P. Sainath, journalist, Times of India; author, Everybody Loves a Good Drought
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground.
P. SAINATH: The figure of 19 percent—173 million poor people was for Indian
consumption. The figure of 312 million was for consumption at the World Summit for Social
Development at Copenhagen. Because there we were going to beg donors for money. The more the
poor, the more the money. So you beg in Copenhagen and you brag in Bombay.
DAVIDSON: As India turns fifty this summer we talked with a prominent Indian journalist
about India’s development experience over the past half century.
SAINATH: Poverty now is a product that can be packaged, produced, surveyed, researched,
you know, prettied up and sold. And that’s what we do with it—the Indian elite does it with
DAVIDSON: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
P. Sainath, my guest today, is a Bombay-based journalist who writes for the Times of
India among many other publications. He’s won numerous national and international
journalist and human rights awards for his work. Sainath has spent the past several years
traveling through India’s poorest districts. His reports were eventually compiled into a book
released this year entitled, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, an ironic title which he
explained to me while on a book tour and a stop at the University of Iowa’s South Asian
SAINATH: There are three words missing in the title—it should have been “Everybody
loves a Good Drought, Except the Poor”—but the poor don’t count in elite discourse, so I
left them out. I thought since the rest of the book is about the poor, let the elite have the
cover. So it says Everybody Loves a Good Drought—and people do believe me. Drought is
the biggest growth industry in India. In the state where I live, Maharashtra, of which Bombay
City is the capitol, last year the amounts spent on drought relief—on relief programs for
drought was more than the combined national profits in the organized sector of the tea, coffee,
automobile and textile industries. So drought obviously is a very high income-generating, or
revenue-generating industry. The funny thing is that many of the drought-affected districts
actually get excellent rain fall. Now the point I’m making is that: A) India has this peculiar
capacity to disconnect drought from rain fall. You can have a drought in a place that gets a
lot of rain fall. You can have a drought in a place that has a shortage of rain fall. In any
case, the poor will experience drought because there is a process of privatization and
colonization of water resources. So even if there’s water, the rich, the powerful are grabbing
that water because water is a life-giving resource for the farmer and for any human being.
More and more, private water markets are emerging in water. Water has been colonized and at
the same time the old irrigation systems that peasant farmers built up have been destroyed to
put in place projects that don’t work. But the important thing is that, let’s say, one of the
districts that is drought affected in India that I visited—it gets four times the amount of
rainfall that California does, and California grows grapes! Now this district manages to have
drought every year and huge sums of money are poured into the district, and the connection goes
all the way from the little village to the World Bank or the IMF or anywhere else in terms of
raising money for drought. It’s not that there is no drought—there is a drought—there is a
drought—the poor experience the drought—you can have both—you can have plenty of rainfall
and you can have drought, if you do not have water harvesting systems. In this case, the
traditional irrigation systems of people have been destroyed. So they have drought. But in the
name of fighting the drought you call it a natural calamity where it is not. And in the name
of addressing the natural calamity you raise huge, huge sums of money in relief. And that is
DAVIDSON: You have a story in your book, actually about a region in India where they do
have adequate rainfall, and I was wondering if you would relate that story to illustrate how
this process works.
SAINATH: In the name of natural calamity, or simple techno—there are two kinds of
approaches. One is the technofit solution. Sinking wells solves the drought, sinking wells
solves the water problem. OK. So I was in a village in an area in a small region where there
was a severe drought many years ago. The press made a lot of noise and the government said
“let’s end the drought, let’s go and sink 2,000 wells there.” So money was raised, 2,000 wells
were sunk in that village—in and around the several villages in that region. What happened?
Let’s say you belonged to the poor community in the village and I belonged to the rich community
in that village. Let’s say you belong to the poor community. Because of the nature of
political articulation, because of the nature of political strength of relative strength of
the two communities, all the bore wells were sunk in the farms and the farmlands of the rich.
The moment all these bore wells were sunk in my community’s lands the first thing that happened
is that your dug wells dry up.
DAVIDSON: That’s right, the water runs over to the new wells.
