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Indian Development: Revisiting the Sainath Story

“In a world of “fake news” (events that never occurred or quotes that were never said), investigative journalism provides the facts, even when it’s difficult to find them. So, yes, if you want to enter this field, understand that it takes patience, determination, accuracy, and a devotion to finding the truth. Get a solid background in journalistic practices (if possible, attend a good college of journalism and work for your school newspaper); and observe/learn about how experienced investigative journalists (past and present) have done their work. Perhaps you will be among those making sure the most powerful and influential people are still held accountable for what they do.” Thus spake Donna Halper, a passionate professor, researcher, former journalist and broadcaster in the USA who could be an inspiration for you to take up investigative journalism as a great but difficult career.

“The job of an investigative journalist often includes working odd or irregular hours and traveling to conduct research or interviews. Some reporters also put themselves in dangerous situations, such as disaster sites or war zones, in order to get a story. Investigative journalists demonstrate strong writing and communication skills, as well as thorough investigative techniques. They are proficient in using word processing, digital photo, and video editing software, as well as digital cameras and photo equipment. They may be expected to have some familiarity with website design software.”

In India, P. Sainath is a living master of daredevil investigative socio-economic journalism as a means of social change towards a more egalitarian and democratic society. The ivory tower economists cannot give you the organic touch with the Indian realities that he and his disciple Aparna Karthikeyan can give. The mathematical and statistical sophistication of the former cannot give you the grounded understanding of the socio-economic world of the latter.

Very recently, Sainath bemoaned the fact that India has got no framework of justice—food justice, health justice, and education justice, for example: “Covid -19 has turned out to be a surgeon that has provided an autopsy of our society, its neo-liberalisation policies and capitalism. In the 28 years of neoliberalism, we have created a society that is extremely vulnerable. For 28 years, we have turned poor people into a much more fragile, much more vulnerable section of society”. Coronavirus is not destroying the Indian society, but the inequalities are: “A virus has no agency. It has no mind. It is just there. The impact of a crisis is never equal…It is a nightmare to see the socially disadvantaged people trying to access the pathetic crumbs the government is giving…”

Twenty-five years after its publication, Sainath’s book ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought’ is more than relevant now as to how investigative journalism can do a searing indictment of the Indian developmental realities of the present connected to the past. Giving you a polemical taste of this, in his own words, is the celebratory concern of this post.

One out of every three persons in the world lacking safe and adequate drinking water is an Indian. Nearly one in every two illiterates in the world is a citizen of this country. Nearly one of every three children outside schools on the planet is an Indian. The largest number of absolute poor live in this country. So do the largest number of those with inadequate housing. Indians have among the lowest per capita consumption of textiles in the world. There are more job seekers registered at the employment exchanges of India than there are jobless in all the twenty-four nations of the OECD put together. Yet, this nation has over forty-four million child labourers, the largest contingent in the world. India’s dismal position in the UNDP’s Human Development Index has…if anything, fallen. Every third leprosy patient in the globe is an Indian. So is every fourth being on the planet dying of water-borne or water-related diseases. Over three-fourths of all the tuberculosis cases that exist at any time world-wide are in this country. No nation has more people suffering from blindness. Tens of millions of Indians suffer from malnutrition.

Central to the philosophy of development, Indian style, is the idea that we can somehow avoid the big moves, the painful ones, the reforms that Indian society really needs— like land reform, literacy and education, some decent standards of health, shelter, nutrition, getting rid of child labour…The Indian elite, excited about globalization, are not bothered about the authoritarian states in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea giving these to their people. People, however, do bother. The issues of land, forest and water resources remain fundamental to real development. The poor are acutely aware of this. After all, 85 per cent of the Indian poor are either landless agricultural labourers or small and marginal farmers. They know where it hurts. They are net purchasers of foodgrains. Hikes in grain prices hit them very badly. Inflation is strongly linked to food prices. So its impact on these sections is always worse. The public distribution system is in a state of advanced decay. The so-called targeting the poor on a special basis has not prevented starvation deaths from occurring and increasing. The upward revision of grain prices was never matched by rises in daily minimum wages. Real development would mean more than just letting them know the plans of the elite. It would mean their involvement in the decisions for all development, especially, their own. There isn’t a single migrant worker among millions who would not tell you how crucial the land issue is. But just a little over one percent of the total cultivable area has been redistributed. A profoundly undemocratic streak runs through India’s development process. The exclusion doesn’t end at the symposia. Peasants are also excluded from land issues in real life too. Villagers are increasingly robbed of control over water and other community resources. Tribes are being more and more cut off from the forests. Yet, elite vision holds the poor and their experiences in contempt. And there is a growing disconnect of the ‘mass’ media from mass reality, which is getting worse. Governments in this country have abdicated their duties towards citizens. People’s rights have been diluted. The issues that matter to the people are best left to NGOs, while the state tinkers around with how to double the wealth of the richest five percent. International funding agencies are using NGOs to dump fertilisers, harmful contraceptives and obsolete technologies. There are groups in this country that have tried to push ‘drip irrigation’ in districts that have abundant rainfall. They hawked a technique used for the deserts of Israel because some corporate had something to sell. Besides, in India, many NGOs are contractors for government schemes. Some government officials have relatives running NGOs. Quite a few launch an NGO or begin to head one the moment they retire. Some NGOs can and do excellent work when filling gaps. They can and do outstanding work within modest objectives. But they cannot be a substitute for the state. They cannot fulfill their responsibilities. The worst of governments in this country has to face the public after five years. The worst of NGOs is only accountable to its funding agency—which might well support, even spur on dubious activities that do not benefit the poor. The character of the press in this country, sucked into a growing process of corporatization, has eroded and proved increasingly inept at covering the weaknesses of the development process.

India currently is no different from India a quarter-century ago as above.

I invite you to read P. Sainath’s and Aparna Karthikeyan’s books that are based on investigative journalism. The people who figure in these books represent a huge section of Indian society. One that is much larger than the 10 percent of the population who run their lives. But a section that is beyond the margin of elite vision. And beyond the margins of a press and media that fail to connect with them.

Will you choose to connect with the 85 per cent in order to make a difference to their “life is unfair”? Or, will you join the 10 per cent?

By Annavajhula J.C. Bose, PhD
Department of Economics, SRCC


AparnaKarthikeyan. 2019. Nine Rupees an Hour: Disappearing Livelihoods of Tamil Nadu. Westland Books.

Deirdre McCloskey. 2005. The Trouble with Mathematics and Statistics in Economics. History of Economic Ideas.XIII (3).

P. Sainath. 1996. Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts. Penguin Books India.

The Hindu. 2020. Covid-19 has Exposed Society’s Vulnerability and Inequality—P.Sainath. May 31. Chennai.

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