Why Indian Farmers Kill Themselves; Why Lange’s Photographs are Phony

March 25, 2005

Mumbai’s an old-style airport, unlike Hong Kong’s, which is the last word in modernity, where you can rent a cubicle, have a shower and a snooze, and fancy yourself an upscale member of the traveling classes. Here in Mumbai I meet Sainath, and off we go in a diesel Toyota taxi; I a little light-headed from all those hours in the air from San Francisco.

Sainath’s the reason why I’m in India in the first place. He’d said that if I came and gave “a couple of talks”, he’d guide me round Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and northern Kerala.

The talks turned out to be more than two, and the schedule was grueling at times, but how can one turn down such an invite like that from the man who in the estimate of many upheld the genuinely glorious traditions of Indian journalism in the years when “economic reform” burst upon India, at which point much of the Indian press began to nosedive into idiocy, mostly consisting of hero worship of India’s dot com magnates, of India’s film stars, of rich people in general.

It’s true, the Indian press, like Indian politics, is not yet entirely degraded into the lunar desert of American politics and American media, which are now not less than 85 per cent hagiography in the service of the film industry and the rich.

In India, there are left-wing parties that count for something; mass movements that politicians have to pay attention to; some newspapers and magazines with principles (though not the degraded Times of India, now a fanzine about the film stars, cricketers and the very rich). Above all there are several hundred million people, the bulk of them extremely poor, who believe in exercising the sanction of their vote and who delight in confounding the prophets and casting down the mighty. It happened last year, when – against all predictions – the fundamentalist coalition headed by the BJP was turned down and the Congress coalition, much to its surprise, trotted back into power.

The taxi lurched into Mumbai and Sainath plunged into a description of the vast city, displaying the usual pride of any local for the scale and vulgarity of his city’s civic corruption. The concrete and real estate lobby runs the place. There’s a lot of money to be made in overpasses (“flyovers”) so Mumbai roads rise and fall with dolphin-like frequency. Fifty-one per cent of the population lives on the street or in slums.

He takes me to the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, still a genuine club. It’s a nice old place looking out at the great harbor arch done by Lutyens, the Gateway of India, and a statue of Shiva. It’s the strongest whiff of Raj-dom I get in my whole trip, much to my relief. Across India I saw many less souvenirs of Empire than I’d feared I would. My room is 50 feet long, divided into a bedroom and a study area with 20-foot ceilings. The Gateway of India is right in the middle of my view. Then, joined by Priyanka, one of Sainath’s former students, a tv producer finishing up a documentary on Mumbai’s old textile mills, now being converted into modern malls, we go over to the big 5-star Taj Hotel “coffee shop”, a dignified dining room with an okay Indian buffet.

Sainath pronounces himself not hungry and then – this became fairly familiar in the next few weeks – discovered enough appetite to wolf down mountains of rice. He explains that if it wasn’t for Joe Kennedy he might not be here. Sainath’s maternal grandfather was V.V. Giri, a left Indian nationalist who became one of India’s most respected political figures. Around 1915, Giri had traveled from his home state of Andhra Pradesh to Dublin to study law.

Giri was in close touch with the men planning Dublin’s Easter rising, most notably the revolutionary socialist, James Connolly. His connections were frequent enough for him to have come under serious suspicion by the British occupiers. With the Rising temporarily crushed, all the leaders were scheduled for execution, the wounded Connolly shot in a chair. But Kennedy and other influential Irish Americans intervened to pressure the British to release Eamon De Valera and somehow Giri got spared on this Irish-American nod at the same time, though he was expelled from Ireland three months later.

March 26

Sainath and Priyanka advise me against going out this morning since it’s Holi, a day when rowdy fellows pelt you with dye and balloons filled with stones in honor of spring. I wander out at dawn and soon meet people whose faces and clothes are blotched with red and green stains. I retreat for the rest of the morning to the Club, whose guest board showed roughly a 50/50 split between Anglo and Indian names.

I prowl around the Yacht Club’s library, mostly full of light fiction, but finally come across The Indian Field Shikar Book, compiled by W.S. Burke, sixth edition, published by Thacker, Spink & Co., Calcutta and Simla, 1928. Embossed on the flyleaf is “J.N. Tata”, presumably once the owner. The Tatas are probably India’s best-known business family, now running a vast business empire, having flourished down the years from their origins as opium concessionaires, just as Jardine and Matthiessen were further east.

I turn to a chapter called “The Game Destroyers”. Burke advised that with the “marked decrease” in game in several parts of India “it has become urgently necessary for sportsmen to turn their attention to the game destroyers of India”. Conservation is the order of the day.

And what are these “natural foes”? Burke entertains no uncertainty on the matter.

