Don’t look the other way

By P Sainath

There is no such thing as an Indian reality — but there are Indian realities, in multitude, in plural. Malabar Hill and Chanakyapuri are as much a reality as Dharavi and other places. I am not here to critique your work — I don’t believe I am competent to. I am here to share as a fellow writer. Where I think we are failing as writers is in confronting these multiple realities. We are not able to look at what happens at the intersections of those realities, where all the action is happening. Whose stories do we publish? Whose stories do we try and tell? How much of a voice do we give the person — whose story it is — in the telling of the story?

There have been 13 commissions in Maharashtra on farmer suicides. This is India — you will have as many commissions on a subject until the government gets a report it wants. Yet, you don’t need them when the suicide notes of the farmers are telling you what the causes are. And the most astonishing thing about the farmer suicides in Maharashtra — and nowhere else in the world — the suicide notes are not addressed to family and loved ones. They are addressing their suicide notes to the Prime Minister, the President and the Finance Minister of India. It means that they are able to recognise what the rest of us fail to recognise: that their distress is the outcome of policy-driven processes, of human agency. The farmers who are taking their lives understand that they are victims of policy. Are we looking at policy? Are we looking at the decision that one takes that then destroys someone else’s life? When the problems of water were on in Latur, in Aurangabad, there was huge anger in the media when the high court said that IPL cannot be held in Maharashtra because it takes too much water.

There were editorials criticising the high court’s judgement. It’s absolutely, outrageously selfish.

In the same Aurangabad, that poor woman who stands in the queue — if she is a Dalit woman, even if she is first in queue, she will get her water last — she pays between 45 paisa and Re 1 for a litre of water. Do you know what 24 beer factories of Marathwada have paid for water for the last 20 years? Four paisa per litre. And they take three million litres daily (cut by half in the drought months by HC order). These are your intersections of different realities — the realities of the elite, the realities of the poor. Three million litres daily for just these guys. I am not even looking at soft drinks and the bottled water mafia.

Where are the writers? Where are the reporters? Where are the scriptwriters? Where are the intellectuals? Where are we looking? Why are we not saying that this cannot be sustained? You cannot run a society like this. The basic fabric of your society is in danger with these kinds of injustices. Most of your crises — employment, water, migration — these are driven by human agency and not natural calamity. We feel very happy covering natural calamity because we can show the anchor standing in a raincoat in Uttarakhand. You’re happier covering natural calamity because you don’t have to deal with uncomfortable questions about who was responsible for this death. You can blame it on nameless politicians instead of looking at the giant elephant in the room of our time, which, in so many cases and instances is corporate power. We are unable to look at corporate power because we are owned by corporate power. The media are owned by, subservient to corporate power.

Dealing with injustice as a subject has long been embedded in Indian cinema and writing — it’s not as if it has not been there. But I do think it is much less there in the last 20 years. It’s not as if you have no expertise over it. You have a history of 100 years of writing on those things in film. But these days we don’t want to get into it too much.

What is the income of the Indian farmer? On average, Rs 6426 is the monthly income of a farm household in this country from all sources. Of the three lakh farmers who have killed themselves in the country so far since 1995, 63,000 were from Maharashtra. And in the next few days, the new data will come for 2015. They have already started splitting up the data so that you don’t know how many farmers have committed suicide. They have introduced a category called ‘Tenant Farmers’ in the suicide data because such farmers have no written tenancy records. Since their tenancy is not recorded, they will end up being recorded as agricultural labourers and the data will also tell you that more agricultural labourers are committing suicide than farmers. They have been doing this since 2015 — and so the number of ‘farmers’ killing themselves comes down. Where are we standing up for these people? What about their realities? Seventy percent of the world’s food comes from small, and marginal family farms.

To draw this to a conclusion, also remember that the largest migrations in our history have taken place between 2001 and 2011. The urban-rural growth differential was at its highest in 30 years. Census 2011 suggests there were more people migrating and moving than in the decade after Partition. And yet there were no guns, no bulldozers, no largescale killings. We threw people off their lands. We made life unliveable for tens of millions of human beings. Where are their stories? What about those involved in the displacement battles against Posco or Vedanta? Tribes that have occupied areas for thousands of years are being thrown out of their sacred hills. Where are their stories?

Think justice. Think rights. Think human beings. Think processes. Think about the many atrocities we commit on people in everyday life. When there’s a flood or a calamity, then each one of us is very gracious and we’re very compassionate. How agonised we are over how people die, how untroubled we are by how they live.

P Sainath is a veteran journalist and author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He is the founder of The People’s Archive of Rural India (www. The above are excerpts from his keynote address at the inaugural session of the fourth Indian Screenwriters Conference, a Film Writers Association initiative. The theme for this year’s conference was “SO NEAR SO FAR: Do Our Stories Reflect India’s Reality?”

The  post originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror