Summary of Sainath's talk - Arnab Bhattacharya

This is just a brief summary of some of the issues that were raised by journalist Mr. P. Sainath in his talk at the Wisconsin Union on April 27th 1997. What follows is by no means a complete account of the talk, it is just some of the things which struck me as being significant and/or interesting and I'm only putting down the little points I had scribbled during the talk. I don't claim that anything is absolutely as he said it, a lot of it is the way I have understood it and ask to be excused in case it isn't what was originally intended. The flyer that had been circulated about his talk had referred to his work as speaking for the "Fourth world", Sainath clarified that the term not originally his, has been around for a while. Introduced by another columnist Khwaja Ahmed Abbas (who btw holds the record for the longest continuous column in a newspaper - 46 years) the fourth world was used to represent that fraction of the poor and marginalized who were forgotten or left behind by the third world in the development process. Over the last 40-50 years the pace of development in third world countries - India being the chosen example - has left a lot to be desired in terms of addressing the basic needs of the rural poor, while concentrating most of the effort on rapid, urban growth with the middle or upper-middle class (and of course the rich) being the target of most development. Poverty is almost a forgotten word in India in the 90s. The entire focus of government policy seems to almost ignore the existence of the poor. For example the pre-budget econonic review of the DeveGowda government doesn't use the word poverty anywhere in the report, apart from one place where it appears as better schemes of poverty analysis are needed or something to the effect. And this, in a country where the government itself estimates that 327 Million people are below the poverty-line. Of these 40% are landless agricultural labourers, and another 45% are small farmers. 85% of the poor are actually growing food, but have to buy food to be able to eat. The definition of the poverty-line in India is, unlike for e.g. the US, an absolute destitution level. The way the press viewed poverty had also changed over the years. Though the print-media reaches only 12% of the Indian population, it is this segment that controlled most of the economic and policy decision making power in the country. Earlier there were two ways that the press looked upon poverty - one as in reports of destitution, famine etc. and the other in the representation of the poor farmer/worker as the malnourished hero of for example the great agricultural success story. However presently even this token reporting of poverty based issues has changed. Now it is more of - Why care? - writing about the poor isn't going to increase my advertising revenue anyway - and the people who buy the newspaper aren't poor. So why bother. Sainath analysed the break up of the different fields of reporters for most major newspapers in India. As a percentage of correspondents, the 1990s have the most reporters devoted to covering business issues, displacing political correspondents, for long the largest section, to second place. Following politics is sports, of which cricket takes the major share. Then come the ministry people, followed by people covering fashion/design/glamour related items. The much-coveted eating-out reporters are somewhere after this. In a country which has 1/3 of the world's people without adequate drinking water, BC of the world's child labour, 1/5 of all people displaced by developmental projects, 1/3 of all leprosy cases, 4/5 of all TB cases(I missed some stats) - in such a country there is not a single permanent correspondent for rural poverty and development issues in all the major Indian newspapers To bring the case in point Sainath looked at what the top news stories were from 1994 to 97. In 1994 it was the plague. Hundreds of front-page columns devoted to this ghastly scourge - why? Because the plague had hit an urban center - and plague germs don't distinguish between class and caste - the world was scared because plague germs can fly club-class to New York. A look at the numbers - 54 people died in the plague. In the same year 430 thousand people died due to TB in India. And 1.5 million children died due to dehydration. 1995 saw the press absolutely overawed by the stupendous achievement of Indian women winning both the Miss World and Miss Universe contests. No matter where one looked there were the smiling faces of. A. Rai and S. Sen trying to sell everything under the sun. Commercialization was in. As Sainath said - consider this - Will a Miss Monaco or Miss San Marino ever win the Miss Universe title? Even if they did, and every woman in San Marino (for e.g.) bought some lipstick, how much lip stick could they sell? Whereas even if the tiny fraction of the Indian middle class bought lipstick or perfume or whatever - it makes millions for the multinationals! (When asked about goals in life apparently one of them said that she wants to be like Mother Teresa. Sainath comment - doesn't seem likely unless Mother Teresa enters a beauty contest. (I can't get the right tone and expression here)) 1996 was