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Journalism That Matters
An interview with P. Sainath
P . Sainath is an award-winning journalist who writes about India. He is Rural Affairs editor of the Hindu , one of India’s most important newspapers. “I cover the people who live at the bottom end of the spectrum,” he says. He is author of the bestselling book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts . I talked with him in September 2006.
BARSAMIAN: September 11, 2001 is constantly intoned as a mantra in the U.S. There is another September 11 involving Mahatma Gandhi.
SAINATH: We just marked the 100th anniversary of India’s 9/11. Mahatma Gandhi was then a practicing barrister in South Africa, representing in many cases the grievances and issues of the Indian community there. The South African government had passed extremely oppressive, racist legislation and there was widespread discontent. Gandhi addressed a meeting on September 11, 1906 in Johannesburg attended by more than 3,000 people in which he propounded for the first time his doctrine of satyagraha, the truth and power of a nonviolent form of resistance. It mystified many of his listeners in that period. In subsequent years Ghandi was to recall this as one of the most crucial moments in his life.
Everywhere you go in India today you see statues of Gandhi. What is his legacy?
I have a problem with always looking back only to what was said in the 1920s and what was said during the civil disobedience movement or during the Quit India movement. I do not believe Gandhi was the only leader of the freedom struggle. If you’re looking at statues and reverence, you would find there are far more statues of Baba Saheb Ambedkar, a PhD from Columbia University who emerged from the untouchable classes of Indian society.
In fact, the difference between Ambedkar and any other Indian leader is that the statues of Ambedkar are put up by public subscription, not by government fatwa. The freedom struggle of India gave us many leaders and luminaries of enormous standing. However, I think that on many issues I would rather look at Gandhi and Ambedkar in terms of what would their stance or their understanding of the present situation be? How would they act now? On some of the central issues of our time—oppression of the poorer castes and the so-called untouchables—I think history has proven Ambedkar to be right. Ambedkar’s prognosis of the role that caste would play in democracy, of how a lack of economic democracy would damage political democracy, has been borne out by history. What would Gandhi say about the obscene inequality that you’re looking at in the world? A man who said that for those who die of hunger the only form in which God may dare appear is food. That’s the interesting thing for me.
You spend much of your time reporting on village life. There have been severe economic and social repercussions in rural India since the so-called neoliberal economic agenda was introduced.
What you call the neoliberal era—the era of liberalization,
globalization, and privatization—has been one of the most consciously
cruel processes inflicted on the Indian poor. The obscene levels
of inequality that now exist and that we are still promoting, we
have not seen since the heyday of the colonial empire when we were
enslaved and colonized by the British. India today ranks 8th in
the number of billionaires in the world, but 127th in human development.
India may be an emerging tiger economy, but the average Indian has
a lower life expectancy than his or her counterpart in Bolivia,
Mongolia, and Tajikistan. Our per capita GDP is less than that of
Nicaragua, Vanuatu, and Indonesia. This was a consciously constructed
process with a set of policies that have been enforced in many other
countries. These policies are the typical prescriptions of the World
Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization,
and the elites of Third World countries, who are happy to collaborate
in this process of transferring huge resources from poor to rich.
This happens in the Indian context whether it’s the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, or the so-called moderate, centrist Congress Party—or is there a difference?
The difference between the Congress Party and the BJP has been more on the issue of communal and sectarian violence and interreligious strife. This process was launched in 1991, when the present prime minister was then finance minister.
That’s Manmohan Singh.
The prime minister was P.V. Narasimha Rao. Then the BJP came in and took the process much further. Then the Congress comes back and again gets on the same track. In 2004 people rejected these policies decisively. I think one of the proudest moments in Indian electoral democracy was when 600 million people showed the world what electoral democracy means. It was a fantastic show of voting that shook the nation. It destroyed the reputation of many polling agencies, TV channels, and pundits who predicted that the neoliberal reforms were so popular that there was no question that the government would retain its hold. Instead, the darlings of the West, of Western corporations, and the U.S., took the biggest beating in the elections. People like Chandra Babu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh, like Krishna in Karnakata. Yet, having come to power on the backs of rural outrage and even urban anger, the Congress immediately set about going back to business as usual, with one or two modifications because there was now a huge left presence in Parliament that forced them to do a couple of decent things, like an employment guarantee program and a right to information act.
