope.
There is a special section on poverty, press and development. Sainath is scathing on the role of the press, and rightly so. Ironically, when the book came out, at least there was a space for discourse around the grinding rural poverty in the print media. It has been quite a downhill since then. In the last decade, the front-page given to stories from India’s 6.4 lakh odd villages was less than 1%. Front page agriculture coverage in English dailies was less than 0.2% during the period from 2012-16, for a sector that employs half of the Indian population. It is as if this section simply does not exist for the mass media, including today’s vibrant social media space. Even here (the social media space) the poor, the Dalits, Adivasis and marginalized groups do the disappearing act except when passions flare around reservation (another middle-class issue). Is it not intellectual apartheid: a deep sense of antipathy for the vast majority in this country?
“More than a few doctors, having been trained at the expense of the poorest people in the world, settle abroad to address ailments of affluent Americans. So some of the most deprived, disease-ridden people subsidize the health of the richest”
In “Everybody Loves a Good Drought”, the class structure then seems evident: the elite and the poor. The equations of poverty and issue reporting have got complicated since then. Today there is a burgeoning middle class acting as a buffer between the elite and the vast majority of Indian poor, be it in remote villages or pulling the rickshaw on our streets. Take any issue today that gets the attention of the public, it would invariably involve the interests and the grievances of India’s middle class. Incidentally, with the rise of the Indian middle class, the space for India’s poor in the general consciousness has shrunk so rapidly that until and unless there is a farmer agitation or a large number of distress suicides, we are incapable of even looking at the direction of our hinterlands.
Sainath was also critical of the many NGOs functioning in rural India back then. While the growth of NGOs has been steady in rural India, it has just sky-rocketed in the urban space during this period. The vast majority of do-gooders in the sector are driving all changes in the urban spheres far away from the places where India’s most marginalised population live. Another blind spot there!
The book has about 450 pages and after a point, you actually feel like giving up. How much misery should the poor endure? Then there is a big physical barrier between our cities and our far-flung villages. Many of us have never seen those people. Maybe for a start, we don’t even have to go to a remote village to identify them. Let us just look around; you will find them teeming on the streets. What desperation must have pushed them from the country-side to come and live in horrendous condition under flyovers, slums and on the side of the road? Sainath’s book is a good start to know that.
It is a recommended read in more than a 100 universities across the world. The book or at least parts of it must be made mandatory in all schools and colleges in India. Any perception of India without understanding its vast rural population is only a peripheral insight into the country. Serious public discourse is long due. This complete shunning of our rural populace is not just unethical and immoral as a nation but against the very principle on which India was founded. Until and unless our rural populace is empowered, India’s development will remain a mirage.
“At the end of many months of recording their strategies, only one answer stood out: with basics in place (a genuine land reform, education, health and equal opportunities), they can and will change their world. And ours.”
You might not like everything you read but “Everybody Loves a Good Drought” is a mirror to the larger Indian society; a peep into the soul of India and unfortunately it is not a very pleasant sight.