SAINATH: They’re digging much deeper into the source. That’s one. Secondly, I begin to
sell you water, because your wells have run dry and we have the emergence of water as a weapon—of water as a form of—a natural resource now becomes a private profit commodity. OK? So I
begin to sell you water, because you’re a farmer too. You need to survive. Third, I withhold
the water at a crucial moment of your agricultural cycle. Let’s say you need water for 45 days.
I give it to you for 35, Mary and then I say “that’s it, so long.” 10 days to go—you need 10
days of water. I’ve stopped the water—you’re on your knees. You’re willing to do anything
for that water, because otherwise your entire investment goes kaput—in total—it goes out
the window. So you will beg me—”don’t stop now, you’ve given me 35 days, please give me
those remaining 10 days of water.” Right, I will, except that we have to go through step 4
which is that I demand and require a share of your crop. I say “OK, you want that remaining 10
days water? Give me 1/5 of your crop.” This has now become a set rate in parts of the country.
So you part with 1/5 of your crop. Already your costs of production have become much higher,
because you’ve paid money for the water, which you’ve never paid before, plus you are giving
me 1/5 of your crop. Step number 5. After taking a share of your produce I begin to dictate
what it is that you shall produce. I say “Mary, you’re growing rice, and I’m growing rice, am
I sort of a moron to be supplying water to a competitor? Now you grow chilies, and I’ll give
you water—if you’re gonna grow rice—I’m not stupid.” So you have fertile cultivable land
that may be much better land than my own on which you are growing high quality rice—but
I’ve rationalized your production and forced you to grow a much less lucrative crop—I’ve
forced you to grow chilies. So you grow chilies. Step number 6. Your economy of scale has now
altered so drastically against your interest and you are so entrapped in my debt that you
loose your land to me—and I will grow rice on it, Mary. So just—there is so much drama in
the sinking of a well. OK.
DAVIDSON: And this is done often with development aid.
SAINATH: Very often.
DAVIDSON: I mean that farmer did not pay to have that well, that bore well, put there.
SAINATH: Not really. That was the government’s decision. He may have paid a very
nominal sum. But the fact is that the wells were meant to be equally distributed. A lot of
people think that the problem of drought ends with the sinking of a well. Or the problem of
water at least ends with the sinking of a well. That is—you’ve opened up a whole new series
of problems here. In this village the poor community lost all the fertile lands to the rich
community over a period of 10 to 15 years. But it’s an invisible process and journalists hate
invisible processes. They like events they can write about—someone lying with his guts
spilling all over the street. They know how to handle that.
DAVIDSON: Or an immediate drought that requires some disaster assistance.
SAINATH: The media generally create enormous problems in a drought these days because
they are so easily coopted into reporting—well conventional journalism is about the service
of power—and sometimes they do—in the case of drought I think it’s more from stupidity
and ignorance than any thing else. You know, I’ve seen journalists’ tours—you know—made
by governments—which take journalists to areas which are very dry—and the typical
stereotype of drought in the press—you have to have a photograph of parched earth and
emaciated children and that establishes that there is a drought. You will have parched earth
in the wettest part of the planet if you drain a pond. OK. But for the urbanite who doesn’t
understand the countryside, parched earth is the scared symbol of drought. Now—and when it’s
45 degrees—when it’s 120 degrees Fahrenheit—when it’s 100 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and
your hair is on fire and your face is on fire—it’s easy to believe that there has been
drought here since the birth of time…
DAVIDSON: And the ground is cracked and…
SAINATH: Parched, yes, and you want to get back into your air conditioned car and go
home. Now urban journalists are far better at the heart breaking stuff. The tear wrenching
stuff. So we go back and write these things about the poor emaciated little girl walking
across the parched fields and everything else. If we had waited there two months there would
be floods in the same area perhaps. But that isn’t germane at that point in time. So we’ve all
been coopted into reporting a drought in an area that gets four times the amount of rainfall
that California does. Now this, what is the state government doing with this—1) it’s passing
the buck—2) it’s making a pitch at the central government for funds to fight the drought.
The central government picks up all the reports that it considers responsible reporting—which means reports that do not vilify the central government—it picks up those and uses
those to make a pitch at donor governments, at the UNDP, at UNICEF, at multilateral funding
organizations and says, “we’ve got a huge drought in Surguja District in India, so will you
please help us?” Donor governments love relief. You can show Marines kissing babies in Somalia—it’s good TV and it doesn’t cost you a damn thing. It doesn’t cost much. Donor governments
know—as the United Nations knows—that relief forms a very minuscule part of Western budgets.