What are the characteristics of the neoliberal agenda?
There are five or six things that you can say have taken place everywhere in the world, including maybe in the U.S. One is huge cuts in public spending on anything to do with poor people, like agriculture in India, followed by the withdrawal of the state from vital public services, like health or education or literacy or transportation, followed by a massive wave of privatization of just about everything, including intellect and soul. So then you have an increasing preference and bias given to corporations, which are privileged over ordinary people. You have food subsidies for poor people being slashed. You have the entire emphasis in resources and credit being given to the top 10 percent of society. You can call it free market fundamentalism. To my mind, the most dangerous form of fundamentalism in the world because it adds millions of recruits to the armies of the dispossessed who are then vulnerable to religious fundamentalists.
So while India is experiencing very high so-called growth rates, there is also a huge surge in inequality.
There has been a huge surge in inequality in virtually every sphere. Hunger, for instance. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s reports of the United Nations shows that India between 1997 and 2002 added more hungry people than the rest of the world put together. The average rural family in India today consumes 100 kilograms of grain less than it did five to seven years ago. The per capita availability of food grain, which is the food available per Indian, has collapsed by millions of tons, from 510 grams per Indian in 1991 to 437 grams a year ago. Mind you, all these are averages. If you’re looking at the bottom 40 percent, the compression of the diet of the poor has been barbaric.
The International Labor Organization brought out a report recently that shows how hypocritical the stuff about labor efficiency is. In both Pakistan and India during the period of the reforms, labor efficiency went up 84 percent while real wages fell 22 percent. Paul Krugman, in his essay “The Gilded Age,” argued that obscene gaps between the top CEOs and ordinary workers were a threat not only to economic well-being, but damaging to democracy. If you have people who are virtually your slaves, that’s going to affect the mindset in which you work and relate to them. So you have Krugman saying that, “Look, the gap has gone above 100 to 1, maybe 1,000 to 1.” In India the gap is 30,000 to 1, 50,000 to 1, if you take the salaries of the top CEOs and those of the average laborer.
It is largely policy-driven. It’s also the reflection of what’s happening in globalism. Even that is policy-driven. It starts around the mid-1990s and in a small way picks up by 1998, 1999. By 2000 the suicides are raging in particular regions dealing in cash crops, which are linked to the volatility of global prices. They are regions where the safety nets have been removed by state and central governments for poor farmers. According to the government, it’s a process that has led to over 100,000 farmers committing suicide between 1993 and 2003. That’s a huge underestimate. It doesn’t take into account regional concentrations of suicides, which are extremely high.
It’s just terrible to watch this go on because I know that I’m covering people who have been pushed over the edge by the collapse of public investment in agriculture and the withdrawal of the state in terms of assistance to farmers. The Agricultural Extension Ministry is closed, the agricultural universities are acting as appendages of foreign multinational corporations and are not serving the farmers. Deregulation has meant that Monsanto can come and charge three times what it actually needs to on a bag of seed until it is forced by the courts to reduce its price to one-third of what it was—and it’s still making a profit at that price.
Explain how indebtedness works.
India was one of the pioneers of what we call social banking. Social banking means that society recognizes there are some areas from which you cannot expect profits in lending. You don’t want to lose money, but you’re not trying to make huge profits out of farmers or out of primary education or out of services for pregnant mothers. So in the social banking philosophy that India adopted when it nationalized the banking industry in the late 1960s, banks did significant amount of lending to farmers, recognizing that these are the people who place the food on your table, on the nation’s table. Once we went into the brave new world of economic reforms, the banks progressively stopped lending money to farmers, so much so that something like 3,800 to 4,000 bank branches in rural India closed during the reform years.
