P Sainath continues to illuminate stories from the India the mainstream press forgot

Everybody loves a good speaker. But not everybody loves a speaker who snaps you out of the good times and transports you to an unsettling space. Veteran development journalist P Sainath proudly admits that he falls in the latter category.

"'Can't you say something optimistic for a change?' I am often asked this question. But I believe that an eternal optimist is only the person who jumps from the top of a building. 'So far so good', he thinks until...," says Sainath, his signature sense of humour and straight face intact.

Sainath was speaking at Godrej India Culture Lab's We The People conference on 30 June.

Having worked for over 35 years in mainstream media, something that prevents him from falling prey to blind optimism is the way national dailies prioritise their coverage. "If you look at the figures of last year, rural area coverage is limited to only 0.71 percent of news on the front pages of all national dailies, out of which agriculture covers about 0.67 percent only."

P Sainath. Image via Facebook

P Sainath. Image via Facebook

Sainath points out how even the meager amount of coverage is dominated by statements from the agriculture minister or the finance minister instead of first-hand reporting of the field. "Last year, the coverage included multiple statements from Arun Jaitley that the income of farmers is going to rise by 5 percent. He makes it a point to never mention whether this income is real or nominal. Because as far as nominal income is concerned, everybody's income is bound to increase by that percent."

When this correspondent asked him about the histrionics that farmers protesting at Jantar Mantar last year had to resort to, in order to gain mainstream media coverage, he signals disappointment that even national dailies only swear by the cardinal rule of profit.

"I am aware that they have to pay their reporters. But good journalism has always thrived. It is the sheer amassing of wealth that media houses practise these days. The newspaper has been reduced to a department of a much larger conglomerate that is only driven by profits. We do not have to fight one man but this unhealthy practice of monopolisation of media," says Sainath.

He emphasises the dire need to democratise media so that every nook and corner of the country gets represented in the public eye. With the same intention, he founded People's Archive of Rural India (PARI) six years ago as a platform to allow the majority of the Indian population, who reside in the countryside, to make their voices heard.

"Our aim is to not merely to facilitate coverage of rural issues but also document the regional and occupational diversity that India is home to. There are still thousands of potters, weavers and tree climbers in India. But the definition of skill development has become convoluted now. Now, if a kanjivaram weaver abandons the age old art to learn to ride an auto rickshaw for the sake of his livelihood, he is said to have acquired a new skill. But what about the ancient skill he has left behind?" he says on the rampant problem of deskilling in rural areas.

Adding to the same issue, Sainath recalls an instance that proves how the ruling government has diverted attention from the real issue to mere tokenism and rhetoric. "We met a lady in Tripura who had a furious message for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She complained that though new toilets were built in the village as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the rural employment guarantee act was compromised with. 'What are you building toilets for if you can't even get our stomachs filled?', she asked."

Sainath believes that a similar 'tranquiliser', though of a much larger proportion, was introduced by the ruling party last year. "The coverage of demonestisation in mainstream media only reflected their economic illiteracy. They were not well-versed with the concept of black money. Black money exists in three forms — real estate, overseas accounts and currency. But currency makes for a very small per cent of the total black money. Why would you wipe off 82 percent of the total currency from the economy for that?"

He also throws light on the problem of double counting while estimating the amount of black money in the Indian economy. "If a builder gets black money, he transfers it to his labour. But for them, it is white money as they have earned it fair and square. Their income is not even accounted for, as it does not fall under the tax slabs. Then, these labourers use the black money to buy provisions from kirana shops. The shopkeepers further transfer the money to the municipality and the police as bribe. So the same money gets counted twice."

But how would such intricacies make it to the newspapers if there is no beat or correspondence that is completely dedicated to labour or agricultural reporting? "We have had a full-time beat on golf, but not on agriculture! When the farmer crisis was at its peak in 2006-07, a national daily in Mumbai gave a memorandum to its employees that said: 'Farmers of Vidharbha do not buy our newspaper. The elite of South Mumbai do.'"

Thus, a large section of the readers of mainstream media believe that India is only registering 7 to 8 percent growth every year. They are blind optimists. There is another large section who have resigned to fate after browsing through reports of everything that is wrong with this country. They are cynical pessimists.

"Both these attitudes are harmful. They make you complacent. It means that you do not have to do anything in order to see things change," says Sainath, seconds before receding into his world of endless pursuit. "But between the cynical pessimism and the blind optimism, there exists a wide stretch called hope. I live there."

Updated Date: Jul 02, 2017 10:09 AM

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