The problem with the plague of 1994, really, was that unlike so many other diseases, it refused to occur and remain ‘out there’ in the rural areas. Nor would it confine itself to urban slums. 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.That, more than a concern for the many at risk, propelled the hysterical media coverage of the ‘scourge’. Which, in turn, gave the world an apocalyptic vision of the Black Death mowing down millions in India. Actually, the plague, or anything else you want to call it (to each his own bacilli) took fifty-four lives. Tuberculosis claims over 450,000 Indian lives each year, nearly eight thousand times as many. It would be lucky to get a couple of columns in the newspapers yearly. (…) Diarrhea claims close to 1.5 million infants each year in this country – one every three minutes. That’s thirty thousand times the number of lives lost in the plague. The best it can get by way of space is when UNICEF’s annual ‘State of the World’s Children Report’ is released. Then it makes an occasional bow in the centre page. Or, in one of those anguished editorials (hastily written because the one on the stock exchange didn’t turn up) asking: ‘Where Have We Gone Wrong?’ (…) This establishes that the newspaper has a caring editor, who will soon address the Rotary Club on What Can Be Done For Our Children.
Too many beautiful people felt threatened.
Published in 1996, Sainath’s Everybody loves a good drought is full of acerbic prose like this. And for good reason: they are, as the book says, stories from India’s poorest districts. For close to two decades now (since a Times fellowship in 1992) Sainath has been spending over 200 days a year in rural India – home to three-fourths of India’s population. If he is angry, he doesn’t show it. In fact, when he spoke at college in Manipal, I was lucky to be there. I, for one, wondered how he hasn’t lost hope and isn’t raging mad (plug in: Arundhati Roy). He has probably seen the Indian State and various governments at their most diabolical, seen entire peoples torn out of their native lands and thrown in foreign environs to fend for themselves, seen children dying from thirst and women crippled by hunger. But Sainath persists and doesn’t betray gloom.The book itself is masterly. It is simply written, without oversimplifying things. A month ago I had only read a few essays, and so, when Garima pointed out that he doesn’t sensationalise in the least throughout the book, I decided to test her observation. And indeed, he shies away from anything crassly aimed at invoking pity. Shortly after, I heard Sainath at college and he emphasised the need to be good story-tellers, if we were to be good journalists. His own story-telling is par excellence:
If it is, say, mid-May when reporters reach the affected region, the searing heat will impress some. With your skin and hair on fire, it is easy to believe there has been a drought in the area since the dawn of time. There could be flooding here two months hence, but that doesn’t matter for now. Unlike the quick-on-the-take local stringers, the national press is seldom clued in on ground reality. There are, of course, many reporters who could handle the real stories of the place. They don’t often get sent on such trips. Those are not the kind of stories their publications are looking for. Every editor knows that drought means parched land and hopefully, pictures of emaciated people. That’s what ‘human interest’ is about, isn’t it?The state has made its pitch at the Centre. The Centre is unfazed. It uses what it considers examples of responsible reporting (that is, reports that do not vilify the Centre) to advantage. It makes its own pitch for resources. International funding agencies, foreign donors, get into the act. UNDP, UNICEF, anyone who can throw a little money about. The global aid community is mobilised into fighting drought in a district that gets 1,500 mm of rainfall annually. The reverse spiral begins. Donor governments love emergency relief. It forms a negligible part of their spending, but makes for great advertising. (Emergencies of many sort do this, not just drought. You can run television footage of the Marines kissing babies in Somalia.) There are more serious issues between rich and poor nations – like unequal trade. Settling those would be of greater help to the latter. But for that, the ‘donors’ would have to part with something for real. No. They prefer emergency relief. So money comes into Delhi from various sources. The next step in the downward spiral is for central departments to fight over it. Nothing awakens the conscience like a lot of money. One department or ministry remembers it has a mission to save the forests of the suffering districts. Another recalls a commitment to manage its water resources.
I could go on quoting more examples. He has made a conscious effort to show ‘the human face of poverty’ and hence avoids numbers and figures that reduce inequity to a few equations. At college he said that there are many outstanding publications that crunch the numbers for you but their readership is limited. And within the media, a numbers-laden copy makes for weary reading. He sees things for what they are, and then writes them as they are. And that, surprisingly, is one of the rarest things in the media. Anusha and Shivakant, two people very special to me, had an opportunity I still begrudge them: they had a chance to talk to the man for two hours as they rode with him from Manipal to the airport in Mangalore after he finished his talk at college. You can read the interview at The Manipal Journal. Garima, who is still in college, is the likeliest among all I know to follow in his footsteps – here’s why.As for me, I am now more inclined to do development studies than international relations/security studies. But I differ with Sainath when he claims that there is hope for Indian media, that if more people get in it with good intentions newspapers will start portraying rural (majority) realities. If I am to work for this cause it will be from outside the media framework. The media is way too corrupt, convoluted and capitalist to ever give a shit about the misery of a million marginalised people. The Hindu and Sainath are noble exceptions and nothing more. I have applied to Tata Institute of Social Sciences, to their Master’s programme in development studies. Results should be out in another two weeks. It would be splendid if things come through favourably. If not, I’ll be scheming other schemes. That apart, for anyone wishing to be woken up from the slumber, read this book.