“The leopard is one of the greatest foes to the preservation of deer which, largely owing to his depredations, have been almost, if not quite, exterminated in many parts of India… and of all the leopards the Ounce or Snow Leopard (Felis unca) is the most inveterate and successful destroyer of the game to be found in the higher elevations of the Himalayas”.

Below the leopard, Burke ranges the other game destroyers: wolves, wild dogs (“should be remorselessly destroyed”), civets and mongooses, martins and weasels, crows (“arrant egg thieves and chick destroyers”), owls ( “ditto”), eagles, buzzards, falcons (“usually deserving of a cartridge, though we must not forget that their partiality for rats, snakes and other small and noxious animals is a recommendation to mercy which should carry some weight”).

But clemency is not Burke’s preference. As regards all game destroyers he concludes, “it is fairly safe to adopt as our guide the Indian saying ‘paihla lat, pichi bat’, and slay first and enquire at leisure – if so inclined”.

There are many pages filled with the various hunting regulations in force across British-occupied India and also the princely dominions (“officers shooting quail in season are prohibited from shooting them over dogs as that disturbs the partridges, and other game during their breeding season”). But the basic intent of all the fierce stipulations is obviously to target with imprisonment or costly fines all local inhabitants, many of them starving as a consequence of British exactions, and thus prevent them from feeding themselves and their families by killing game or catching fish.

There is a sharp admonition against halal (“Left to themselves natives performing this rite, will usually cut an animal’s throat by slashing it from ear to ear close under the jaw, utterly ruining the head for mounting”). For snakebite Burke is a keen advocate of “Fitzsimmons’ Anti-Venomous Serum”, developed by the director of the Port Elizabeth Museum in South Africa, citing claims that this serum “has never failed”.

When I tell Sainath later about Fitzsimmon’s serum, he remarks that he’d written an article back in 2001 on a new epidemic of snakebites in rural India, courtesy of the economic “reforms”. Among the consequences of the reforms is that electric power for farmers is released at odd times, like 3 am. If the power goes on at 3am, then someone has to be out in the field to switch on the pump and monitor the flow. But this pre-dawn hour is when the snakes are out chasing rats. Snakes need water too, as do wild boars and kindred wild life. By late 2000, peasants were being bitten and gored in unprecedented numbers, and some have had to spend a fortune for treatment including the increasingly expensive serum, which guerillas in the forest like the Tamil Tigers also need in large amounts.


Sainath, full of bitter denunciations of Indian food in America, takes me off to a Mughalai restaurant. He has butter chicken. I choose mutton curry. Despite Sainath’s acrid dismissal of all Indian restaurants in the U.S. the food tastes not to different to a decent Indian meal in New York or Los Angeles, though Sainath’s butter chicken was oversalted. Indeed, with some diligence you can find passable North Indian food in a few major American cities. Southern Indian food is another matter. How I will miss southern Indian cafes and restaurants. How I will yearn for the dosais (crepes or pancakes), the idlis (steamed cakes), both made from a mix of rice grits and urad dhal fermented overnight. I will pine too for fish and shrimp curries, for oothappam (onion pancakes) and rasam (thin soups) , of which a popular one is the Tamil milagu-thannit (literally, pepper water), rendered as “mulligatawny” by the British and thickened into the brackish brown sludge served in clubs and British Railway hotels in the 1950s. By the time my trip is done I’ll have enjoyed Malabar, Chettinad, Mughalai, Gujarati, city Tamilian, Mangalorian and Goan cooking.

Sainath says he puts on two kilos every time he visits Kerala, and I can see why. I miss the thali too, a stainless steel tray about the size of a pizza platter on which the smaller bowls of vegetable curries, curds, deserts and other elements of the thali palette are set and refilled until you’re done. Why is there no southern Indian cuisine in America? After all, the motel industry may be 70 per cent run by clans from Gujarat, but there are a lot of Indians from other regions here too, including Andhra Pradesh which, says Sainath with the pride of a native son, has the fieriest food of all.

Off to Delhi. The snacks on Air India are actually proper meals. Sainath and I settle into the Indian Institute for Mass Communications, whose bathroom plumbing makes Heath Robinson look like a Bauhaus designer. Sainath says such plumbing is a noted feature of the Delhi region.

I ask Sainath how he started working in the countryside.

At the start of the 90s Sainath was in his early thirties, born in a distinguished Brahmin family, educated by the Jesuits in Madras (a city renamed Chennai five years ago), then seasoned in the radical flames of Jawahrlal Nehru university in New Delhi. By 1980, he was at United News of India, and three years later working for R.K.Karanjia, a famous journalistic figure of that era and proprietor of the muckraking weekly Blitz, which in the early 80s commanded a national circulation of 600,000 and a readership ten times larger.

