In praise of : P. Sainath

“IF this silly fellow keeps writing the things he does and saying the things he says, then he has no future at all. Certainly no one in power or positions of authority can ever forgive him,”

Khwaja Ahmad Abbas,

What I try to do is look at the survival strategies of the poor, which is a much more interesting journalism. I try to focus not on the ‘events’ but on the ‘processes’ of poverty. In India we have what some writers have called a situation of ‘invisible hunger’. We do not have acute situations of famine (like in Somalia or the Sudan) but a more generalized distress. In the face of extreme exploitation, you see little kids who do not ‘look’ starving but they are very malnourished. In my reporting, I am engaged in a battle for minds and hearts. Why should I concede the readers of the press to the big press barons? I want to bring the Indian press back to its original mission.

 — P. Sainath, in 1994

During my under-graduation in 2005, I read his article first time in Hindu newspaper. It was pleasantly surprising to notice someone in media knows village  and its life intimately. Never before I had come across anything so authentically written on our lives in any newspaper. Its not like villages have not been studied by middle class intellectuals, but barring sociologists, anthropologists and some rare economists but these people usually don’t find spaces in our newspapers. Journalists do write about villages and villagers but their writing is animated by wishful thinking. They rarely write about villagers as they see them. Even if they go to a village, they talk to some  ‘activist’  and next day his life is advertised as ‘the ideal middle-class life’ for their consumers. They are interested in eyeball-catching virtuous lifestyles, of which there is great demand among young, and not in opinions of farmers and villagers on what is ailing them. He is altogether a very different breed of  journalist: he religiously spend more than 260 days a year in villages.

While most of the journalists were busy lobbying for their consumers and advertisers, he showed little interest in becoming a ‘stenographer to the powerful’. He was interested in bottom 10% of the society in an industry which cares about only top 10%. Since he compare and contrast the bottom 10% with the top 10%, it makes the top 10% uncomfortable. He holds the mirror in front of ‘Beautiful People’ and shows them their ugly spot.

Graduated in history, he became an authority on rural economy and agriculture, and by extension, as Prof. Amartya Sen labeled him, one of the world’s greatest experts on famine and hunger. He came under severe attack for not showing faith in the religion of market. Nonetheless, He got many admirers. A supreme court judge wrote that his “name should be written in letters of gold in the history of India journalism“. It must be! Documentaries were made on his journalism and his journalism is being discussed in classrooms. Collection of his articles and news reports  are used as handbook by NGOs. In Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and Canada people found relevance in it for their own countries. In the United Kingdom it is being used by journalists to cover local issues of poverty and by more than 30 universities around the world. He has done a great service to his profession. Google scholar reports that his work is often cited in sociology and economics journals.

What are journalists for? Like intellectuals, they are the keeper of nation’s conscience but both serve different purpose. He belongs to a tribe where a journalist stands for some value. All radical journalists have stood for some value. And those who stand for some value not only report, they often provoke. They have the belief the it is OK to stretch the point somewhat if it serves a greater cause. Their work may not be immensely valuable for a sociologist but they preserve the conscience of the nation for posterity. Historian Ramachandra Guha thinks that ‘a journalist work is immensely valuable if a future historian can reconstruct the past from it’. How many journalists will pass the test of ‘future historian’ today?

I am not sure how many professionals today would like to be known posthumously by their work rather than the name of organization they work for. In those pre-color days, many believe that it was journalists who build a niche of their newspaper by their work; they wrote for public and in turn, they were hugely admired by public. They were inspiration to future journalists. Guardian’s editor-in-chief remembers why he loved some journalists because to him “they seemed to represent the best of journalistic virtues – courage, campaigning, toughness, compassion, humour, irreverence; a serious engagement with serious things; a sense of fairness; an eye for injustice; a passion for explaining; knowing how to achieve impact; a connection with readers … but, more importantly, about why [journalism] mattered”. If you are looking for a journalist who posses these qualities, ask for that incorruptible and feisty rural reporter named P. Sainath.

The sort of journalism which Sainath champions is on decline for newspapers are increasingly getting more interested in entertainment. They claim that they are forced to do it because this is what their readers want. This is odd for they rarely ask their readers what they want to read. Besides one of their heroes of corporate media, Steve Jobs has proved that, ‘consumers do not know what they want unless you show it to them’. Even if we believe for the sake of their argument that their readers are really interested in all this; this can not be expected from newspapers. For ‘this is a kind of argument a drug paddler would make,’  rues Sainath, ‘Look! I am decent guy, these assholes on the street want this stuff. What can I do?’. Perhaps this is exactly the sort of thing which has happened. There is a little difference left between the business model of a drug paddler and a media house. While the business model of a drug paddler is ‘illegal’ and low on public sympathy, newspapers can get away with the noise of ‘self-regulation’. Media houses will do well to remember that this right of free speech — indeed any right — is not absolute. A society can hardly have a healthy future when its members care only for their rights and show no inclination for discharging their duties. Besides public sympathy is not an inexhaustible commodities, ask Manmohan Singh. The noise that “our prime minister is most learned since Jawaharlal Nehru and least corrupt since Lal Bahadur Shashri” is almost gone. If the media does not regularize itself, someone else in power will. When they will find that public sympathy is no longer on the side of media. Indian media will do well to learn some lessons from what happened to media autonomy in U.K. after Leverson report.



Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

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