Reporting the Realities of Poverty
Everybody Loves a Good Drought, Stories from India's Poorest
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
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
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
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
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
I do not know another journalist who can make compassion
so compelling." Abbas, in his will, passed his column on to
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 resident Media
Critic for Vision TV. 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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