Karanjia lost no time in making the teetotal and hard-working Sainath deputy chief editor. Soon Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, author of Blitz’s ”Last Page” column, which he had written for over 40 years, willed the column to Sainath, thus trumping from the grave Karanjia’s designated inheritor. Abbas, incidentally, was the author of the great novel Inquilab (Revolution), plus 72 other books, plus the scripts of many of India’s greatest movies.

A year later Sainath toured nine drought-stricken states in India, and recalls ruefully, “That’s when I learned that conventional journalism was above all about the service of power. You always give the last word to authority. I got a couple of prizes which I didn’t pick up because I was ashamed”.

Ten years later Sainath’s moment came. “The economic ‘reforms’ began. That’s when the great intellectual shift took place”. Just as in the way in which the U.S. press romped ever deeper into celebrity journalism as the war on the poor unfurled through the 80s and 90s, so too the Indian press plunged into full-tilt coverage of India’s beautiful people. “I felt that if the Indian press was covering the top 5 per cent, I should cover the bottom 5 per cent”.

He quit Blitz and in 1993 applied for a Times of India fellowship. At the interview he spoke of his plans to report from rural India – terra incognita to the national Indian press. An editor asked him, “Suppose I tell you my readers aren’t interested in this stuff”. Sainath, a feisty fellow, riposted, “When did you last meet your readers to make any such claims on their behalf?”

He got the fellowship and took to the back roads in the ten poorest districts of five states. He walked hundreds of miles. The Times had said it would carry a few pieces. He had two good editors there who supported what he was doing. In the end the paper ran 84 reports by Sainath across 18 months, many of them subsequently reprinted in his well-known collection, Everybody Loves A Good Drought. They made his journalistic name and earned him a bundle of prizes, both national and international. The prizes furnished him credibility and also money to go on freelancing.

In those days, Sainath remembers, the legitimacy of the ‘neoliberal reforms’ that plunged India’s peasantry into the inferno “was very great, like religious dogma. But I was getting 300 letters a month from people applauding and ratifying my reports as well as sending money for the people I was writing about. It was very moving. I learned that readers are far ahead of editors. I was saying that poverty is not natural, but a willed infliction. I asked, what are the survival tactics of the poor? I saw that the Indian woman eats last. She feeds her husband, her children, the parents, and then if there’s anything left she eats that. I learned how the poor lived off the forests. I did what they did. If they migrated and got up on top of a train, so did I.”

For hundreds of millions of poor Indians, the brave new world of the 90s meant globalization of prices, Indianization of incomes. “As we moved to fortify our welfare state for the wealthy, the state turned its back on the poor, investment in agriculture collapsed, and with it, countless millions of lives. As banks wound down rural credit while granting loans for buying Mercedes Benzes in the cities at the lowest imaginable interest rates, rural indebtedness soared. In the 90s, for the first time in independent India the Supreme Court pulled up several state governments over increasing hunger deaths. Welcome to the world so loved by the Friedmans – Thomas and Milton”.

From the mid-90s on, thousands of Indian farmers committed suicide, including over 5,000 in the single southern state of Andhra Pradesh. As employment crashed in the countryside to its lowest ever, distress migrations from the villages – to just about anywhere – increased in tens of millions.

Foodgrains available per Indian fell almost every year in the 90s and by 2002-03 was less than it had been at the time of the great Bengal famine of 1942-43. Even as the world hailed the Indian Tiger Economy, the country slipped to rank 127 (from 124) in the United Nations Human Development Index of 2003. It is better to be a poor person in Botswana, or even the occupied territories of Palestine, than one in India.

Few journalists write well about poor people, particularly the rural poor, who have mostly vanished from public description or discussion. Reporters tend to patronize them.

The drama is really about the journalist visiting the poor (whose categories include several hundred million Indians, ranging from destitute itinerants to small farmers crucified by debt). Interviewing the poor as they reel off numbers from the balance sheet of their misfortunes takes concentration. The devil, in recent years often meaning suicides, is in details that have to be got right: inputs per acres, sources of irrigation, market price for crops.

These numbers have to be jotted down in the fields, often in temperatures upward of 110F, and even 118F (47.7C) in the fields, at which point all electronic equipment gives up.

It’s necessary to keep good records. When we visited the family of a dalit (i.e., an untouchable), Sainath gave me the standard form he has designed and fills out for the 300 or so families he’s personally visited after a suicide. Name: T.T. Johny, aged 43. Date of suicide: July 9, 2004. Debt: 60,000 rupees. (Exchange rates: in March and April of 2005: $1 U.S. traded for about 42 rupees. In the Mumbai slums a bucket of water sells for 5 rupees, about 12 cents. 1000 rupees exchange for about $24. So T.T. Johny’s debt was c. $1,430.)