The problem between developing countries and the donor countries is not relief—it is unequal
trade—it is exploitation—it is the lack of reciprocity and international relations. They
don’t want to address that—relief they’ll address because it makes good TV and it doesn’t
cost much. So they will give money. The money will come to Delhi, where the ministries will
fight over it. Every ministry now discovers its mission to save that poor drought stricken
district that they had never heard of previously. Some of the money trickles down to the state
which will—oh yes—in between all the consultants and academics and researchers come to do
studies on water management and harvesting in the district to discover the problems of water
in that district. Every peasant in the district knows what the problem of water in the district
is. Then it comes to the state further filtering—comes to the district—further filtering—comes to the block—further knock-offs by contractors, engineers, everybody else—and
finally a couple of dollars might actually go to the peasant. Now the whole—from the block
level politician to somebody in the World Bank, the whole spiral has gone up and come back—it’s been a huge money making exercise. I’m not suggesting that there is no such thing as
drought. I’m suggesting that there is such a thing as acute drought, but it wasn’t a total
DAVIDSON: I wanted to ask because drought is a big problem in India, what percentage
would be your guess is man-made? And what is acute drought?
SAINATH: Well in the droughts I’ve looked at—see, it’s very difficult—you know you
might have, within the same drought, nature contributing 20 percent to 30 percent and the
human hand contributing the remaining 70 percent. There are droughts which I’ve seen and which
I believe are entirely man made—they simply didn’t exist. I’ve checked the rainfall figures
of the period. I’ve looked at—also—there’s another thing—when you go into the relief
mode—now this example I gave you of the spiral from the district and back—you are going to
have another drought the next year because the basic problems of water have not been addressed
at all. All that has happened is that researchers have got contracts to do studies—contractors
have got contracts to build bridges—but nobody has addressed the problem that there is no
water harvesting mechanism in a district that gets 65 inches of rainfall annually and could do
much better if it had an infrastructure to capture the water.
DAVIDSON: You’re listening to Common Ground, a program on world affairs sponsored
by the Stanley Foundation. My guest is Bombay-based journalist P. Sainath, who writes for the
Times of India and is in the United States talking about his new book titled: Everybody
Loves a Good Drought and the problems that India, especially the poor, have experienced
with development. This is another in our occasional series celebrating India’s 50th anniversary
of independence. The Stanley Foundation is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that works
to promote thought and dialogue about the world. Tapes and transcripts of Common Ground
programs are available and at the end of the broadcast I’ll give you some information on how
you can order.
As we continued our conversation, I asked Sainath whether the problems that India has
experienced in its development process are fairly recent or whether they have historical
SAINATH: Well, racketeering is as old as human society, but I think the development
industry has really blossomed in the last 50 years—you know—development as an industry—as a business. The difference between development and other businesses is that it has soul,
it makes you look good. You can racketeer and still look good—because it has a heart. You’re
doing it for someone else—it’s all in the noble cause. Except you never ask the people in
that area what they consider development—and what sort of development they want.
DAVIDSON: It sounds as like—you’re not necessarily against development?
SAINATH: I don’t think the poor are. I think they have a very different understanding
of what development is and that varies from region to region. It varies from society to
society, from cultural context to cultural context. I wouldn’t even attempt to define it
because you have to look at it in context. But I would describe it broadly as—the transformation
of the human state to a higher level of being with minimal intrusion on resources, ecology,
the environment, the forest and on tradition, with minimal intrusion—I’m not saying no
intrusion because that’s impossible—but with minimal intrusion on these and with maximum
consultation, participation and joint implementation. Don’t imagine that the poor do not want
development. Do you really think that women in a village want to continue with mortality rates
of 120/per thousand?
SAINATH: They don’t, OK. Do you think that they do not want their children to be
educated and go to school? They do.
DAVIDSON: And aren’t development experts learning from these past mistakes, whether or
not they were malicious or just mistakes. I mean, it seems in reading what’s going through the
academic circles these days, the current mode of thinking is to include the poor in the decision
making about things that will affect their lives, and do you think that we’re learning from
what has gone on?
