[Reader-list] P. Sainath :Where India shining meets great depression (The Hindu)

Ravi Sundaram ravis at sarai.net
Tue Apr 4 01:30:40 IST 2006

Where India shining meets great depression

P. Sainath

FARM SUICIDES in Vidharbha crossed 400 this week. 
The Sensex crossed the 11,000 mark. And Lakme 
Fashion Week issued over 500 media passes to 
journalists. All three are firsts. All happened 
the same week. And each captures in a brilliant 
if bizarre way a sense of where India's Brave New 
World is headed. A powerful measure of a massive 
disconnect. Of the gap between the haves and the 
have-mores on the one hand, and the dispossessed and desperate, on the other.

Of the three events, the suicide toll in 
Vidharbha found no mention in many newspapers and 
television channels. Even though these have 
occurred since just June 2 last year. Even though 
the most conservative figure (of Sakaal 
newspaper) places the deaths at above 372. (The 
count since 2000-01 would run to thousands.) 
Sure, there were rare exceptions in the media. 
But they were just that ­ rare. It is hard to 
describe what those fighting this incredible 
human tragedy on the ground feel about it. More 
so when faced with the silence of a national 
media given to moralising on almost everything else.

In the 13 days during which the suicide index hit 
400, 40 farmers took their own lives. The 
Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti points out that the 
suicides are now more than three a day ­ and 
mounting. These deaths are not the result of 
natural disaster, but of policies rammed through 
with heartless cynicism. They are driven by 
several factors that include debt linked to a 
credit crunch, soaring input costs, crashing 
prices, and a complete loss of hope. That loss of 
faith and the rise in the numbers of deaths has 
been sharpest since last October. That's when a 
government that came to power promising a cotton 
price of Rs.2,700 a quintal ensured it fell to 
Rs.1,700. A thousand rupees less.

When 322 of 413 suicides have occurred since just 
November 1, you'd think that is newsworthy. When 
the highest number, 77, take place in March 
alone, you'd believe the same. You'd be wrong, 
though. The Great Depression of the Indian countryside does not make news.

But the Sensex and Fashion Week do. "There is 
nothing wrong," an irate reader wrote to me, "in 
covering the Sensex or the Fashion Week." True. 
But there is something horribly wrong with our 
sense of proportion while doing so. Every pulse 
beat and flutter on the Sensex merits front-page 
treatment. Even if less than two per cent of 
Indian households have any kind of investments in 
the stock exchange here. This week's rise does 
not just mark the highest ever. It makes the lead 
story on the front page. That's because the 
"Sensex beats Dow in numbers game." The strap 
below that headline in a leading daily reads: 
"Dalal Street's 11,183 eclipses Wall Street." It's moved to 11,300 since then.

On television, even non-business channels carry 
that ticker at the right hand corner. Keeping 
viewers alert to the main chance even as they 
draw in the number of deaths in the latest bomb 
blasts. At one point, the mourning for President 
K.R. Narayanan was juxtaposed to the joys of the 
Nifty and the Sensex. The irony does get noticed but it persists.

The great news for Fashion Week lovers is that 
this year will see two of them. There's a split 
in the ranks of the Beautiful People. Which means 
we will now have 500 or more journalists covering 
two such events separately. This in a nation 
where the industry's own study put the Indian 
designer market at 0.2 per cent of the total 
apparel market. Where journalists at such shows 
each year outnumber buyers ­ often by three to one.

Contrast that with the negligible number of 
reporters sent out to cover Vidharbha in the 
depths of its great misery. At the LFW, 
journalists jostle for `exclusives' while TV 
crews shove one another around for the best 
`camera space.' In Vidharbha itself, the best 
reporters there push only the limits of their own 
sanity. Faced with dailies that kill most of 
their stories, or with channels that scorn such 
reports, they still persist. Trying desperately 
to draw the nation's attention to what is 
happening. To touch its collective conscience. So 
intense has been their tryst with misery, they 
drag themselves to cover the next household 
against the instinct to switch off. Every one of 
them knows the farm suicides are just the tip of 
the iceberg. A symptom of a much wider distress.

