Indian journalist puts poverty back on national agenda


Shivering in the cool water of an early winter morning, an Indian woman stands in the river up to her waist, bathing and washing her sari. She puts her wet sari on and waits for it to get dry in the cool air. That is her only sari.

This image can be seen all the time in rural India. The image, though common, bothers Palagummi Sainath, who was born in an upper middle-class family and who is internationally recognized as one of the "most-committed-to-the-poor" journalists in India today.

"A lot of things I saw in the poor villages made me angry," says Sainath, 41, the Mumbai-based freelance journalist who resides in Iowa City this fall after traveling thousands of miles across India to cover India's largest industry--poverty.

"The Iowa program is very good for me because, in a way, it's like a break after five years on the road," says Sainath, who is teaching a third world development support course at the UI this semester. His visit as the International Programs Distinguished Visiting Professional is funded by a National Resource Center (NRC) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Sainath, who has a master's degree in history from Jawaharlal Nehru University and who is a lecturer at a women's journalism school in India, says he strives to give students a different outlook on development in third world countries.

"I want to give the students some ideas about why things go wrong in development, to answer questions like 'Why has the World Bank failed?' 'Why has the West failed?' 'Why has the Indian government failed?" Sainath says. He also asks, "Are there other possibilities? Are there any optimistic possibilities?"

The class Development, Dissent and the Media is attended by 12 students of different majors who come from 10 countries including Mexico, Sudan, Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Norway.

The course looks at 50 years of development in Asian, African and Latin American countries, critically examining development from a "down-up view," Sainath says. He emphasizes the role of the media, its relation to power, and its function in pressing a corporate-led vision of development as the most important dimensions.

"I see him as somebody who never takes things for granted and who always questions," says Mansuetus Setonga, a third world development support program student who is from Tanzania. "That's what I like about the course.

"I learned a lot about third world countries, especially to look at another side of policies and programs like those of the United Nations or the World Bank, and the bias of the media."

Talk to Sainath and you will be convinced by his enthusiasm as a critic of the multi-corporate control of the media.

"I find mainstream American media really boring," he says. "They are just like canned food. What is really interesting, fascinating are the small newspapers, not the corporate-owned ones. American press has the biggest newspapers in the world, but the least informed public."

Unfortunately, he says, this common phenomenon of concentration of ownership in the media is happening not only in the Western world but has also started in third world countries like India.

He says while new brands of automobiles and stories about weight-loss clinics are dominant in Indian newspapers, poverty remains largely invisible. The growing gap between the rich and the poor is rarely addressed, he says.
Frustrated with Indian newspapers' choice of coverage, Sainath decided to portray the faceless poor in rural India by traveling to India's poorest villages and put this "unfashionable" subject back on the national agenda. His series of articles in the Times of India and his book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, the result of his journey of discovery, have drawn an overwhelming response not only from readers and young journalists in India, but also from politicians and state governments. To Sainath's surprise, the book also has been used in 30 universities around the world in different disciplines including journalism, economics, political science, and development studies.

Presently, Sainath, who has won dozens of awards for his work in pursuing the subject of poverty, is working on Dalits 1998-2000, a project funded by the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship. His first 10 pieces of the project have been published in Indian newspapers and explore why discrimination continues against the "dalits," known as the "untouchables" in India. Sainath is using his Iowa break to organize the material he collected from the road, including thousands of words and hundreds of photographs that will result in another 20 to 30 stories in Indian newspapers.
Although Sainath is angered by what he saw in the poor rural areas, he offers a hopeful view of the future.

"A lot of things I saw on the road also made me feel optimistic, such as the poor's struggle for dignity," Sainath says. "I believe that they will win. Maybe not now, not tomorrow, when, I don't know. But, ultimately, the people will make change."

by Thi Nguyen

Award-winning Indian journalist P. Sainath will speak from noon to 1, Nov. 30, in 230 International Center as part of the International Mondays lecture series. He will discuss some major issues of contemporary journalism and development and his book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought. The event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be served. For more information, call Jocelyn Cullity at (33)5-0637.