SAINATH: I have very little respect for the term “development expert.” I have a lot of
respect for those who have a political understanding of development. OK. Now the other thing
is—the whole business of deciding to include the poor—I have a slightly different angle
on this—I was arguing this last night when someone was saying “what would you decide—what
would you do—you’re suggesting land reform, you’re suggesting basic reforms in resources” My
point is that the poor, their organizations, their struggles, their political organizations
are moving anyway. It’s not for you and me to decide whether they should have these changes
or they should not have those changes. Let me put it this way. Those changes will occur, the
development they want will occur. The option you and I have is—will it occur within our
consent or will it occur outside it? I would like it to happen within my consent and with my
intervention and with my alignment.
DAVIDSON: Otherwise you’ve got an enemy. Is that what you’re saying?
SAINATH: No, I’m just saying that it’s pathetic to have this over-blown self importance
that the “development expert” or somebody has that “only I have the knowledge of what’s going
on—and I will decide.” It’s an attitude of contempt for ordinary people that I do not share.
DAVIDSON: You know I was interested in your writing about the governments fluctuating
poverty statistics depending on who their audience is. Why do they play with those statistics?
SAINATH: See, the government of India produced two estimates of poverty. One’s saying
that 19percent of the population—or a hundred and seventy million—a hundred and
seventy-five million people were below the officially designated poverty line. It then
produced another estimate saying that three hundred and twelve million people were below the
poverty line. Again, you have to look at the politics of poverty. The figure of 19percent—a
hundred and seventy-three million poor people was for Indian consumption. The figure of a
hundred and seventy-three million was for consumption at the World Summit for Social
Development at Copenhagen. Because there, we were going to beg donors for money. The more the
poor the more the money. So you beg in Copenhagen and you brag in Bombay. In Bombay you tell
the public, because there’s an election coming up—you say that poverty has fallen
drastically. In Copenhagen you say “we’ve got all these poor, will you please put some money
in my piggy-bank.” So it’s a very cynical thing. Poverty now is a product that can be
packaged, produced, surveyed, researched, you know, prettied up and sold. And that’s what we
do with it. The Indian elite does it with that. The title of this book that you’re talking
about, Everybody Loves a Good Drought came to me from a peasant in one of the remote
districts of India, in Bihar. He gave me this title when he said, “We have a good drought
going here” and he knew exactly what he was talking about. Maybe he didn’t know much about
macro-policy, maybe he didn’t know who was making decisions in Delhi, but he knew there was a
great deal of racketeering going on in his village. So he said it so humorously that “we have
a good drought going here; it’s going well.” And then, actually he even teased me a bit when
I first asked him “where is the block development officer?” That’s the main administrative
officer of the block. He said he’s gone to harvest the third crop. Now, as it is, I’m a city
boy and I don’t know much about agriculture and as far as I knew that district had two crops
at the very maximum. So I said “what the heck is the third crop” and it troubled me for two
days and it amused him no end. He was a peasant union organizer—himself just a farmer with
two acres—he let me agonize for two days and then put me out of my misery by telling me that
the third crop was drought relief. He said “he’s gone to get the third crop.” And he was very
clear who harvests the third crop—it is the elites.
DAVIDSON: Not himself.
SAINATH: Not himself. But at least he had the humor to look at it in that way. And
that’s where the title of the book came from.
DAVIDSON: I’m wondering—well, India now is an exporter of agricultural products, yet
there’s a terrible problem of malnutrition in India. How does that happen?
SAINATH: Sharp decline of purchasing power. In 1991 we entered the brave new world of
structural adjustment programs and the rest of the World Bank, IMF, International Monetary
Fund menu. You know—we didn’t want the menu—people didn’t want the menu—but the chef
ordered that this is “all you can eat.” At the end of five years of what they call “reforms”
the poorest people in the world were actually eating less. Before this program started the
average per capita availability—availability of food grain to each Indian was average 510
grams, which is very low—it’s not a huge amount of food. At the end of five years of what we
call “reforms” that has fallen to 431 grams, that is government data—if anything, it’s an
understatement. So we’ve managed to remove 15 percent or 20 percent of someone’s already low
eating standards—low consumption standards. How that constitutes a “reform” defies my
DAVIDSON: What is your opinion of the “Green Revolution?”
