As Farm Protests Intensify, A Cult Book Gets Its 50th Reprint
The questions P Sainath asks his readers in ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought’ are more relevant than ever, writes Priya Ramani.
The book got its title from Ramji Lakhan, a peasant activist who told the author there was a third crop, beyond the seasonal kharif and rabi crops in India’s hinterlands. “Drought relief,” Lakhan said, was “quite a good business”. In fact it is, as the book says, rural India’s biggest growth industry.
It seems apt that P Sainath’s Everybody Loves A Good Drought goes into its 50th reprint at a time when Indian farmers have united for the world’s largest protest.
Nearly 25 years after its publication, the questions Sainath asked his readers are more relevant than ever:
“I never set out to write a book,” Sainath tells me in a phone conversation. “It took a life of its own and it sold and sold and sold.”
It was an immediate bestseller and has since been translated into 11 languages. The Statesman newspaper said it should be compulsory reading at all government training institutes. The book is, in fact, prescribed at over 100 universities and colleges, and continues to be a favourite with journalism students.
As a reporter, Sainath wanted to understand the survival strategies of India’s poor, especially during the non-agricultural season. One main strategy, of course, was migration. For decades now, Sainath has earmarked 40 days every year to travel on India’s busiest migrant routes, such as the one from Telangana’s Mahbubnagar to Mumbai.
“My first encounter with the Bihari deadpan humour of migrant workers was at Daltonganj station (now in Jharkhand),” he says. He was travelling with workers headed to Punjab and found himself standing in a queue of one, waiting patiently for the ticket reservation counter to open. What are you doing? That counter will never open, some workers told him. “Chinta mat kariye, aapko first-class AC main leke jayenge,” one of them said (Don’t worry, we’ll take you in first-class AC).
“That turned out to be the top of the train,” Sainath says. “It was terrifying. I was the entertainment.”
“To stay, travel, work with the people you write about” has always been Sainath’s approach.
Since it was launched in 2006, he has spent two days every year in the trenches of the rural work programme MGNREGA. For the 70 or so stories in the book, he travelled 1 lakh kilometres through seven states before picking mostly eight districts. He spent a month in the villages of each district.
The result is a devastating marathon through a bleak world where schools are used as cattle sheds, world-class artists are exploited by officials, and families are bonded for years because they borrowed five rupees. A spelling mistake by the state can make an entire tribe lose benefits lawfully due to them. Unequal battles are fought over water and land. According to one estimate Sainath quotes, 26 million Indians have been displaced by development projects since 1951, 40% of them adivasi.
In this world, whole communities are labelled criminal. Seeking justice is rarely an option.
Sainath wanders through doomed, isolated villages and forests of dead trees that whisper their sad histories to him. It’s eerie to read how one of India’s longest-running resistance movements on the banks of the Narmada river unfolded more than two decades ago, because you know what has happened since.
The author also uses everyday metrics to measure these hard lives. Paharia women in Bihar walk a distance equivalent to that between Delhi and Mumbai – four to five times a year. An old man in Odisha carries 20 bricks, each weighing 2.5 kg. In a day, he makes 45 trips, each a distance of 25-50 metres, between the pit and the yard in the kiln. “When the old man, with or without the aid of his family members has lifted nearly two tonnes of bricks in this manner, they earn around nine rupees,” Sainath writes.
Publisher Penguin Books won’t share sales figures and Sainath isn’t sure how many copies have been sold, but the royalty cheques keep coming. He used the money to start annual prizes for rural journalists writing in regional languages prompting a fellow journalist to quip, “I didn’t know penniless, bankrupt journalists give money to other penniless, bankrupt journalists.”
The first of these prizes in 2020, went to Dayamani Barla, a tribal journalist from Prabhat Khabar newspaper in Ranchi who ran a tea shop to survive. Barla went on to oppose the construction of an Arcelor-Mittal plant in Jharkhand that would occupy 12,000 acres of land and displace 40 villages.
These days Sainath speaks to lawyers and other legal groups about how the contentious farm laws are likely to affect “every single Indian citizen very seriously”.
As he argues in this piece in The Wire, section 13 of The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 gives sweeping immunity to anyone acting in “good faith”. “Not only can they not be taken to the courts for a crime they may have committed ‘in good faith’ – they’re protected against legal action for crimes they are yet to commit…
“Translated into English, the legal lingo of these laws also convert the (low-level) executive into a judiciary,” Sainath argues in the piece. “…It also magnifies the already most unjust imbalance of power between farmers and the giant corporations they will be dealing with.”
Sainath’s book offers a reason for why you may not already know this. When people tell Sainath the media doesn’t cover rural India, he replies: “They don’t cover urban India either”.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.