What happened to the money that they took away from the farmer? It went to fueling the consumption and lifestyles of the top 10 percent. So the farmer could not buy a tractor except at 15 percent interest. But I can buy a Mercedes-Benz at 4 percent or 5 percent interest with no collateral. Huge resources were siphoned away. That happened from policy. So as this happened, farmers were turning more and more to private money lenders. But the reforms process has brought entirely new classes of moneylenders—not your own village sahukar, who is actually cutting a very pathetic figure these days—but huge new moneylenders in the form of input dealers, those who sell seed and pesticides.
India has traditionally been a grower and exporter of cotton. What’s been happening in that sector?
It’s a complete disaster, especially in the region that I was mentioning, Maharashtra. In the late 1990s the European Union, and more particularly the U.S., threw billions and billions of dollars into their corporations that are cotton growers. I won’t call them cotton farmers because these are businesses. Cotton prices were rather high in the mid-1990s on the New York Cotton Exchange, maybe about 90 cents to $1.10 a pound. After 1997, cotton prices start tumbling because the U.S. government is putting more subsidies into cotton for its corporations than the actual value of the cotton. Last year, the U.S. cotton crop was worth something like $3.9 billion, but you got subsidies of $4.7 billion. This went to 20,000 growers. Cotton-based economies, from Vidarbha in Maharashtra to cotton-based economies in West Africa—Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin—all these countries collapsed under the onslaught of these subsidies. The EU, which doesn’t have that much cotton growing also got into the act. So with these huge subsidies you’re seeing farm suicides among cotton growers in Burkina Faso. The Indian farmer is a million times more efficient in growing these things than U.S. corporations. But who the heck can fight against those kinds of subsidies?
Another key issue in India is water.
Pepsi and Coke made their first huge inroads into the Indian market, which was the fastest-growing soft drinks market in the world anyway, by buying out local companies and expanding their influence and power. One of the problems, though, is that these are highly water-intensive industries in a country experiencing severe water stress. So their factories have shown up in rural areas where they sunk God knows how many deep, mechanized wells, which drain the water away from the dug wells of the traditional farmers that don’t run that deep. All over India, struggles and agitations and movements have broken out against Coca-Cola, against Pepsi, or whichever the local soft drink manufacturer is. They get groundwater almost free. There is a place in Maharashtra where the soft drink companies were getting water at 4 paise a liter. It’s not possible to translate 4 paise into cents. It’s a negative amount; it’s maybe minus 10 cents or something like that. Then they shove this into a bottle, the only value added being plastic, and sell it for $12. The looting of groundwater has been a major problem and therefore there is very strong tension and resentment against these corporations.
Besides which, an Indian nongovernmental organization, the Center for Science and Environment, had a report showing the presence of a high level of pesticide content in these soft drinks. That led to a flurry of government actions. Different governments acted for different reasons. Many of them withdrew Coke and Pepsi from government institutions and banned them from educational institutions. In the southern state of Kerala, because of a whole series of clashes with Coke, the newly elected government there actually banned Coca-Cola and Pepsi in the entire state, including production and distribution. That ban has now been overturned by the high court of that state.
As to energy, there is the notorious, now defunct Houston-based energy company, Enron, which has had some involvement in India.
Enron blew a hole the size of the Titanic in the economy of the richest state in the country, Maharashtra, where all these other problems that we have been discussing were going on. In 1991 Maharashtra had a state electricity board, which was one of only two in the whole country that was making a profit. Today that state electricity board is in the red in billions of rupees, having been forced to get into a contract with Enron that destroyed it. Enron, Bechtel, and GE were the sponsors of a project called the Dabhol Power Corporation, the biggest white elephant that we ever inaugurated. It has caused such severe economic problems in the Maharashtra economy that it has led governments to cut a number of programs, including midday meals for the children of indigenous people. All those programs have suffered because of the bankruptcy of the Maharashtra government. We’re talking about thousands of billions of rupees going down the drain. And Enron remained a legitimate entity in India long after it was being chased by the FBI in the U.S.