SAINATH: I would have to look at it aspect by aspect. I’m saying that it had a very
differential impact—at a time—see when—I can understand, I can conceptualize and
understand why certain people were so impressed with it. What’s not so easy to understand is
why 20 years, 25 years later they’re not able to look at it in a detached fashion and look at
the underside of it. It did result in higher production—but it took places where—in places
where—what—it sharpened inequity—it deepened divisions in society—it excluded a lot of
people from the benefits and it also had certain affects on crop, on ecology, it had a number
of effects—which maybe 10 to 15 years after the “Green Revolution” became much more apparent.
What’s not easy to understand is why people still refuse to face up to the fact that when it
started, you might have had 137 species of grain in the place and when it ended you have five.
OK? So you really destroyed the diversity of that place. The counter argument is generally
that, the production levels maybe saved a lot of people from famine—so that is always an
attractive argument—but I think that 20 years, 25, 30 years on you should ask “aren’t there
other ways of doing it without destroying your diversity—without destroying crop species.”
OK? So you bombed the last time you did it—it doesn’t mean that you have to repeat these errors—in different ways—in different spheres. You can find other ways of doing it without
sacrificing diversity without creating the kind of differentiation it did in the rural classes
in Punjab, at the time for instance.
DAVIDSON: I almost get the feeling in reading your book, Everybody Loves a Good
Drought that perhaps the poor were better off before big development started earlier this
century. But is that your intent?
SAINATH: No, actually I don’t say that.
DAVIDSON: No, I know you don’t say that but it’s just a…
SAINATH: Yeah, but then, I understand why you might look at it that way because the
book is entirely written for an Indian audience that has the context. OK? For me in 1947, you
made—in India, 50 years ago when we became free—made a leadership state—a Republic, made
a contract with its citizens. I’m judging that on the basis of what has actually been delivered
to people—there have been great achievements. There have been some splendid achievements. A
country that in 1947 had a life expectancy of 29, now has a life expectancy of nearly 60. That’s
double. OK? Famine has been all but abolished in independent India. By the way, most of the
famines were man-made too. The Bengal famine of 1943. The first great famine of—I mean the
gigantic famine of 1872, the nineteenth century, was entirely policy driven. It was created by
the British. Incidentally, the first of our great famines was linked to the United States.
You’ll be surprised how old globalization is really. OK? I’ll explain that to you if you like,
but in the last 50 years we have not had a famine—the press uses the word drought and famine
interchangeably but that’s stupid. That arises from ignorance. So these are great achievements.
I mean, in many parts of the country, literacy rates have risen to more than double or triple
what they were at the time of independence. The question is: Is that enough?—number one.
Number two: Was there an even spread and sharing of the fruit of freedom? Because the sacrifices
for freedom—a disproportionate share of those sacrifices came from the poor. What did they
get in return? For me that’s the question.
DAVIDSON: And that was my final question: what has independence done for the poverty
situation in India? And I think you just summed that up.
SAINATH: I think great achievements but I also think that 50 years on, there’s an
incredible selfishness and greed. I think we have entered about 10 years later than the United
States the “Me First” decade. You know, where everything is centered around an extremely,
extremely greedy elite. In that sense we have moved from a need based society to a greed based
society. But what is 50 years? I think there is something very symbolic about the 50th year of
independence or the 1st year of independence. The man who did more than anyone else—I mean I
am nothing, if not deeply and thoroughly an Indian—I belong to a freedom struggle family and
that is why I am much angrier I guess—because the ideals of that freedom struggle meant
everything to me. But I always now remember that the man who did more than any other to
organize the Indian people in their struggle for freedom, was the one man missing from the
independence day celebrations in 1947—Gandhi. He never went for the unfurling of the flag.
The elite went to the flag. He went to the people. He was consoling the victims of sectarian
religious rioting in Bengal.
DAVIDSON: P. Sainath has been my guest on Common Ground. He’s an award winning
journalist based in Bombay India. Sainath was in the U.S. to talk about his recently published
book Everybody Loves a Good Drought. For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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