Madras (Chennai), Tamil Nadu, India
Palagummi Sainath (born 1957) is an Indian journalist and photojournalist focusing on social problems, rural affairs, poverty and the aftermaths of globalization in India. He calls himself a 'rural reporter' or simply a 'reporter'. He is the Rural Affairs Editor for The Hindu, and the website India Together has been archiving some of his work in The Hindu daily for the past six years. Amartya Sen has called him "one of the world's great experts on famine and hunger".
Sainath was born into a distinguished family in Madras, now Chennai. He is the grandson of freedom fighter, Indian National Congress politician and former President of India, V. V. Giri and the nephew of Congress politician V. Shankar Giri. Sainath was educated at Loyola College. His preoccupation with social problems and commitment to a political perspective began when he was a student in college. He is a graduate of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi where he was part of an activist student population. He is now an Executive Council member of the same university. After receiving a Master's degree in history, he launched his career as a journalist at the United News of India in 1980 where he received the news agency's highest individual award. He then worked for the Blitz, then a major Indian weekly tabloid published from Mumbai with a circulation of 600,000, first as foreign affairs editor and then as deputy editor, which he continued for ten years. For the last twenty-five years he has been visiting faculty at Sophia Polytechnic's Social Communications Media course and also at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, inspiring a whole generation of young journalists.
Sainath then toured ten drought-stricken states in India, about which he ruefully recalled later,
That's when I learned that conventional journalism was above all about the service of power. You always give the last word to authority. I got a couple of prizes which I didn't pick up because I was ashamed.
As a development journalist
The International Monetary Fund-led economic reforms launched in 1991 by Manmohan Singh constituted a watershed in India's economic history and in Sainath's journalistic career. He felt that the media's attention was moving from "news" to "entertainment" and consumerism and lifestyles of the urban elite gained prominence in the newspapers which rarely carried news of the reality of poverty in India. "I felt that if the Indian press was covering the top 5 per cent, I should cover the bottom 5 per cent", says Sainath.
In 1993 Sainath applied for a Times of India fellowship. At the interview he spoke of his plans to report from rural India. When an editor asked him, "Suppose I tell you my readers aren't interested in this stuff", Sainath riposted, "When did you last meet your readers to make any such claims on their behalf?"
He got the fellowship and took to the back roads in the ten poorest districts of five states. It meant covering close to 100,000 km across India using 16 forms of transportation, including walking 5,000 km on foot. He credits two sympathetic editors at the Times with much of his success in getting the articles published in their present form, since it is one among the very newspapers that has been accused of shifting the onus from page one to page three. The paper ran 84 reports by Sainath across 18 months, many of them subsequently reprinted in his book, Everybody Loves A Good Drought.
For more than two years, the book remained No.1 amongst non-fiction bestsellers on diverse lists across the country. Eventually, it entered the ranks of Penguin India’s all-time best sellers. The book is now in its thirty-first edition and is still in print.
Canadian documentary film maker Joe Moulins made a film about Sainath titled "A Tribe of his Own". When the jury at the Edmonton International Film Festival picked its winner, it decided to include Sainath in the award along with the maker of the film because this was 'an award about inspiration'. Another documentary film, Nero's Guests, looks at inequality (as manifest in India's agrarian crisis) through Sainath's reporting on the subject. Nero's Guests won the Indian Documentary Producers Association's Gold Medal for best documentary for 2010. It has also won several other awards overseas.
His writing has provoked responses that include the revamping of the Drought Management Programs in the state of Tamil Nadu, development of a policy on indigenous medical systems in Malkangiri in Orissa, and revamping of the Area Development Program for tribal people in Madhya Pradesh state. The Times of India institutionalized his methods of reporting and sixty other leading newspapers initiated columns on poverty and rural development. They made his journalistic name and earned him numerous prizes, both national and international. The prizes furnished him credibility and also money to go freelancing.
He was instrumental in the establishment of the Agriculture Commission in Andhra Pradesh to suggest ways for improving agriculture in that state:
The crisis states are AP, Rajasthan and Orissa. In the single district of Anantapur, in Andhra Pradesh, between 1997 and 2000, 1800+ people have committed suicides, but when the state assembly requested these statistics, only 54 were listed. [see 29 April and 6 May issues of The Hindu, for more details]. Since suicide is considered a crime in India, the district crime records bureaus list categories for suicide – unrequited love, exams, husbands' and wives' behavior, etc.; in Anantapur, the total from these categories was less than 5%. The largest number, 1061 people, were listed as having committed suicide because of "stomach ache". This fatal condition results from consuming Ciba-Geigy's pesticide, which the government distributes free, and is almost the only thing the rural poor can readily acquire!!
One of his more recent projects, on dalits, for The Hindu, is nearly complete, and he is planning a book based on this work. This project covers a gigantic area across 15 states in India. He has already covered 150,000 km and has five more states to go. When the newspapers were unwilling to fund beyond a point, Sainath spent from his own resources, his savings, his provident fund, his gratuity – avoiding corporate sponsors.
