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P. Sainath’s Passionate Plea for Empathy is Ever Relevant

Sanchit Pradhan

P. Sainath’s 1996 classic, which is in its twentieth-anniversary edition now with a new introduction by him, is curiously titled “Everybody Loves a Good Drought” Why would anybody—let alone everybody—love a drought?

But before that, we must ask, how did Sainath come to write this book at all? After all, the media is notoriously disinterested in rural India.

In the new introduction, Sainath notes this. He cites how between 2012 and 2016, the coverage given to rural India on the front pages of national dailies was 0.26 per cent. On TV, it was 0.87 per cent. Even during national elections, when coverage of rural India peaks, it never peaked over 1 per cent.

India has more than six lakh villages, and around 68 per cent of its population lives in rural India. Back in 1992, when Sainath started work on the book, the situation was worse. The coverage was even smaller.

Owing to the media’s apathy toward rural India, Sainath felt the need to write his book even more urgently. He saw his work as an antidote.

Sainath believes that the media’s role—their “minimum duty”—is “to signal the weakness in society.” When the media does that, it does make a difference. When the society is signalled its weakness, it does respond with change. “Even in the '80s, the stories on Kalahandi could force two prime ministers to visit the place,” he writes.

The example of Kalahandi, where drought and famine had infamously led to starvation deaths and even selling of children, also gets to the heart of the other main idea behind Sainath’s book - the Indian media is better at covering events than processes. “[The media] has proved increasingly inept at covering processes. Especially, the development process.”

Everybody Loves a Good Drought looks at Indian poverty, not in terms of events, but terms of processes. That is its central idea. That is its genius.

In Sainath’s hands, poverty is covered as more than events. Reportage is not restricted to starvation deaths or drought and famine conditions. It is opened up to be covered as a complex, dynamic intersection of factors like land, health, education, literacy, gender, tribal or caste identities, and so on.

This is why Sainath faced difficulty organizing his 70 reports neatly into “conventional themes.” He writes, “It didn’t work. Some or all of these elements appeared in almost every story.” Although the reports are divided by themes, the artificiality of these divisions is acknowledged.

How poverty processes relate to “The development process” is also explored. In the section “And the Meek Shall Inherit the Earth: Until a Project Comes Along,” Sainath tells the story of Odisha’s Chikapar village. As one official observes, the story “if it were not so tragic, would be almost comical.”

The Chikapar village, of 400-500 joint families, is displaced twice by the government in the name of development. First in 1968, then in 1987. In the early nineties, they are sent an eviction notice for the third time. This is when the hundreds of hectares of land grabbed in the late sixties were not used. The project did not end up needing it. But it was neither returned, nor given appropriate compensation for (if at all).

This two-part report is titled “Chased by Development, “as if development were a monster. Sainath tells us that between 1951 and 1990, at least 25 million Indians have been displaced. Most of the tribal or lower caste. “The price of development” is paid by them. One displaced woman in the Chikapar story asks, “Why does this always happen to us?” Sainath answers, “Possibly because they are Adivasis and Dalits and this is Koraput, home to some of the poorest people in the country.”

Coming back to the question we started with, why would anyone love a drought?

Ramji Lakhan, a farmer activist, has the answer. “Drought relief. The money that comes in as relief makes the powerful richer than they were. It’s quite a good business. We like a good drought here.”

Edited by Uzair Firdausi and Tanishaa Vikas Jain