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Grim kaleidoscope

EVERYBODY LOVES A GOOD DROUGHT·P Sainath·Penguin Books India (P) Ltd·1997· Price Rs 295

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- Laying low Seeking out the poorest quarters Where the ragged people go Looking for the places Only they would know... (A song by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel of the us , quoted in the book)

a grim and desperate image of India. That is what P Sainath offers in his book Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Sainath's portrayal comes out in sharp contrast to the glossy picture offered of late in the media about a blooming economy, expanding market and the Asian tiger on the prowl. This book is about the obscure shadowland of this gloss. It is about losers the meek who shall inherit the earth but for the development projects, those who live beyond the margin, where resources neither trickle up nor down. It is about the vanishing Birhor tribals of Bihar; panaiyeris in Ramnad, Tamil Nadu, who climb 20-foot palm trees, making 150 trips a day, earning Rs 8; and coal peddlers of Godda, Bihar, who push 250 kg low-grade lumps of coal on cycles for three days, just to earn Rs 30. In short, dark pictures about bonded labour, bottomless debts, hopeless penury, exploitation, stupid anti-poverty programmes and a callous administration.

Sainath, a product of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and a former deputy editor of the Blitz, Bombay, set out on his ambitious assignment to "put poverty back on the national agenda," in May 1993 on a Times fellowship. He chose the poorest parts of the country on the basis of the state-wise break-up of the percentage of people below the official poverty line. The worst were Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Then two poorest districts were chosen from each state. "The idea was to look at those conditions in terms of processes," says Sainath. Though they lacked the shocking visual appeal of a Somalian drought, Sainath's stories which first appeared in a national daily had some impact. Questions were raised in the Parliament. Enquiry teams were sent to examine one or two case studies out of 50-odd stories. There was a clamp down on Bihar public health employees for "leaking out the information" and a cushy consultancy contract to a Canadian firm for revitalising a loss-making public sector coal mine in Bihar was cancelled. And then it came back to business as usual, going by the follow-up footnotes provided by the author.

Winner of 13 awards, including the European Commission's journalism award, Sainath has managed to cover in a broad canvass, the failure of the five-year plans and various governmental and non-governmental development projects. Perhaps the canvass is a bit too broad for any attempt at analysis. Most of it is reportage pacy, short, stressing on human interest, yet replete with loads of statistics, each story running 800 to 1000 words. They are poignant nevertheless. Beginning with the title, the book is peppered with dark images. It is spotted with outright bizarre instances like the same set of villagers getting displaced thrice for various development projects and local authorities emasculating all local bulls so that a foreign stud can multiply without hindrance as part of an anti-poverty programme. All through the book the reader is given a glimpse into a society where despots, distillers, lenders and crooks make merry. As if not to make it a cent per cent doomsday scenario, the book also features specimens of that rare breed of visionary bureaucrats who chip in their bit to set things right only, they fail too often.

The 80,000-odd kilometres Sainath has trudged has produced an eye-opener. His work can be classed with other such works which jolts Indians from time to time by presenting a sensational story. Considering these are stories about that part of the Indian population that lives below the poverty line which tends to change its contours from time to time, depending on the criteria adopted there should be more works on similar lines. Many of Sainath's stories are leads for follow up reporting, research and, of course, action. This is especially necessary at a time when the word 'poor' has become a four-letter word in the development parlance in these times of liberalisation.

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