There was much resistance to World Bank big dam projects in the Narmada Valley region. Did that inspire other movements?
There is no doubt that the struggle against the Narmada projects was a major inspiration for a number of other movements fighting similar battles. What’s happened, though, is that a recent ruling of the Supreme Court of India has gone against those fighting the dam. It’s a very regressive ruling. It is going to hurt a lot of people and set a very bad precedent for similar struggles against displacement.
The Indian middle and upper middle classes are sold on this idea of a techno fix, that technology and engineering can answer every problem in the world. “Oh, we’ve got a problem with water? Let’s interlink 37 rivers.” For God’s sake, it took millions of years for those rivers to work out their own courses and our engineers are going to set them right in a couple of decades? It’s insane. But the idea that somehow you can control nature with engineering, whether it’s the networks of dams on the Narmada or anywhere else, and will prove disastrous.
There was a plan once to start golf courses as a food-for-work program in Rajasthan, which got shot down after we did a story in the Hindu on it. The average golf course takes between 1.8 to 2.3 million liters of water a day. Rajasthan is mostly desert. On that amount of water the people of many villages could live through the entire summer season. You have incredible problems of pesticides getting into the food and water in a very adverse way for the farmers’ whose plots neighbor these golf courses.
What are the points of resistance to these neoliberal policies? For example, there is a militia movement in central and eastern India.
Let me put it this way. I think there are far more interesting and far bigger things happening than the Naxalite movement which you are referring to. The Naxalites basically had a big base in parts of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Andhra Pradesh. What’s happened is that sucessive Andhra governments have very substantially damaged them, so badly that they have fled to neighboring states and there seems to be a spurt of activity in these states. In public the governments make a huge thing about them because it’s good for governments to keep exaggerating the threat that people face. Then you can build your security apparatus, you can arm yourself to the teeth, you can pass regressive and repressive laws, and suspend civil liberties, as they have done in Chhattisgarh.
But let’s move to something more optimistic. I look at the world today and I see a restless and unquiet world. Americans maybe first noticed the protests during the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999. I was thinking at the time, where do you guys live? There have been a thousand Seattles in India, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Long before you guys had Seattle, people were out battling privatization and unfair trade on the streets of Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta.
That said, I’m very pleased that Seattle happened. It gave people an idea that something was fundamentally wrong. It’s a very restless world. Look at the wave of changes in Latin America, suppressed and held down for so long. Look at the fact that your armies of spin doctors sent out to defeat Evo Morales could not pull it off. Look at the fact that all the attempts, including coups and whatnot, have flopped in Venezuela. All these show you that the world is a stubborn place and it’s not willing to be kicked around so easily. It kicks back.
So there is huge resistance taking place in India. The farmers’ suicides are a form of protest and a very negative one. But there are also movements of farmers taking on governments in various places when their land has been forcibly acquired for some corporation. There is resistance. The trick will be, how do you use that energy on a program that benefits people?
Remember, too, that in 2004 India showed the world what democratic resistance was about when 600 million people threw out the government that implemented classic neoliberal policies. The public has shown its distaste, its contempt for these policies.
India had a reputation for an independent foreign policy, particularly during the years right after independence. What trends do you see now ?
On the foreign policy issue, I think that you’re right. India’s stature has eroded considerably among nations which once looked up to India as the leader. A year before independence in 1946, under Pandit Nehru, India closed down relations with South Africa in protest against racism there. We lost between 5 percent and 10 percent of our total external trade. But you know what? I’m extremely proud of the old Indian passport, the first passport in the world which said “All countries except Republic of South Africa.” So that was the kind of foreign policy that gave India stature. If you ask Nelson Mandela which country he looked to, he will not tell you the U.S. or the UK. He will tell you he looked to India in the years that he was in prison. He knew that India would represent the case of the South African people. You will find this in many parts of the world, how people were influenced by the freedom struggle generation of India.
