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What The News Doesn't Tell You About Rural India, P Sainath Does

18/04/2016 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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An Indian laborer works at a gol coal factory, where coal is made from its fine powdered form, in the eastern Indian city of Bhubaneswar, India, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. This week's China-U.S. climate agreement between the world’s top two polluters puts pressure on India, No. 3 on the list, to become more energy efficient and should encourage investment in renewable energy. (AP Photo/Biswaranjan Rout)

P. Sainath wrote Everybody Loves a Good Drought in 1996. Two decades later, it remains a terrific read for anyone seeking to understand rural India.

For most young, urban Indians, an understanding of rural India comes in the form of floating anecdotes. "Farmers", "villages" and "poverty" are the limited keywords associated with this complex population of 850-million. As ties to ancestral villages thin with increasing urbanization and media channels become the primary but inadequate source of rural news, the chasm between the two Indias is becoming dangerous. To progress together, both Indias must understand each other.

Sainath implores the reader to see the anecdotes we hear of as regular "processes", and not as isolated occurrences.

In Everybody Love's a Good Drought P. Sainath writes short stories on the various activities of village life. The sections are divided into schooling, access to medicine, loans and loan sharks, issues of displacement and resource shortages. His stories are of men, women and families as told to him from their homes. Schools with no teachers and disappearing headmasters, villages wiped out by malaria because of health budget cuts, farmers carrying 2000 kilos of bricks a day for ₹9 ($0.13), families suffering from coal diseases as rewards of industrial projects, and displaced individuals moving around India as refugees with no land or employment. His narration is straight and stoic--and, crucially, non-romanticized. Much literature on rural life in India tries to put forth nobility in the simple life, at the cost of veiling an ugly truth.

Sainath implores the reader to see the anecdotes we hear of as regular "processes", and not as isolated occurrences. Much of mainstream news media tends to frame rural issues as events--a failing farm district because of this year's drought, or lack of electricity provision because of a corrupt officer. This sort of framing gives the events the twist of a "scandal", making it easier to gain an audience and hence ratings. India is a vast country with a lot of good and bad, and so the reader can justify the occasional ugly. Sainath's book, however, shatters that facile approach for a much more difficult one; drought, dysfunctional schools, abysmal healthcare, and financial exploitation are continuous outcomes of a web of brutal social, economic, and political forces.

Sainath's stories are a way to understand hardships that one may have been privileged enough not to experience... His book creates a critical emotion in the reader--empathy.

These processes, he explains, run in a well-oiled manner with caste and class biases playing a greasy role. Welfare schemes fail to make their mark because implementers favour their own kin and kind over lower castes. Dalit or OBC children are denied their legal right to sit in a classroom for fear of mingling with upper castes. Mothers are permitted medicine and nutrition based on the social group they belong to. Industrial projects get designed with little consideration for tribal rights, or with inappropriate rehabilitation and compensation. Adivasis and landless labourers are, it is presumed, the inevitable sacrifice of a modernizing economy. There comes a point while reading the book, where these 'events' converge into a recognizable pattern, and you see the reality of the regularity. A reality that prevails for 850-million people--a figure larger than the populations of all of Europe, Australia and Turkey combined.

The 2014 national elections brought forth a debate on the meaning of "development". It was the golden word of the Modi campaign, and the promise of roads and GDP figures to an aspirational India. Currently, we are in the midst of an intense debate on caste identity--about who feels defined by it, and who denies its existence. The two debates are yet to meet at the question that joins them at the hip--which India is benefitting from this development? There are indeed certain improvements and betterment to rural life that modernization has brought, but to not weigh these against the overarching stagnation and damage would be a miscalculation.

The two debates [on development and caste identity] are yet to meet at the question that joins them at the hip--which India is benefitting from this development?

Much of the discussions on traditional and social media are shaped by middle to upper class, urban, and English-speaking voices, and therefore skewed towards their experiences. For example, the conversation after the suicide of Rohith Vemula is stuck obstinately over the existence of caste discrimination, an established fact wearing the nifty garb of an opinion.

Sainath's stories are a way to understand hardships that one may have been privileged enough not to experience. For much of the younger and urban generation, lack of awareness about caste bigotry is inevitable--opportunities for exposure to rural life are few, Dalit literature has thus far largely been vernacular, and formal education does little to overcome the misperceptions created by the 2000s 'India Shining' propaganda.

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Sainath spent over 35 years travelling across various states in India, to those villages and districts deemed poorest by the government. Often spending months in one place, he explains that understanding a community or group's life requires gaining their trust and acceptance. The book narrates the quiet confessions that unfold thereafter--the constant struggles against hunger, disease, and oppression, and the devastating toll it takes. His book creates a critical emotion in the reader--empathy.

Much of the discussions on traditional and social media are shaped by middle to upper class, urban, and English-speaking voices, and therefore skewed towards their experiences.

Walking six hours a day to school and back, putting up an unborn child as loan guarantee, or contemplating suicide due to poor rainfall are circumstances that can only be understood through experience. One can never fully feel these misfortunes or even contextualize some of the better changes happening in rural without knowledge of the base depravity, but exposure through literature and documentation is critical. Much of Sainath's work, written while a journalist with The Hindu and Times of India, was driven by a need to fill the gaps in rural reporting he saw in mainstream news. He now maintains a vast, volunteer-driven web platform called the 'People's Archive of Rural India'. Here the content is in the form of text, photographs, and videos, and serves as a public warehouse of knowledge providing an insight into rural India.

Using ignorance as a survival mechanism is dangerous. The less you know about the dark space that is rural India, the less you have to be concerned about lighting a candle. In times of troubling patriotism and nationalism, contemplating on how cruelly 850 million Indians live is a first step towards a better future.

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