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.