P. Sainath has been a reporter, editor and columnist for the Hindu for quite a while now. I greatly admire him and the Hindu for relentlessly keeping the issues of poverty and inequality centrestage. In an era when all the media go gaga over the 'India Shining' mantra, it is indeed praiseworthy that Sainath has carved out niche for himself in the unfashionable areas of poverty and related issues. Also praiseworthy is the support provided by the Hindu to him and several others.
Let's take, for example, his latest op-ed column in the Hindu. It lays out several key problems faced by the rural folks, together with statistics. It is clear that he has done his homework, and much of the anecdotes he recounts are from his own reports from the affected villages (his recent series of reports has been from Vidarbha region in Maharashtra). Let's look at some excerpts:
... [H]ave a look at the news from the nation's farm households. There are millions of those .... The average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of farm households across India was Rs.503 in 2003. That is just about Rs.75 above the rural poverty line. And it is an average across regions and classes and income groups. So even this dismal figure hides huge inequities.
The dry facts and figures follow, one after another, forming a deluge that is relentless and depressing. And, I have no doubt that Sainath is telling it like it is: what he has seen in villages must gel with these figures.
But -- you knew there would be a 'but', didn't you? -- I still find two things that are missing here. The first one that is missing is a viable way forward. He does propose one possible way in his latest column, but it has no substance. Let me explain what I mean:
He starts his column with some statistics from Business Standard about how India now has 311 billionairs (probably rupee billionaires -- worth 100 crore rupees) and their collective net worth is about 3.64 trillion rupees (364,000 crores or about 70 billion dollars). He then goes on to suggest ways of tapping this huge wealth for running, for example, the rural employment guarantee progrram.
Where is the problem? It lies in what Sainath himself recognizes; he notes that 'the collective net worth of this [billionaire] Club was computed by Business Standard on "the basis of average market prices for promoters' stocks in August 2005."' In other words, this money is not some free cash available for tapping; instead, it is tied up in investment in companies. Saying one can tap this wealth is like saying we can tap the wealth that the government of India possesses when, in reality, this 'wealth' is in the form of land, forests, and the like.
It would really be great if Sainath thinks through these issues, before dropping these jarring 'solutions' that damage his credibility. Remember, this criticism of lack of substance would not arise if he suggests a straight forward appropriation of a part of the wealth by the government (for example through a small wealth tax) -- it would be raise an outcry (and I may also join in this outcry!), but it won't be about lack of substance!
The second thing missing in this column is the lack of a positive agenda, some program that
- has been formulated and implemented in some other part of the country (Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura come to mind. I wonder why!), and
- has produced some desirable result in terms of reducing poverty, or reducing household debt in rural India, or whatever.
In the absence of such a positive agenda, the problems end up appearing too large to be solved. Inspiring outrage is one thing, and Sainath does it very well. When he does it repetitively, it does end up producing something that I am sure he would not want : a feeling of helplessness.