P Sainath: A reporter from rural India

Everybody loves a good drought. What a ghastly aphorism. Why would someone say that? But this seemingly unpalatable adage is the title of P Sainath’s bestselling book, which is well into its thirty-first edition. Recipient of more than thirty-five national and global awards, Sainath is a journalist, author, teacher and rural reporter. His work on poverty, deprivation, inequality and rural affairs of India is seminal in nature, which has put the truth behind the populist rant heard every election in front of the people.

Starting his career with United News of India in 1980, P Sainath moved on to Blitz, then a major weekly based in Mumbai and became its deputy editor. 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 answered, “When did you last meet your readers to make any such claims on their behalf?” He toured ten drought-stricken districts of India which was an eye opener for him.

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.

Sainath devotes himself to the cause of alleviating the distress of millions of rural farmers, tenants, sharecroppers and craftsmen who have gradually been sidelined from the tenets of policy making. Arming himself with a notebook and a camera with which he takes all his pictures, Sainath is known for his instigating, poignant and heart-wrenching reporting, many of which were published as a series in The Hindu newspaper. It was of this work on India’s agrarian crisis that the jury of the Prem Bhatia prize said:

“Rarely has an individual journalist gone so determinedly against the current of entrenched official orthodoxy, bureaucratic apathy, and intellectual smugness.”

The former Prime Minister of India Dr. Manmohan Singh visited the distressed farmers P Sainath had relentlessly written about for their grievances to be heard. A year before the Lok Sabha elections of 2009 and with the country mired in an acute agrarian crisis, the government of the day announced a farm loan waiver of $16 billion. Many farm organizations across the nation applauded Sainath for his perseverance and dedication for the cause which had resulted in the government’s magnanimity. He traveled 100,000 kilometres for his first project covering farmer suicides in India, which are glaring at a tune of 41 per day at an average of last twenty years, yet largely unreported in the mainstream media. Sainath attributes this to the corporatization and commercialization of Indian media on the one hand and marginalization of farmers and rural India by our leaders on the other.

An exhibition of photographs taken by Sainath has been touring the world since 2007 bringing the distress of rural Indians to one’s doorstep. Named Visible Work, Invisible Women: Women & Work in Rural India, the exhibit is thought-provoking and soul-stirring, seen by more than a million people to date. His project on Dalits is nearing its completion on which he is planning a book. His latest project, the People’s Archive of Rural India launched on December 20, 2014. It aims at capturing the ‘everyday lives of everyday people’ – their labor, languages, livelihoods, arts, crafts and many other aspects of rural India.

Sainath is a recipient of many prestigious awards not only in India but across the world. Notable among these are the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s most prestigious prize, Amnesty International’s Global Human Rights Journalism Prize, the United Nation’s Food & Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Boerma Prize (the foremost award for development journalism) in 2000, Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism and many others. And yet he turned down many, like the prestigious Padma Award as he believes journalists should not receive awards from governments they cover and critique. He is a visiting professor in a number of national and foreign universities including Columbia University, Harvard University, New School for Social Research (US); Monash University, La Trobe, the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra (Australia); Helsinki University, Tampere University (Finland), Asian College of Journalism, Chennai and Sophia Polytechnic, Mumbai. He also trains young reporters in the art of journalism in which he excels.

Sainath has made two documentaries, named ‘Nero’s Guests’ and ‘A Tribe of his own’ which have won more than twenty awards. Many say he projects a grim picture of India, but that is necessary if we want to make a Shangri-La of it. We need more journalists like P Sainath, but this should not stop us from celebrating and honoring the one we have now. P Sainath is a someone who we will owe gratitude to all our lives.

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A history graduate and a footballer. Love to read books and talk to people. Everyone has a unique story to share. We bring them together at TPI.

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