On 26th September 2018, DU Beat interacted with P. Sainath, Editor of People’s Archives of Rural India and the former Rural Editor of the Hindu who has won over 40 global and national awards for his reporting.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
Kinjal: You are the grandson of V.V. Giri, the fourth President of India. Your life could have been simpler owing to your privilege. What compelled you to undertake the kind of profession you have?
Sainath: I believe journalism is about reporting everyday lives of people. I don’t see what I do as some major sacrifice, I enjoy what I do, and I don’t suffer for it. The only thing that has been utterly miserable was breaking the stories on farmer suicide. Those have been heartbreaking. Journalists should be questioned as to why they cover urban India so much. None of the newspapers or news channels have a full time national level correspondent covering the rural aspects of the country. I think I am doing what should be the norm rather than what is the exception.
Kinjal: In the era of fake news how does one preserve the sanctity of journalism?
Sainath: I think there seems to be an illusion that fake news begins with social media. There has been fake news since there has been news. Technologically, the scope for it has become vast. The scope of fake news has enlarged considerably through social media, this comes from the people who have monopolies over sources of news media. The digital monopolies are the largest monopolies in history and they are greater and more dangerous than any other monopoly in the world. Literally, five to six people control all of this. What makes them more dangerous is that they own your personal data. No monopoly in history ever did that. While Hindustan Times had a monopoly in Delhi, they did not have your personal data and they did not own it. Digital monopolies not only have your data, they sell it and traffic in it. That’s what Facebook is facing. When I used to say this two-three years ago, people laughed. Now look at the current situation, Facebook is exactly doing that:leaking your data.
Kinjal: On 29th September 2018, the Central Government of India celebrated Surgical Strike Day across universities in the country including Jawaharlal Nehru University, your alma mater. What are your thoughts on military achievements being celebrated in academic spaces?
Sainath: I guess the government has to announce something because what else do they have to celebrate? So I guess they have to do something to keep attention away from their failures. Last month, a Reserve Bank of India (RBI) report said demonetisation was a complete disaster. It’s also a way of promoting a chauvinist sensibility. There is nothing to celebrate, the government might create another three or four reasons to celebrate the military. What have they done in industry and agriculture? 78 of the largest companies are filling for bankruptcy; dozens of the largest companies are in the middle of Rafael Deal. When you are in middle of all this, you have to find something to take away the attention from your failures. The celebration is not happening for the army, I am pretty sure that the armed forces didn’t ask for any such thing. It’s happening to push the sagging morale of its private prudence.
Kinjal: Within the Indian farming sector or the unorganised labour sector, who do you think is the worst sufferer?
Sainath: I don’t like ranking victims. The fact that someone is more miserable than you doesn’t mean that you are in great joy. A Dalit woman who is an agricultural labourer carries the triple burden of caste, class, and gender. She belongs to the bottom rank in the class society. In India more than 60 percent of agriculture is done by women, but we don’t recognise them as farmers. They were doing livestock and dairying and now they are forced to do crop agriculture. Let’s suppose the male farmer has committed suicide or migrated because there is no possibility of work in farming for him, or the woman has lost her husband due to suicide or migration, that woman is now suddenly looking after the kids and livestock with full burden of crop agriculture which was initially not her work. She is also negotiating with the money lenders and the bank managers, dropping the kids at school, and what not. But, even after all this we do not recognise them as farmers, rather we recognise them as a farmer’s wife. The suicides of women farmers are not even counted. Women farmer suicides are counted as general suicides. The largest group in the Indian society committing suicides comprises of women in the age group of 14 to 29. Most of the women in the countryside are agricultural labourers. Our prejudices towards women don’t allow us to see them as property owners. Secondly, they do unrecognised and unpaid work in agriculture, as a result of which the work participation data shows that women’s participation in work is falling. It’s funny because women labourers have doubled but the work participation rate is decreasing because the only accepted work is paid work. This is also because anything women do, you call it unskilled labour.
Kinjal: Can you talk about Nation For Farmers, and what you intend to achieve from it?
Sainath: We don’t intend to achieve anything for ourselves. The All India Kisan Sangharsh Co-ordination Committee (AIKSCC) has called for a big march in Delhi from 28th to 30th November. When that happens, farmers all over the country will partake, and that will grab everyone’s attention. Our concern was, how do we, in the middle class, make ourselves relevant to the farmers’ cause in a sincerely, acutely, democratic, and serious struggle. We want students for farmers, corporate professionals for farmers, and the like but with nonpartisan banners. Theatre artists and musicians will be performing in Delhi on the days leading up to the March. There’s a paucity of time, but there’s huge interest in the public. We’ve set up a website called Dilli Chalo, where you can write in any language and about anything pertaining to this issue.
Kinjal: You talked about the middle class, that they are aware of their dependence on farmers but nevertheless reluctant to support their cause. Where do you think this insensitivity is stemming from?
Sainath: You are socialised by media that doesn’t show you the faces of farmers or poor people. Pick up a newspaper and show me how many faces of ordinary Indians appear on it. There are hardly any. It’s the same as how we develop an insensitivity walking home every night over people sleeping on the street. It’s how we deal with beggars, by shielding ourselves. That kind of withdrawal comes to the middle class very easily, especially the upper middle class. I’m not saying that they’re unethical people, I cater to them by writing in English. If I thought they were completely incapable of empathy, I would go do something else. But then there’s what I called the Nero’s Guest Syndrome – our party continues while the devastation continues. We have managed to create a world into which the reality is obfuscated.
Kinjal: Do you think loan waivers are used as a political gimmick to offer a simple solution to a complicated problem?
Sainath: The loan waiver is not the main issue of the agrarian crisis. It is a temporary relief, not permanent solution. By diverting the attention and making it look like the farmers just want waivers, they are dismissing the waivers given to Vijay Mallya, NPAs (Non-Performing Assets) worth INR 7,50,000 that come from big business and corporate houses.
Kinjal: When you reach out to people in rural areas, how do they perceive you? How do you make yourself one of them?
Sainath: They need to believe that you’re there out of concern and are not a parachute journalist. Every story that I write, I take photos and send them to the people featured in that story.
Kinjal: As a student of JNU, exactly what was it that compelled you to join your line of work?
Sainath: I come from a freedom struggle family. I grew up meeting and being amongst people who spent 15-20 years in British prisons. My grandfather spent 14 years in a British prison. The values of that generation are what inspired and drove me.
Feature Image Credits: Rishabh Gogoi for DU Beat
Interview taken by
Interview transcribed by: