Journalism That Matters
. Sainath is an award-winning
journalist who writes about India. He is Rural Affairs editor of
, 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,
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
of the shocking phenomena occurring in the Indian countryside has
been suicides among farmers. Is it directly related to economic policies?
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
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
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
is a mess also because of the promotion of technologies that are unsuitable
to these regions. Bt cotton, for instance, is what Monsanto has been
promoting in Maharashtra. It is much costlier to cultivate than hybrid
cotton, let alone to cultivate organically. So you’ve had this
huge rise in input costs. People could charge anything they want because
of deregulation of the markets.
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.
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
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.
still obsessed with this techno-fix solution rather than looking at
issues of equity in water sharing, looking at issues of priority in
water sharing. Why should there be hundreds of water amusement theme
parks in India drawing water away from drinking and farming, spending
billions of liters of water, probably, each year in operating these
amusement parks and water theme parks?
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
Barsamian, founder and director of Alternative Radio, is the author
The Decline & Fall of Public Broadcasting
as well as a number of books, such as
the Public Mind with Noam Chomsky
Empire with Eqbal Ahmad,
Resistance with Edward Said