Family members: one wife, one daughter. Land: one acre. Cattle: none. Crop seed changes.., Sources of credit… Source of irrigation: no well. Input per acre…

Sainath respects the people he writes about. On first encounter, he makes a point of drinking the glass of water they put in front of him, no matter how cloudy or suspect in origin. He cares about them, stays in touch with them, tries to get them money. He doesn’t see poverty as a “condition”, but as the consequence of decisions by people, businessmen, politicians, World Bank officials, economists ensconced in some distant Institute for Development Studies. He sees poor people as intelligent actors, well aware of the instigators of their misery, marshalling their tiny resources in the daily search for work and food.

Nothing could be further from Oxfam portfolios than Sainath’s photographs of his subjects in the Indian countryside, which he recently took with him on a speaking tour in the U.S. and which he is preparing for displays across India. These photographs don’t have the slightly stagy drama of, say, a portfolio from Salgado, but they have twenty times more insight and respect. Rural work is hard to photograph. Take California. Have you ever seen a good photograph of a celery cutter in the Pajaro Valley, or a limonero on his ladder picking lemons around Santa Paula near Oxnard, or a palmero, a date picker, near the Salton Sea?

The American documentarists of the 30s opted for cartoon stereotypes, preferring the easier and less seditious task of presenting migrants as inert victims. You can see from her contact sheet that Dorothea Lange chose the most beaten-down image of the famous migrant mother. It was Lange, so the contact sheets show, who herded children around the woman (actually 100 per cent Cherokee) to make it look as though she was burdened with a vast brood and who passed over more animated images of the same woman.

Sainath’s subjects always look alive and even cheerful. They are still significant actors in the larger political drama being fought out in India today. In the U.S. most of the Farm Security Administration’s photographers of the 1930s preferred despondency to defiance. Were there no Okie camps with laughing children? Of course there were, but Walker Evans didn’t circle those images on his contact sheets, though I’m told the Farm Security Administration has a bunch of color photos of migrants on file it would be worth inspecting.

March 27

Off to Agra (250km) and the early palaces and mausoleums of the Mughals. We hurtle along in a small Tata car, with Sainath’s friend JP, Jayaprakash, and a driver. Rural roadside Indian flashes by. The north Indian landscape here is flat, with wheat sheaves stacked. Everything looks half built and half ruined. Vespas and small motorbikes carry the male driver, with a woman and one child pillion. There’s often another child up front on the handlebars. The saris are like glorious butterflies everywhere one looks. On we go towards Fatehpur Sikri along the narrow road carrying buses and all bound for India’s premier tourist attraction.

We get a flat and while we’re getting it fixed by a fellow with a compressor at the side of the road, there’s a crash as a 2000 Ambassador (India’s warhorse diesel sedan, looking a bit like a 54 Pontiac) tries and fails to squeeze through two tractors. We see it forty yards down the road with its side bashed in. It’s the only metal carcass I see, which is astounding because Indian driving is entirely terrifying, and I have strong nerves in this department. I have a photograph of our car overtaking a bus in the narrow main street of a small town, and ahead of us, rapidly approaching, another car, overtaking a truck. This is standard.

Akbar’s Fatehpur palace is a marvel in sandstone, like a Utah landscape conjured into sixteenth-century Mughal architecture, robust, imperial, yet delicate. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful palace complexes I have seen, without the endless dreary frontages of Vienna or Versailles, with graceful little temples and pools and then vast colonnades, with parasol-like pavilion roofs lightening the rooflines.

Off to Agra town for lunch before our visit to the Taj Mahal. We go to a vegetarian restaurant, thali-style. Sainath spots a publisher looking patriarchal with his family. He wrote a style book. I hope he defended the semi-colon and other cherished values of an age now gone.

Over lunch we start talking about the whole acrid debate about the consequences of British rule. Sainath cites the Madras-based economist C.T. Kurien (in Global Capitalism and the Indian Economy, 1994) on one consequence of the American Civil War. Later I look it up in Sainath’s copy.

“The rapidly growing cotton textile industry of Britain had initially depended upon raw cotton from its colonies in America, but after these colonies declared themselves to be the United States of America, British industry lost the power to get cotton on its terms. Subsequently, the Civil War in the United States resulted in a sudden interruption in the supply of cotton to Britain and a frantic search started for an alternative and more dependable source. Demand for cotton from India suddenly shot up; the export of cotton from India to Britain increased from around 500,000 bales in 1859 to close to 1,400,000 bales in 1864. From then on the commercialization of agriculture continued to gain momentum: between the last decade of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth, when food production in India declined by 7 per cent, production of commercial crops increased by 85 per cent. There was, consequently, some increase in overall agricultural production, but a growing population could not use the commercial crops as food. Widespread and recurring famines became a regular feature during this period. However, those who had the land and other facilities to take advantage of the demand for commercial crops must have become much wealthier. Capitalism was performing its role of enriching some and impoverishing many”.

In other words, the Civil War helped install recurring starvation on the Indian calendar.



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.