Thursday, January 19, 2006

Other worlds are possible: Sainath @ St. Xaviers

Attended a powerful talk by veteran journalist P. Sainath at the St. Xavier's college yesterday. The talk tried to scan the large body of literature surrounding the acute rural crisis in today's India albeit in a fast forward mode. Sainath indeed pioneered and developed a school of journalism that has as its chief concern the well-being of our poorest and the most deprived. There's perhaps nothing in the talk that he hasn't written about. Still listening to Sainath was a remarkable experience. Such was his passion, his clarity of thought and his sense of humour.

Vikrum has a nice post covering a lot of yesterday's talk. Let me also direct you to Sainath's webpage @ India Together, where a lot of his articles are listed. In particular, you may want to check out excerpts from a talk that Sainath had given at an AID meeting in 2001.

The best part of Sainath's talk (and this applies to his writings too), to my mind, is the degree of optimism that it reflects though the subject matter is one that's very distressing and disheartening. Sainath gets the pulse of the 'real' India and he does report the "incredible churning [that] is under-way in India". As he writes in a 1999 Seminar essay:

    We live in an age far more radical than many imagine. Hundreds of millions in this country are asserting their rights as never before. The last 15 years have seen tribal and Dalit assertion on a scale yet to be gauged, let alone understood. The Dalit upsurge has altered the politics of Uttar Pradesh irreversibly. And perhaps that of Tamil Nadu also. It is making dents elsewhere as well. In Andhra, the state assembly had its first debate on untouchability in decades. That, after a powerful movement against casteism forced the government on the defensive.

    Tremendous new social energies are on the loose. They are chaotic but they are there. Fierce power battles are emerging at the panchayat level. Even this mere form of democracy has set off a backlash from the entrenched privilege of centuries. Still, millions seek human dignity against awesome odds. Struggles over common property resources are rocking the countryside. Battles over land are on in over three-quarters of the country. That these are poorly reported does not mean they are not on. But it does mean that forums which could once have discussed their implications are not doing so. They are busy making themselves irrelevant to mass aspirations.

    Millions are not merely refusing to play the game by the old rules. They are simply not playing the old game at all. There is no institution that is not under challenge. Many are actually in the process of meltdown. This panics those who see no ‘solutions’. (Which means that the Beautiful People are finding their solutions tossed aside with contempt). Consequently, large chunks of the country are getting harder to govern. With all the negatives these processes entail, they also mean that rights and freedoms are being not only asserted but debated and redefined.

Sainath believes, and this he stressed yesterday too, that most of our problems can be solved only via direct political action. You can't classify your problems into different compartments and try to seek solutions strictly within these compartments. And Sainath observes that the political battles are on. As he concludes another Seminar essay:
    There are huge energies now unleashed in the global arena. From anti-war to social justice movements. The protestors at Seattle and Cancun can in fact be seen as real globalisers. Only, they seek to globalise not greed but social justice movements. To globalise people’s cooperation against the exploitation of people. From political reform movements and minority rights platforms to basic struggles for democracy and human rights, it’s happening. All those concerns you have heard addressed earlier. Major battles are on for a radical redistribution of resources in several societies. All these are in the global arena. The challenge is how to marry these energies. Another world is possible. Other worlds are possible.
Update (Jan 20): Dilip's write-up here:
    ... for me, Sainath's most telling point that evening was not so much the figures and anecdotes that flowed like a breached dam. Instead, it was a point he has made before: about Nero's guests.
Update (Jan 21): Uma's post here:
    What I do find remarkable is Sainath's enduring optimism - in spite of the statistics, in spite of the reality, he believes that things can change. That they must change.


At 8:51 AM, Blogger Abi said...

Thanks, Anand, for your views and links. I am glad to know that Sainath's talk was filled with optimism. We all need great doses of it.

While I too value his articles (and I agree with you that his is indeed a great school of journalism), I would still like to see his articles devote a small section to possible solutions (as implemented in other parts of the country) to some of the problems he describes so eloquently.

