“Malaria for All by 2000”

Everybody Loves a Good Drought
by P. Sainath
Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 1996
ISBN 0 14 25984 8

In the early 1980s, villagers in Naupada district in India´s eastern Orissa state became the subject of one of the most farcical developmental experiments ever. The poorest residents of the district were given "miracle cows", which were to be inseminated with Jersey semen to ensure a high milk yield. To ensure that the wondrous beasts did not ruin the experiment by mating with local studs, all the region´s sturdy Khariar bulls were castrated. And to make sure that the hybrids were well fed, other poor villagers were given plots of land, not to grow food for themselves but to raise subabul trees for fodder. The bureaucrats congratulated themselves at the genius of this perfect anti-poverty programme.

Two years and two million rupees later, eight weak calves were born. Most of them died soon after. The survivors did not produce any milk at all. The Khariar cattle, which produced between four and five litres of milk a day, have all but become extinct. Though subabul saplings were planted by the thousand, few survived. So the district administration took the land back from the programme´s ´beneficiaries´. Naupada is still among the ten poorest districts in India.

This is just one among the dozens of anecdotes that P. Sainath employs in Everybody Loves a Good Drought to demonstrate the tragic comedy of India´s developmental process.

Mr Sainath´s book is a landmark in Indian journalism. Combining sole-burning fieldwork with incisive theoretical insights, the author tells the story of the 312 million forgotten Indians who live below the poverty line. Without resorting to rhetoric, he forces us to reconsider the economic model we have adopted. The book goes behind the statistics to learn and reveal how real people have been affected by the plans that bureaucrats insist will improve their lives.

As he travels more than 80,000 kilometres through seven Indian states Mr Sainath discovers what the poor do to earn a living over the 200 days during which there is no agriculture to practise. Some of the survival strategies are astounding.

In Bihar´s Godda district, Mr Sainath meets with Kishan Yadav, who, like the heads of 3,000 other families, marches 40 km and 60 km with 250 kg of coal tied to his bicycle handlebars. This to earn INR 10 a day, less than a third of the state´s minimum wage. In Ramnad, he encounters 27-year-old Ratnapandi, who earns between five and eight rupees a day as a toddy-tapper, climbing 50 trees – the equivalent of doing a 250-floor building – during his 16-hour workday.

Teesra Fasl
Before he bagged a Times of India Fellowship in 1993, which is what allowed him to pursue his interest in human development of which the result is this book, Mr Sainath worked in the United News of India (UNI). He later joined on the Bombay-based Blitz weekly. His book has won him 13 awards, including the European Commission´s Lorenzo Natali journalism prize. He contributes to the Calcutta Telegraph, Frontline and Business Line, in addition to lecturing on social communications media at Bombay´s Sophia Polytechnic.

The author´s journalistic and academic background are brought into good use in the book. As we travel with Mr Sainath, we come to realise that India´s health and education umbrella offers so little protection as to be almost useless to the people who need it the most. Only 70 of every 100 Indians of school-going age actually enrol in Class I, writes Mr Sainath. Half of these drop out before they complete primary school. Not even five finish high school. Those who do stick through school have a tough time getting to class: though India´s National Council of Education Research and Training boasts that 85 percent of the students have to walk less than three km to reach the institution, Mr Sainath points out that this is often over harsh terrain.

As the book emphasises, child labour would be hit hard if education were both free and compulsory up to the end of the secondary level. Yet, India continues to subsidise higher education at the cost of basic literacy, stunting the country´s basic economic capabilities.

The country´s public health system is just as flaw-ridden. India spends approximately 1.3 percent of its GDP on health, compared to Nicaragua´s 6.7 percent, Brazil´s 2.8 per cent and China´s 2.1 percent. With the market ´reforms´ of 1992 and the drive towards privatisation, public spending on health has decreased further still. This, Mr Sainath proves, has already led to disaster. In the 1992-93 budget, funds for the National Malaria Eradication Programme were cut by 43 percent. Since then, the incidence of malaria has rocketed countrywide. The funding cuts and medicine shortages, one Orissa-based doctor told the author, would lead not to health, but "Malaria for all by 2000."

Development projects like big dams, canals, thermal plants and defence installations have resulted in the eviction of 18 million Indians – more than the population of Australia – from their homes. Rehabilitation is most often cursory and the ´beneficiaries´ of the projects find themselves dispossessed of their cultures, facing unemployment and discrimination.

Mr Sainath does not romanticise the poor. He knows that they have the same imperfections as those who are better off. But as he reveals in the essay from which the book takes its name, poverty is a business from which enormous profits can be made. While drought is among the more serious problems India faces, he says drought relief is, beyond question, rural India´s biggest growth industry. This is why some villagers call drought relief the teesra fasl, the third crop.

Most drought relief goes to private contractors to build roads, dig wells and send out water tankers. In 1994-95, the western state of Maharashtra spent INR 1.17 billion (approximately USD 325 million) on drought relief, which was more than the combined profits the previous year of India´s cement, automobile, tea and coffee companies. Yet, this money has done little to make life better for Maharashtra´s citizens.

A Book for Us
Mr Sainath did the bulk of the reporting for his book in 1993. The project, he says, had long occupied his attention, but, till the Times Fellowship came along, few newspapers believed that poverty was a subject that would grip the attention of readers. The book, which sold out within 15 days of hitting the shelves in India, shows how far off the mark the editors were.

It is easy to see why Mr Sainath´s work has become such a phenomenon. It is passionate without being shrill. It tells complex stories without confusing the reader. It reveals the big picture without ever losing sight of the millions of individual Indians for whom developmental decisions are made in New Delhi and New York, Rio de Janeiro and Geneva.

Most significantly, Mr Sainath has resisted the temptation to explain Indian poverty to Western readers. In his book, he is firmly addressing his fellow South Asians. Everybody Loves a Good Drought has only a sketchy glossary and makes allusion to situations that – while they have great resonance to people in the Subcontinent – few Europeans or Americans would understand right off. Far from being a weakness, this gives the work a sophistication and depth that would have been lost should Mr Sainath have paused to clarify every little detail to the Western reader.

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