[4 August 2007]
Indian journalist Palagummi Sainath has won the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay award for journalism. The awards were established in 1957 to honor the third Philippine president, and are described as the “Nobel Prize of Asia.” Recognition, honor and respect are at the heart of everything Sainath does. He’s the rural affairs editor of national newspaper, The Hindu, and is its Mumbai bureau chief. He’s famed for bearing witness to the plight of India’s poor farmers, his sharp and insistent reporting giving a voice and identity to people who are usually only anonymously grouped together as statistics.
There have been around 11,500 farmer suicides in the last six years. Sainath writes movingly of the world of these farmers in a story from September of last year:
“Something very fundamental is happening. The central, driving factors behind the suicides remain the same. Rising debt, soaring input costs, plummeting output prices, a credit crunch and so on. But the outcome now adds up to more than just the sum total of these factors. After 15 years of a battering from hostile policies and governments, the world of the peasant has turned highly fragile. Problems that would not have driven many to suicide a decade ago do so now. It takes less to push farmers over the edge because their resistance is down. So fragile is their economy and equilibrium. The studies and surveys seldom account for one vital actor — the worldview of peasants. How that is changing as their links to the land erode. How their hopes of what’s possible are constantly dashed. How, losing their anchor, they drift to a frightening future. How it feels to watch your child drop out of school or college because education has become too expensive. Even as your daughter’s marriage is off, because you cannot afford it. You fail to get your ailing mother to a hospital because health is the most costly thing in your world. All this while agriculture itself is tanking. And there’s less food on the table. For too many, pessimism soaks the worldview this shapes. And despair gains ground as the coming deity.”
But he also reports on those who prepare reports on the farmers, and in the same story writes of a study carried out in the Vidarbha region.
“Teams of psychologists, revenue officials and doctors went out to Vidarbha’s villages from as early as 2004. To counsel the poor, disturbed souls. In one village, an old farmer greatly embarrassed such a team: “You’ve given us fine advice on so many things. On coping with stress, curbing our drinking, not fighting with our wives and so on. And you’ve asked us so many good questions, too. Now ask us one more. Ask us why farmers, who produce the nation’s food, are starving. Ask us why the children of those who grow your food, are starving.” The team remained silent. Some of the learned - and well-meaning - team members had been to great medical colleges. And one of the first principles they learned there is sound. “What the mind does not know, the eye cannot observe.” Very true. But the old farmer was posing a larger point before society as a whole, not just to the doctors. What the heart does not feel, the eye can never see.”