Nagpur, August 2007:
I learnt two important things from him: what the heart does not feel, eyes cannot see. And there is no Invisible India. If at all there is one, it’s Blind India. He says, “Invisible India is an elephant in your bedroom that you don’t want to see”.
Palagummi Sainath, the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award winner in the category of Journalism, literature and creative communication arts, has inspired many a young journalist like me, not only in the country, but also beyond the borders.
When the news broke on Tuesday, July 31, afternoon, we were about to start for Nagpur from Pandharkawda in Yavatmal, after three days of non-stop traveling in rural Vidarbha, visiting half a dozen suicide households and meeting people. It was typical of Sainath that he was doing what he loves to do the most: visiting the rural households to understand the newer processes that affect their lives.
Those calling him on his cell phone were not the powerful editors from the national and international media, but people who are part of his long journey into the hinterland – many like me, Sainath’s foot-students and friends.
Excited, happy, pumped up – many of those callers were from rural Andhra or rural Karnataka. Desperate though to meet his deadline, he had time for all.
They all felt, and I could sense that joy, as if they had won the Magsaysay. For, why a Sanjay Bhagat would throw a bash for his friends and relatives in rural Yavatmal, so excited that he ended up inviting almost everybody of his town! Or a Ram, a taxi-driver who drove us to far flung places and became part of many of our journeys, distribute sweets and proudly flaunt the newspapers to his friends to claim that he has seen the man work twenty four by seven the past few years.
In every part of India where Sainath has traveled, it was time for celebration. What’s more, a few farmers, deep in despair, too made calls to convey their wishes. They were happy to read about Sainath deservedly receiving the award! Many of them are now part of his ever-extending family – a microcosm of India.
“If you don’t know rural India – or if you stop covering the rural poor, you have actually decided not to cover 75 per cent of India,” Sainath feels, “but that is now changing. Today, there are more journalists wanting to cover the rural issues.”
And much of that change came due to his dogged perseverance with rural issues and inequalities that shape modern day India. Covering it for days unto months unto years is not easy. There are many sacrifices on the way you have to make.
“It’s going to be the worst year for this region,” Sainath, who is covering agrarian crisis plaguing the country for a decade now, fears, as we emerge out of a farm household in rural Akola, where yet another farmer ended himself last month.
Not overawed by the Asia’s most coveted award, an equivalent of Nobel, Sainath says: “I am very pleased with it; awards open up spaces in the newspapers.” In the era of what he calls “journalism-for-shareholders”, receiving a Magsaysay for covering deprivation only legitimises his work and cements his strong belief in a legacy Indian journalism inherits from the country’s independence struggle.
He says his interest in rural issues has got two origins: “First, in 1984, when I was in UNI and we were covering drought. I realized we were not showing the real picture; my stories were not really telling the very complicated processes. The second in 1990, when I was in The Blitz – the issue of malnutrition deaths in Thane evoked quite a few passions among the journalist and made us angry. But I thought, had we been doing our job properly, many of these kids wouldn’t be dying in the first instance. That led me to the idea of looking at India’s rural poor and telling the stories that were beyond the comprehension of beautiful people.”
Even today, farmers wouldn’t have been dying the way they do today had the journalists been doing their basic duty – that is to signal the weaknesses in the society. “Today’s journalism is more or less stenography to the rulers,” he quips.
In the era of flashy journalism, Sainath's work is serious and importantly he enjoys doing it. It is his mission. And there is no sacrificing commitment and credibility at any cost. At times, he is the most acerbic critic of the media that they are today.
“When Indian press decided to look only at top five per cent after 1991, I decided to look at the bottom five and let people decide on the real face of India,” informs the author of the award winning book Everybody loves a good drought. Sainath spends more than three quarters of a year in villages reporting on rural poor – be they the cotton farmers of Vidarbha, or vanilla growers in Wayanad, or toddy tappers in Tamil Nadu, or Orrissa migrants, or Andhra’s chilly growers…
Those are the voices from rural India that Sainath listens to on a priority. “The often used clichés like ‘giving voice to the voiceless’ and stuff life that is rubbish. When you say they are invisible; they are voiceless, you are turning them dumb and blind. In fact, we are the ones who are dumb and blind. A farmer wants to tell his story. “Point is do you want to listen? Do you want to see how he lives?”