HIGHLIGHTS

  • Under a fellowship from the Times of India, Sainath painstakingly investigated life in India’s ten poorest districts. In Everybody Loves a Good Drought, his bestselling book of 1997, and in hundreds of subsequent articles, Sainath presented his readers with a world that belied the giddy accounts of India’s economic miracle. In this India, the harsh life of the rural poor was, in fact, growing harsher.
  • Sainath discovered that the acute misery of India’s poorest districts was not caused by drought, as the government said. It was rooted in India’s enduring structural inequalities-in poverty, illiteracy, and caste discrimination-and exacerbated by recent economic reforms favoring foreign investment and privatization.
  • Sainath’s authoritative reporting led Indian authorities to address certain discrete abuses and to enhance relief efforts in states such as Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra. But his deeper message also struck home. In 2000, nearly thirty of his articles were submitted as evidence at a national hearing on anti-dalit (untouchable) atrocities. In such ways, he has touched the conscience of the nation.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his passionate commitment as a journalist to restore the rural poor to India’s consciousness, moving the nation to action.”

 CITATION

In the early twentieth century, the press was at the heart of India’s freedom struggle. During those formative years, says Indian reporter Palagummi Sainath, journalism contributed to “the liberation of the human being.” In contrast, he says, India’s press today merely performs “stenography” for big business and the governing elite. As the economy surges, matters that call for the urgent attention of the public and government are ignored in favor of film starlets and beauty queens, the stock market, and India’s famed IT boom. As a free-lance journalist and rural affairs editor of The Hindu, Sainath has taken a different path. Believing that “journalism is for people, not for shareholders,” he has doggedly covered the lives of those who have been left behind.

Born in Chennai in 1957, Sainath completed a master’s degree in history before turning to a life of journalism. At Blitz, a Mumbai tabloid, he rose to be deputy chief editor and became a popular columnist. In 1993, he changed course.

For the next few years, under a fellowship from the Times of India, Sainath painstakingly investigated life in India’s ten poorest districts. In Everybody Loves a Good Drought, his bestselling book of 1997, and in hundreds of subsequent articles, Sainath presented his readers with a world that belied the giddy accounts of India’s economic miracle. In this India, the harsh life of the rural poor was, in fact, growing harsher.

Sainath discovered that the acute misery of India’s poorest districts was not caused by drought, as the government said. It was rooted in India’s enduring structural inequalities-in poverty, illiteracy, and caste discrimination-and exacerbated by recent economic reforms favoring foreign investment and privatization. Indeed, these sweeping changes combined with endemic corruption had led small farmers and landless laborers into evermore crippling debt-with devastating consequences.

Sainath provided the evidence. He reported, for example, that the number of migrant-swollen buses leaving a single poor district for Mumbai each week had increased from one to thirty-four in less than ten years. He exposed the shocking rise in suicides among India’s debt-pressed farmers, revealing that in just six hard-hit districts in 2006 alone, the number of suicides had soared to well over a thousand. He revealed that at a time when officials boasted of a national grain surplus, 250 million Indians were suffering from endemic hunger, and that in districts where government storehouses were “stacked to the roof with food grain,” tribal children were starving to death.

Sainath’s authoritative reporting led Indian authorities to address certain discrete abuses and to enhance relief efforts in states such as Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra. But his deeper message also struck home. In 2000, nearly thirty of his articles were submitted as evidence at a national hearing on anti-dalit (untouchable) atrocities. In such ways, he has touched the conscience of the nation.

India’s press today, Sainath says, is “creating audiences that have no interest in other human beings.” He is training a new breed of rural reporters with a different point of view. His journalism workshops occur directly in the villages, where he teaches young protégés to identify and write good stories and to be agents of change.

Sainath finds hope in these young reporters and in the resilience and courage of the people he writes about-such as the legions of poor rural women in Tamil Nadu who have overcome taboos and learned to ride a bicycle. To advance freedom, even small freedoms such as this, is the most significant legacy of the early giants of Indian journalism to today’s reporters, he says. “I’m not ready to give up on my legacy yet.”

In electing Palagummi Sainath to receive the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the board of trustees recognizes his passionate commitment as a journalist to restore the rural poor to India’s consciousness, moving the nation to action.

 RESPONSE

The Honorable Chief Justice, Chairman and Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow Awardees and dear friends.

This is the 60th year of Indian independence. A freedom fought for and won on a vision that placed our humblest citizens at the centre of action and of the future. A struggle that brought the world’s then mightiest empire to its knees, which saw the birth of a new nation, with a populace overwhelmingly illiterate, yet aiming at building a democracy the world could be proud of. A people who, one freedom fighter predicted, would make the deaf hear and the blind see. They did.

Today, the generation of Indians who took part in that great struggle have mostly died out, though their achievements have not. The few who remain are in their late 80s or 90s. As one of them told me recently, “We fought to expel the colonial ruler, but not only for that. We fought for a just and honourable nation, for a good society.” I am now recording the lives of these last stalwarts of a generation I was not part of, but which I so deeply admire. A struggle that preceded my birth, but in which my own values are rooted. In their names, with those principles, and for their selflessness, I accept this great award.

In that battle for freedom, a tiny press played a mighty role. So vital did it become, that every national leader worth his or her salt, across the political spectrum, also doubled up as a journalist. Small and vulnerable as they were, the journalists of that time sought to give voice to the voiceless and speak for those who could not. Their rewards were banning, imprisonment, exile and worse. But they bequeathed to Indian journalism a legacy I am proud of and on behalf of which tradition, I accept this award today.

For the vision that generation stood for, the values it embodied, are no longer so secure. A nation founded on principles of egalitarianism embedded in its Constitution now witnesses the growth of inequality on a scale not seen since the days of the Colonial Raj. A nation that ranks fourth in the world’s list of dollar billionaires, ranks 126th in human development. A crisis in the countryside has seen agriculture-on which close to 60 per cent of the population depend-descend into the doldrums. It has seen rural employment crash. It has driven hundreds of thousands from villages towards towns and cities in search of jobs that are not there. It has pushed millions deeper into debt, and has seen over 112,000 farmers take their own lives in distress in a decade.

This time around, though, the response of a media politically free but chained by profit has not been anywhere as inspiring. Front pages and prime time are the turf of film stars, fashion shows and the entrenched privilege of the elite. Rural India, where the greatest battles of our freedom were fought, is pretty low down in the media’s priority list. There are, as always, exceptions. The paper I work for, The Hindu, has consistently given space to the chronicling of our greatest agrarian crisis since the eve of the Green Revolution. And across the country are countless journalists who, despite active discouragement from their managements, seek to place people above profit in their reporting, who try desperately to warn their audiences of what is going on at the bottom end of the spectrum and the dangers this involves. On behalf of all of them, I accept this award.

In nearly 14 years of reporting India’s villages fulltime, I have felt honoured and humbled by the generosity of some of the poorest people in the world. People who constantly bring home the Mahatma’s great line: “Live simply, that others might simply live.” But a people we today sideline and marginalise in the path of development we now pursue. A people in distress, even despair, who still manage to awe me with their human and humane values. On their behalf too, I accept the Ramon Magsaysay Award.