‘Suicide was an act of violence turned inwards’ – P. Sainath, at Stanford University

‘Suicide was an act of violence turned inwards’ – P. Sainath, at Stanford University

On a spring night in mid-April, riveting images of India’s obscenely rich and desperately poor flashed on a screen at a packed hall in Stanford University as P Sainath, India’s foremost rural affairs journalist deconstructed inequality in India with jaw-dropping statistics on how Indian billionaires suck the country’s wealth from its poor.

Sainath spoke of how Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, had possibly more wealth than 400 million Indians put together. In 75% of households in rural India, the main breadwinner takes home less than Rs 5000 a month. Meanwhile, Sainath points to present definitions of poverty in India that require one to be at the doorstep of starvation and death.

Amid photos of luxury high-rises with swimming pools on each floor, Sainath’s photography documented the depths of the water crisis playing out across India.

The audience at Stanford was riveted by a picture of an old Dalit woman waiting in queue for water. No matter what her number is in the queue for water, a Dalit woman’s pots are routinely pushed to the back of the line, said Sainath.

While glossy coverage of the India growth story continues to dominate mainstream discourse on India, Sainath points to the manner in which the country’s humongous water crisis remains hidden from view, with newspaper headlines that talk of ‘nature’s fury’ and ‘nature’s cruelty’, blaming meteorological conditions and not resource mismanagement for drought.

Sainath paints a grim picture of agrarian distress, as he culls out the story of farm suicides from national data that attempts to conceal them. For instance, women rarely make it to India’s farm suicide data as they are not considered farmers. After all, the land is rarely in their name.

While many wonder why India’s poor haven’t revolted against the injustice they face, or resorted to greater levels of violence, Sainath says that suicide is a form of protest. Every farm widow that Sainath has interviewed was angry with her husband for committing suicide. “Why did he do this to me,” was a common refrain. Suicide, said Sainath, was an act of violence turned inwards.

Sainath had a word of caution for do-gooders who land up in rural India, feel terrible sorry for farm widows and try and help them without understanding the social context in which they exist. “For heaven’s sake, don’t hand the woman wads of cash. It will immediately be taken from her by others in the village,” said Sainath, who, alongside others in the field, has worked out ways in which money can be given to farm widows, including setting up a bank account outside her village, so that those who know her don’t see her withdrawing cash.

While Sainath’s talk began at 7 pm, he was answering questions from the audience well past 9 pm. The audience comprised largely of students, academicians and development professionals. Former Indian Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju was conspicuous in the front row.

Not only did Sainath’s talk inspire those who were present for it, but also those who heard of the talk from their friends. A Parsi woman recovering from a kidney transplant in Mumbai, heard of Sainath’s talk from her cousin in the audience at Stanford and immediately asked how she could join the battle against inequality in India.

A short video clip of the talk can be seen here:Courtesy Justice Katju