The papers that dislike such stories do find 
space for the poor, though. As in this 
advertisement, which strikes a new low in 
contempt for them. Two very poor women, probably 
landless workers, are chatting: "That's one 
helluva designer tan," says the first to the 
other. "Yeah," replies the other. "My skin just 
takes to the Monte Carlo sun." The copy that 
follows then mocks them. "You'll agree," it says, 
"chances that the ladies above rub shoulders with 
the glitterati of the French Riviera are, well, a 
little remote." It throws in a disclaimer, of 
course. "We don't mean to be disrespectful ... " 
But "this is a mere reminder to marketers that a 
focus on customers with stronger potential does 
help." That is an ad for the `Brand Equity,' 
supplement of a leading newspaper group.

Nearly 5,000 shanties were torn down in Mumbai in 
the same eventful week. But it drew little 
attention. Their dwellers won't make it to the 
French Riviera either. Those in media focus, 
though, might. Mumbai's planned Peddar Road 
flyover, seen by some of the metro's mega rich as 
hurting their interests, grabbed yards of 
newsprint and endless broadcast time. There was 
barely a word seen or heard from those whose 
homes were razed to the ground. Meanwhile, more 
and more people flee the countryside for urban 
India. Candidates for future demolitions. In the 
village, we demolish their lives, in the city their homes.

The smug indifference of the elite is matched by 
the governments they do not vote in, but control. 
When the National Commission for Farmers went to 
Vidharbha last October, it brought out a serious 
report and vital recommendations. Many of these 
have become demands of the farmers and their 
organisations. At its Nashik meeting in January, 
the All-India Kisan Sabha (a body with 20 million 
members) called for immediate implementation of the NCF report.

Instead, both the Centre and the State Government 
have sent more and more `commissions' to the 
region. To `study' what was well known and 
already documented. It's a kind of distress 
tourism now. It just adds the sins of `commissions' to those of omission.

Favouring corporates

The damage is not only in Vidharbha but across 
the land. Why is the Indian state doing this to 
its farmers? Isn't farming, after all, the 
biggest private sector in India? Because being 
private isn't enough. Ruthlessly, each policy, 
every budget moves us further towards a corporate 
takeover of agriculture. Large companies were 
amongst the top gainers from distress sales of 
cotton in Vidharbha this season. The small 
private owners called farmers must be sacrificed 
at the altar of big corporate profit. The 
clearest admission of this came in the 
McKinsey-authored Vision 2020 of Chandrababu 
Naidu in Andhra Pradesh. It set out the removal 
of millions of people from the land as one of its 
objectives. Successive governments at the Centre 
and in many States seem to have latched on to 
that vision with much zeal. In some ways, the 
present United Progressive Alliance takes up where Mr. Naidu left off.

Where are those being thrown off the land to go? 
To the cities and towns with their shutdown 
mills. With closed factories and very little 
employment. The great Indian miracle is based on 
near jobless growth. We are witnessing the 
biggest human displacement in our history and not 
even acknowledging it. The desperation for any 
work at all is clear in the rush for it at just 
the start of the National Rural Employment 
Guarantee Programme. Within a week of its launch, 
it saw 2.7 million applicants in just 13 
districts of Andhra Pradesh. And close to a 
million in 12 districts of Maharashtra. Note that 
the Rs.60 wage is below the minimum of several 
States. Know, too, that many in the lines of 
applicants are landed farmers. Some of them with 
six acres or more. In the Warangal district of 
Andhra Pradesh, a farmer who owned eight acres of 
paddy fields was a person of some status 10 years 
ago. Today, he or she, with a family of five, 
would be below the poverty line. (If that's the 
case with landowners, imagine the state of landless labourers.)

If the State Government's role in Vidharbha is 
sick, that of the Centre is appalling. Making sad 
noises is about as far as it will go. As the NCF 
report shows, much can be done to save hundreds 
of more lives that will surely otherwise be lost. But it avoids that path.

Its vision of farming serves corporates, not 
communities. And the media elite? Why not a 
Vidharbha week? To report the lives and deaths of 
those whose cotton creates the textiles and 
fabrics that they do cover. If just a fourth of 
the journalists sent to the Fashion Week were 
assigned to cover Vidharbha, they'd all have many more stories to tell.

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