Sainath also takes all the photographs that have accompanied his reporting for the past 30 years. His exhibition Visible Work, Invisible Women: Women and work in rural India has been seen by more than 600,000 people in India alone. A public space exhibition, it has been shown at factory gates, village squares, bus and railway stations, colleges and similar venues in India, but also at galleries overseas, including at the Asia Society in New York and others in Japan, Canada and elsewhere. His photographs constitute the largest body of photographs on labour in rural India.
Sainath's most important work from the past decade focuses on India's agrarian crisis, with roughly 200 exclusive field reports and news analysis and hundreds of photographs. This work established – entirely using official government data – that more than a quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1995, many of these due to debt-driven distress.
On the drought and farmers' suicide in Western Orissa,
Over the last several decades, drought in western Orissa, and Kalahandi in particular, has been repeatedly in the news. Beyond the sensationalism of news headlines and the reports of distress and starvation, is the tragedy of a population that has been consistently deprived of its rights and entitlements. Be it long term unemployment, drought and crop failure, or displacement and chronic hunger, everything in one of the poorest yet resource rich, districts in india is a struggle.
On World Trade Organization (WTO) and Capitalism vs Socialism,
The WTO and GATT type of agreements are very undemocratic. Corporate leaders make policy, not the elected representatives. When people in Geneva draw up regulations, some local panchayat leader cannot be asked to address the consequences of those decisions, when his/her input was not sought in making the decision itself. The idea of different systems is superficial, the most striking aspect of free-market capitalism is that it has benefited the exact same people who gained from socialism! It isn't unexpected, either. After all, the South Commission report was signed by Manmohan Singh 90 days before the liberalization process, can he really have changed his views that much in that time? Political opportunism and media management have provided the appearance of different choices and systems, without any meaningful changes in outcomes.
On the condition of law and order maintenance in India,
"All the judges of the Supreme Court do not have the power of a single police constable. That constable makes or breaks us. The judges can't re-write the laws and have to listen to learned lawyers of both sides. A constable here simply makes his own laws. He can do almost anything." With state and society winking at him, he pretty much can.
Even a call for discussing this amounts to demanding ‘obsolete’ practices of the interventionist state. If we hadn’t mucked around trying to get the state to play God for 50 years, none of this would have happened. If only we had got it right and let the market play God instead.Based on the premise that the market is the solution to all the problems of the human race, it is, too, a very religious fundamentalism. It has its own Gospel: The Gospel of St. Growth, of St. Choice...Welcome to the world of Market Fundamentalism. To the Final Solution.
On the absence of reporting on the poor in India,
"You see it in the simplest and most direct way: the organisation of beats. Many beats have become extinct. Take the labour correspondent: when labour issues are covered at all, they come under the header of Industrial Relations, and they’re covered by business correspondents. That means they’re covered by the guy whose job is to walk in the tracks of corporate leaders, and who, when he deigns to look at labour, does it through the eyes of corporate leaders. Now find me the agriculture columnist – in most newspapers, the idea doesn’t exist any more. If you lack correspondents on those two beats, you’re saying 70 per cent of the people in this country don’t matter, I don’t want to talk to them."
He is presently covering the problems faced by the rurals in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.
Honours and awards
In June 2011, Sainath was conferred an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree (DLitt) by the University of Alberta, the university's highest honor.
In January 2009 Sainath was reported to have declined a state award. But he has received close to 40 other national and international journalism awards and fellowships in 30 years as a journalist, including the Ramon Magsaysay journalism award in 2007, the European Commission's Natali Prize in 1994 and the Boerma Journalism Prize from the UN FAO in 2001 (along with CNN International's Jim Clancy), the Amnesty International global award for human rights journalism in 2000,the PUCL Human Rights Journalism Award, and the B.D. Goenka award for excellence in journalism in 2000. In June 2006 Sainath won the Judges' prize (newspaper category) in the 2005 Harry Chapin Media Awards. This is for his series in The Hindu on the ongoing agrarian crisis in Vidharbha and other areas. The Harry Chapin Media Awards honour print and electronic media for work "that focuses on the causes of hunger and poverty," including "work on economic inequality and insecurity, unemployment, homelessness, domestic and international policies and their reform, community empowerment, sustainable development, food production."
In 1984 he was a Distinguished International Scholar at the University of Western Ontario and in 1988 a visiting lecturer at Moscow University. He was also a Distinguished International Professional at Iowa University (Fall 1998), the first McGill Fellow and lecturer at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut (Spring 2002), and visiting professor at University of California, Berkeley at the Graduate School of Journalism (Fall 2008). He has participated in many international initiatives on communications such as the second and third round table on Global Communications sponsored by the UNESCO (1990 and 1991) and in the UNHCR sponsored World Information Campaign on Human Rights (1991). He was conferred with the prestigious Raja-Lakshmi Award in the year 1993 from Sri Raja-Lakshmi Foundation, Chennai.
He is also the only journalist to have won awards from his newspaper's rivals in the north, south, east and west of the country: from the Indian Express in Delhi, the southern edition of the Indian Express now known as the New Indian Express, the Statesman in Kolkata and the fellowship from the Times of India based in Mumbai.
- Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India's Poorest Districts, Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-025984-8
- "India Together". India Together. Retrieved 29 November 2011.
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