similar - the Miss World contest being held in Bangalore attracted all the media attention and earlier this year it was the debate over the Yanni concert in Agra. Developmental issues have been forgotten by the press. Another example - when the recent budget was announced - there was major celebration about all the tax breaks that were available to the middle class - OK, fine but no mention about the fact that unless the collection of taxes improves there was not going to be a net increase in revenue for the government, or that while persons making 300 thousand a year would save 30% in taxes, people making 3000 a year would be lose %. An analysis into the modes of developmental coverage in India showed that there were basically twoways in which the press covered it - one was in terms of numbers - so many km of roads were laid, so may bridges build, wells sunk, so many ribbons cut. The other was the NGO-centric mode where the emphasis was on this organization is doing all this work - which finally was more reporting on the organization than anything else. The problems with these approaches were several. Poverty was covered as an event - so many tribal children die due to malnutrition - everything is a catastrophe to be reported as such. This automatically leads to relief programs rather than developmental programs in the first place. Again there is a big difference between the rulers and the people, a lack of understanding of ground level issues by the and a total exclusion of the poor from the decision making process (apart from exceptions - Kerala for e.g.). Poverty is a process, not an event as should be covered as such. As an example of the difference in reporting (process vs. event) Sainath took the case of a drought in the Puddukottai district of Tamil Nadu, a place he had visited while researching for his book. In response to the drought the govt. decided to dig 2000 wells in the drought afflicted areas. Now the event based reporting was simple - there is a drought, 2000 wells have been dug. Period. Sometimes a little more investigation is done under the name of journalism - e.g. who got the kickbacks from the wells. But the entire story of what really happened needs one to understand the local conditions, geography, caste relations in the villages, etc. That leads to the question - Where were the wells sunk in the district - In whose land? And what follows - It was a really insightful story - there are two castes in the district. (I coudn't get their names) The lower, poorer caste actually had the more fertile land, whereas the upper caste, though they had more land didn't have a lot of good arable land. Now if you look at where the wells were dug - somehow, (perhaps you pay the right person?) most of the wells were dug on upper caste land. Then this led to the wells on the lower caste, fertile land drying up eventually as the water table sank - Then, since the UC has more wells than the LC, they start to sell water to the LC. (And of course the World Bank thinks that this buying/selling of water has led to the growth of an thriving rural economy so they've done a great job). Now, since I' m selling you water, I start to withhold water during a critical period in the agricultural cycle. The LC is now down on its knees - all their hopes lie in the crop - and that means water. So then the UC says OK, what about I give you water in exchange for x% of your produce. The LC have no choice but to accept - anyway they are poor - and now have to part with some of the their crop. Next year its the same - but now, since I'm giving you water, and you can't pay me - I suggest why don't you grow this crop instead of rice - I'll give you water to grow green chillies, not rice (because I want to grow rice, even though my land isn't the best for growing rice, but I have water) - now UC controls what crop LC grows - and eventually this sequence leads to LC loosing their land to the UC. So the net result of 2000 wells being dug to alleviate a drought is a massive change is land ownership in the region and the creation of more disparity between rich and poor. The point is that to understand poverty it is not sufficient to look at it and try to solve things in terms of just an isolated problem. There was another example from the Kalahandi district of Orissa. Another scheme that was a total fiasco. It was stupid to the point of being hilarious. I'll type it out one of these days when I find more time. Also a lot on NGOs and how, while there were some really dedicated ones making a difference, there were hundreds of them that were not very effective. The term Non- Governmental was often a misnomer - 93% of NGOs receive government funding. In fact the World Bank is the leading funding source for NGOs all over the world. I don't want to make it appear as if there was nothing positive said al through the talk, in fact he kept referring to Kerala as an example of how solutions can be found within the country for various problems and cited many human develop- ment indicators of Kerala that were way ahead of the rest of India and on par with those of the US. Things I haven't gone into - The Disaster of the IMF Structural Adjustment in 1991 and the results (on the poor) following that. GATT / WTO stuff and patent rights etc.