Boerma Award winners talk about their work

Palagummi Sainath has been described by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen as "one of the world's greatest experts on famine and hunger". Through his work on the livelihoods of India's rural poor, Sainath has changed the nature of the development debate in his own country and across the world. His ground-breaking book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, published in 1999, helped focus public attention on important aspects of the world food problem, increasing public awareness and support.




(The Times of India)

What does winning the Boerma award mean to you?

Awards open up spaces in the media. Very often after an award, you'll find a newspaper allowing more space for coverage of certain kinds of issues -- the issues related to the award.

Awards are a morale booster besides being inspirational to other journalists who don't want to do 'McJournalism' all the time. In my case, awards have literally funded my work. For instance, my next project involves the purchase of a high-quality video camera. This is what I intend to use the Boerma money for. My project is on the last surviving freedom fighters of India, most of them in their 80s, people who fought for independence from British rule. They set the values of the Indian press, and they gained nothing personally from their heroism. The idea is that generations from now, kids should still be able to see and hear these people, know the values they stood for, their selflessness and their sacrifice.

Journalism was once considered a noble profession, but it has fallen out of favour. What happened?

I think it was writer Alex Carey who said, There were three great developments in the 20th century: The growth of democracy. The growth of corporate power. And the growth of corporate propaganda to help corporate power halt the growth of democracy. Corporate monopolies are the enemy of democracy, free expression and of human well-being.

The tiny Indian press of the 1890s shook the British raj enough to have the colonial power send down a special correspondent from Reuters to 'Counter the noisy riff raff of the nationalist press' during the famines of that period. Imagine, how low literacy rates were in that era, how tiny the press was! Yet a miniscule fragment of a press could serve so wide and great a social function as the freedom of hundreds of millions.

There's the paradox. Today a gigantic press of far greater reach serves a much smaller and narrower social function. The dominant feature of the media scene is the growing disconnect between mass media and mass reality. The duty of the journalist is to overturn that paradox and help bring about an informed state among people. That happens by showing up the contradictions. By not merely speaking the truth to power, but by speaking the truth about power. And by challenging unjust power itself, if need be.

Around 5 000 people died in the attacks on the United States on September 11, and their deaths have dominated the news since then. Yet thousands more die each day of diseases like diarrhoea and tuberculosis, and nothing is written about them. What does this say about the media?

Even within disasters there are class rankings. The very same forces that dominate the global media and economy are those that have imposed devastating structural adjustment programmes on poor nations. These programmes have wrecked, among many other things, their health sectors and left them at the mercy of profiteering corporations. TB and diarrhoea are important to the extent you can profit from them. And if you're doing that you're not going to encourage media scrutiny of those processes. You cover them in ways that depoliticize the issues or that blame the victim.

Can new technologies play an important role in fighting poverty?

Thinking the world can be set right with techno-fix solutions is being wishful. Technology can be a powerful tool for change but it can also be a powerful tool of oppression. Like journalism, it depends on who is controlling it. Technology cannot be a substitute for social policy. India, and my home state of Andhra Pradesh, boasts a superpower status in areas like software. Yet the contribution of that field to, say, the millions of poor dependent on fishing in Andhra Pradesh is virtually nil.

About the Internet itself, I confess to being fascinated by it. Denying its potential would be stupid. But so would denying the potential of having every child in the world taught to read and write.

Do you think the root causes of food insecurity in India can be changed?

Absolutely they can be changed.

Who are the Indian poor? Forty per cent are landless agricultural labourers. Forty-five per cent are small or marginal farmers. Thus for 85 per cent, the problem is linked directly to land. Another 7.5 per cent of the poor are rural artisans. And the rest, including the urban poor, make up the 'Others'. These poor Indians are mostly concentrated in seven or eight major states. The largest numbers of those landless labourers are women. The dalits, the adivasis (tribes or indigenous peoples) and some lower caste groups are disproportionately represented in the numbers of poor in India. So poverty has a class face, but also a gender face, a regional and a caste face.

There's no solution to the problem of food insecurity without a more equitable distribution of resources. And you're going to have to start with land and with the abolition of semi-feudal relations in land. But land reform is not merely about land redistribution. It's about democratizing relations in the countryside as well.

Do you think your writing will change attitudes towards poverty at the highest levels of government?

I try to connect with readers rather than governments, people rather than power. I believe that top-level policies of government are more apt to change when democratic pressures build from below. This becomes terribly complex, however, when the world is run not by elected officials but by the markets -- unaccountable, non-representative institutions controlled by unelected bureaucrats representing the interests of huge corporations that are often more powerful than some nation states.

6 November 2001


Listen to an audio clip from an interview with Indian journalist Palagummi Sainath on his perception of development (1min59sec). In Realaudio (129Kb) or Mp3 (924Kb)

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