At 10:09 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

Thanks Abi. Though Sainath couldn't mention many of his ideas in his lecture due to lack of time, he spent considerable amount of time answering those who assembled around him. I overheard a lot of it and there were questions of the kind that you ask too. Here are some of these points, in my words, as I interpret it, as I have understood.

1. The gathering crisis is directly linked to massive withdrawal of the govt from many of the rural sectors and the drop in investment. There's a complete collapse of investment in agriculture, for instance. The situation today is that the rural credit's been decreased tremendously over a period when the input costs have quadrupled. Solution: more public spending in the rural sector. Fight for it!

2. Sainath said that the problems in the agrarian sector are exacerbated by the excessive deregulation of the private players. He said that today the agricultural sector is deregulated to such an extent that anyone can cheat a farmer. He had specific examples like the reduction in germination rate for seeds. Solution: regulatory mechanisms are important. Shouldn't throw away whatever mechanisms are presently there.

3. One big problem for the farmer is the volatility of the global prices. The policy makers who exhort the farmers to cultivate this and that should be held accountable for the sufferings of the farmers due to volatile prices. The govt needs to protect the farmers from the global volatility. Global prices are routinely rigged by huge corporatons. We shouldn't let our farmers suffer because of this.

4. It's sort of fashionable to say that people need to move out of agriculture etc. But where are the jobs? Do these people have the necessary skills to get into other sectors? Until farm labourers can be resettled to other jobs, there's no point in saying that people need to move out of agriculture. As Sitaram Yechury put it, "you cannot tell a worker, ‘You be unemployed today so that you can be employed tomorrow’".

5. In India today, only the poor do not get subsidies. There are massive subsidies, hidden and direct, that big businesses benefit from. There needs to be some form of redistribution.

6. Sainath stressed the inbuilt problems in the so called welfare measures of the govt too. BPL & APL ration cards, effective dismantling of the PDS, etc. He said that the moment you make a measure "targeted" chances of its failure go up. The real need is to have "universal" programmes.

I think if there's political will, many of these things can be implemented. It's a question of setting our priorities. Instead we talk about words like 'freedom' and 'choice' which are as of now completely meaningless for millions in our country. As Sainath remarked somewhere else: "If the very hungry people on the planet had a choice, I suspect they would choose to eat. That they do not suggests that the market gives you a choice only if you have money."

At 11:04 PM, Anonymous SloganMurugan said...

Is the size of our farms to blame?

If that is the problem, one solution could be a new co-operative movement where the affected can group togther and form a more economically viable system of farming.

At 1:16 AM, Blogger Roshan said...

Beautifully put, Anand. I like the balance of the article with the long comment you wrote. It's a good reflection of the awareness of the forest and the trees that makes Sainath so good.

At 9:09 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

sloganmurugan -- I think cooperative movements have many plus points. There are many things that can be done. MS Swaminathan commission recommended four percent credit facility for ryots, debt relief for small and marginal farmers and uninterrupted power supply. But is the govt concerned at all? Wonder why they appoint these commissions if they aren't going to do anything about the recommendations.

Roshan -- Thanks.

At 1:24 PM, Anonymous Pradeep said...

Sainath is an excellent speaker.

Last year he was here to give talk and I had gotten opportunity to dine with him. During that informal discussions he told that one of the main problem India unwilling to address is land reforms. Most of the agricultural laborers (60% of Indian poor) are land less people. As long as this remain the case the poverty in India will continue to persist.

Earlier in his talk he called those who benefited from Globalization and Liberalization (10-15% of population) as "Beautiful People". So I asked him, what he expect from this beautiful people(including me) ? His answer was simple: Be ready to sacrifice for others.He cited example of Gandhi and EMS. When I told him that everybody cant be like EMS and Gandhi he replied that there are many areas where then can do sacrifices such as going to village schools time to time and teaching there, establishing scholarships, taking initiative to arrange health care...