The last 15 years have seen significant departures from India’s independent standing as a leader in what was called the nonaligned world. Now we are aligned. Whether it’s on the Iraq war or on the dispute with Iran, we are invariably on the side of—I won’t say on the side of America, I will say on the side of the most conservative sections of the U.S. establishment. That’s where we are as a nation in foreign policy.
But India didn’t send troops to Iraq.
Not for want of trying. The BJP government of the time was fully willing to send troops. I think the deputy prime minister, when he visited the U.S., even struck a verbal deal that he would send troops. But the Indian public would have none of it. India has at least one and a half million people working legally and probably an equal number working illegally in the Gulf. Imagine what would happen to all those families if there were a war there. In any case, why do we want to fight someone else’s wars? We have had excellent relations in these past decades with the people of Iran and Iraq. And we nearly got dragged into a war that wasn’t ours.
In March 2006 George W. Bush visited New Delhi and negotiated a controversial deal with India. India is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nevertheless, it has weapons of mass destruction.
There is a significant amount of resistance and resentment against this deal in the Indian public. It’s interesting that the strands of discontent come from very different parts of the spectrum. Several of India’s top nuclear scientists are totally opposed to it. They think it takes away their independence, it curbs their freedom, it curbs their rights and their direction in their program. But another section just wonders, Why are we getting into this at all? And there is also the section that thought all along that nuclear blasts were a bad idea, as I do. It’s also seen as part of the overall Indo-U.S. embrace and that makes the left extremely unhappy. We’re worried about what’s happening and we don’t know because there is no transparency to much of these negotiations. We don’t know what has been conceded in return for what.
What can people in the U.S. do to forge links of solidarity with rural India?
I think it’s a process of self-education in the first instance because whenever I’m speaking in the U.S., I’m finding that people are genuinely shocked to learn who gets agricultural subsidies—that it’s the beautiful people in the corporations that get it and not struggling farmers in Iowa or Minnesota. They’re shocked to learn what kinds of things this achieves in the Third World. So I think the power of corporations and the damage they’re doing to people’s lives in the U.S. and abroad is something that people in the U.S. need to ponder. How do you create that common ground? After all, corporations have also destroyed smal farming in this country. So that, I think, is a very significant area on taming the power of the corporations where U.S. activists have some experience and can work very well with those in India and in people-to-people movements.
I must say that in several universities in the U.S. there were lots of sympathetic actions for poor farmers in Kerala and Uttar Pradesh fighting against Coca-Cola on the issue of water. Activists in this country managed to get a few universities to stop selling these products and started boycotts. It was a significant psychological support if nothing else. But it also raises local level consciousness here. For another matter, the policies of the World Bank, which are driven by the interests of the U.S. and a few other Western countries create incredible damage. There should be more discussion on whose interests these institutions represent. Do they represent the interests of the American people? I think not.
What is the P in P. Sainath?
It stands for Palagummi. People find it very hard to pronounce. Palagummi is the name of a now-nonexistent village in Andhra Pradesh. In India, in my part of the country we write our family or village name first and our own name second. So Sainath is really what you call my Christian name. Palagummi is my surname. My granddad used to tell me that Palagummi was a village in the Godavari area, which was always a hotbed of revolt against one empire after the other, particularly the British Empire. The Brits once razed d a number of villages to the groun in that area. A bad idea. It spread us all over the countryside to foment rebellion and revolt.
David Barsamian, founder and director of Alternative Radio, is the author of The Decline & Fall of Public Broadcasting as well as a number of books, such as Propaganda & the Public Mind with Noam Chomsky , Confronting Empire with Eqbal Ahmad, and Culture & Resistance with Edward Said .
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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