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  who's who >> Ashoka >> Palagummi Sainath


Field(s) of Work: Education Communications / Media
Target Population(s): Journalists

Journalist Palagummi Sainath is showing India's commercial media how to report accurately about "poor India" in a way that both engages its primarily urban market and informs government decision making.
The New Idea

Journalist Palagummi Sainath is showing the mainstream, commercial media how to report accurately about "poor India" by providing new tools such as accurate databases and reference points for other journalists. In getting other journalists to use his tools, he is capitalizing on the success of his well known path breaking work with the Times of India, where he reported on the lives of people from some of India's poorest districts.

In the preface to his book Everybody loves a good drought: Stories from India's poorest districts (Penguin India, 1996) he explains his reasoning for the Times articles and his vision of journalism.

"The idea was to look at those conditions in terms of processes. Too often, poverty and deprivation get covered as events. That is, when some disaster strikes, when people die. Yet, poverty is about much more than starvation deaths or near famine. It is the sum total of a multiplicity of factors. That makes covering the process more challenging and more important. Children getting less food than they need can look quite normal. Yet poor nutrition can impair both mental and physical growth and leave children to suffer it's debilitating impact all their lives. A person lacking minimal access to health at critical moments can face destruction almost as surely as one in hunger. The people who figure in this book represent a huge section of Indian society. One that is much larger than the ten percent of the population who run their lives. But a section that is beyond the margin of elite vision. And beyond the margins of a press and media that fails to connect with them."

Sainath knows from the success of the Times articles and the subsequent book that there is an audience for this type of reporting and he is now showing his fellow journalists how to reach that audience.

The Problem

The major source of news in India is the radio, which covers 89.7 percent of the population and consists of government operated stations. Television, which has witnessed an influx of private cable channels from overseas since the early 1990s, covers 56.2 percent of the population. With a high illiteracy rate of 48 percent, the print media caters mainly to the urban, educated population. There are approximately 4,000 daily newspapers, 10,000 weekly journals, 4,300 fortnightly journals and 10,000 monthly magazines in India. Since radio is controlled by the government and television programming is still in a state of flux with intense competition between state owned and private channels, the print media remains the one objective source of news, analysis and information that are vital to the functioning of a democracy.

The print media, however, consistently panders to the consumerism and lifestyles of the urban elite and rarely carries news of the reality of poverty in India. The reading public is better informed about national and international politics and business than the appalling conditions under which most Indians live. A press indifferent to their condition means that the poor are further excluded from the development and decision making process, since they receive little consultation from the bureaucracy and government structures to begin with. Sainath believes that it is the duty of the press "to signal the weakness in society", and it is a duty that the Indian press has increasingly failed to perform. It has been effective in highlighting single events such as a famine or starvation deaths, but has paid very little attention to processes such as pervasive corruption or the unsuitability of many government schemes to local conditions.

Many of India's present newspapers were conceived of during the freedom struggle against the British and had a conscious agenda of promoting social change that they scrupulously followed in spite of censorship and miniscule resources. Today, in spite of greatly increased means, the press has largely lost the values and idealism of the nationalists. The unfinished national agenda of health, education and social justice for all has remained largely untouched by the media.

The Strategy

Sainath is reforming the media's attitude towards reporting on poverty through his own work as a journalist and through the creation of more accurate sources of statistics on development.

He has demonstrated through his own writing as a journalist what he means by highlighting the processes that lead to poverty. His stories in the "Village Vox" series in the Times of India in 1993 relayed the state of agriculture, health facilities, rural credit structures, village schools and access to water in eight of the country's poorest districts to the newspaper's urban readers. The articles were based on visits of about one or two months in the villages of each district over a period of one year. He wrote mainly about the lives of migrant agricultural workers and marginal farmers who were forced to leave in search of work after the annual harvest, about 200 to 245 days in the year when they had no assured means of livelihood.

The series received an overwhelming response, not only from regular readers and the press but also from senior policy makers, analysts and state governments. His writing has provoked responses that include the revamping of the Drought Management Programs in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, development of a policy on indigenous medical systems in Malkangiri in Orissa, and revamping of the Area Development Program for tribal people in Madhya Pradesh state. The Times of India institutionalized his methods of reporting and sixty other leading newspapers initiated columns on poverty and rural development.

Especially targeting associations of journalists and journalism schools, Sanaith is systematically imparting his example to other journalists. Discovering through his proselytizing that journalists are constrained by inadequate data on poverty, he has embarked on a major project to develop a new statistical and analytical framework to inform both journalism and policy analysis with respect to poverty. His approach goes beyond the prevailing statistical methods used by the government to calculate the poverty line that are limited by certain fixed (income based) criteria, that do not fully reflect all the variables of poverty. His pilot program in the state of Tamil Nadu offers clear statistics on unemployment through independent surveys, citing its approaching catastrophic numbers. Even in its rough form, enabling policy makers to make informed decisions based on their ability to access this more accurate and reliable data. Current efforts focus on building from the survey data a refined "human poverty database" for journalists. One that can quickly and inexpensively be replicated across the sub-continent.

The Person

Over the past fifteen years, Sainath has built up an impressive record of path breaking achievements in journalism. Sainath's preoccupation with social problems and commitment to a political perspective began when he was a history student in college. He is a graduate of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi where he was part of an activist student population. His first job was with United News of India where he received the news agency's highest individual award. He then worked for Blitz, a weekly paper, first as foreign editor and then as deputy editor.

In 1992, he received a Times of India Fellowship Council award that allowed him to work on the series of articles for which he is now well known. He credits sympathetic editors at the Times with much of his success in getting the articles published in their present form. He has received several awards for his reporting including, the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting and the European Commission's Journalism Award. In 1984 he was a Distinguished International Scholar at the University of Western Ontario and in 1988 at Moscow University. Further, he has participated in many international initiatives on communications such as the second and third round table on Global Communications sponsored by the UNESCO (1990 and 1991) and in the UNHCR sponsored World Information Campaign on Human Rights (1991).