When asked about social commitment of Indian corporations like Infosys, Sainath became very emotional! He told that they are the most hypocrites and casteists he had ever seen. He cited the complaint Infosysis filed in the the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of the US against Maharashtra Govt. move to implement private sector as a clear evidence of such mentality.

He added that he don't expect anything good for the Dalits and rural poor from such companies.

He gave an excellent interview to our university radio station, which can be heard at:

(Scroll down to MARCH 20, 2005 edition)

Another interview he had given at UT Austin's journal also very informative:

He says " The WTO’s capacity in its present legal framework is structured against developing countries. They may have scored a victory, as they say, in one thing. And they have to—you have to beat, you have to intervene, you have to try your best, you have to negotiate for the best deal. But. I think it’s an institution that will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions at some point, but not before doing unbelievable levels of damage"

At 2:15 PM, Blogger Id it is said...

Sainath's statement that 'other world's are possible' and that they may possibly be emerging in those major energies that have been unleashed in the global arena is both optimistic and ominous. The energies that are crying out for social justice and basic human rights, not just locally, but across the board may bring a new tomorrow not rationally determined and worked toward, but one that is born out of oppression and anger.
I am also reminded of Samuel Huntingdon's book "A Clash of Civilization" where he talks about cultural indigenization in non-western societies resulting in a 'shift in world order'.

Thanks for an informative piece of writing.

At 8:02 PM, Anonymous Anand said...

Thanks, Pradeep, for the points you raised and the links.

id it is -- Thanks. About the world order: it can't be guaranteed that the new one will be rationally determined. The present one isn't rationally determined too. But the society can work towards a new order which is better than the present one. I consider Sainath as one of the best leaders in this movement that's slowly coming up.

At 6:13 AM, Anonymous Ashish Thakare said...

Nice write up Anand.
The Indian media needs professionals like P. Saibath to remind it of its true responsibilities.
Coming to crises in agriculture, I am giving a link to my report on the agrarian crises in Palnadu region of Guntur district in AP. The report:

At 7:19 AM, Blogger pennathur said...

Other worlds are possible. Yeah right! Like this one..

Sainath is definitely on the edge. If he can't find any merit in what Infosys has achieved he needs some education.

Though Sainath couldn't mention many of his ideas in his lecture due to lack of time... Lack of ideas more actually

At 7:35 AM, Blogger pennathur said...

Maybe this sort of world?

At 7:46 PM, Blogger pennathur said...

When asked about social commitment of Indian corporations like Infosys, Sainath became very emotional! He told that they are the most hypocrites and casteists he had ever seen...
Only you and Sainath know what he truly said. But if what you are writing here is true Sainath must be crazy. Here's a company founded by self-made middleclass professionals that has spawned an entirely new sector of the economy employing 1000s upon 1000s of people, earning profits and paying its taxes and Sainath calls them hypocrites and casteists? Sudha Narayanmurty does the things Sainath talks about (runs schools and development programs) and this guy calls that hypocritical? Has Sainath even seen what these people do? What is Sainath angry about? That a one time commie sympathiser like Narayanamurthy decided to become a hardnosed businessman and built India's best known export brand? That this company generates 1000s of jobs in decent living conditions and has created wealth? Or is it that enterprises like these leave him feeling foolish because the people he wants to "rescue" would rather acquire the skills necessary to work in today's service sector than go around addressing conferences doing nothing?

There have been some particularly disastrous attempts to design a "ratonal world order" during the 20th century. Let's see... The Bolshevik Revolution, Stalinist Russia, National Socialism, the Romanian experiment, The German Democratic Republic (ask Angela Merkel she lived thru it), Pol Pot's Cambodia, and of course the unending tragedy of Zimbabwe and North Korea. And don't forget "Let a 100 Flowers Bloom", "The Great Leap Forward" and "The Cultural Revolution".

At 6:14 AM, Blogger pennathur said...

A new world order like this one?


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