Sunday, September 14, 2008

Everybody loves a good drought – stories from India's poorest districts

There has been a recent spurt in articles (in newspapers and web sites) explaining the laxities in the definition of the poverty line in India. Eminent journalists wrote about how ineffective the definition of the line is and gave shocking numbers of the extremely poor in the country (which are much more than the numbers found in government reports). After reading these articles, I understood the numbers; the statistics that measure poverty, but never realized what it meant to live in extreme poverty. The book 'Everybody loves a good drought', a compilation of reports filed for the Times of India by P. Sainath, stands as the portal through which we could peek into the lives of the extremely poor in India.

Statistics reveal that 39.9% of the Indians live below the poverty line – that is they do not take in the 2400 or 2100 calories (for rural and urban Indians respectively). Sainath realizes that there are some other issues – government intervention, health, education, forced displacement, dependence on agriculture (of a vast majority of the poor, forcing migration during the lean season), availability of resources (water, forest land, money, alternate employment etc) – which play a significant role in keeping the poor from climbing to the lowest rung of the ladder of economic development. The sections in his book target these issues individually with stories from rural India. 

This book in a real eye-opener. Reading the sometimes touching and sometimes inspiring stories in it I realized the vastness of the problem of poverty and understood that it needs a concerted effort on all these fronts to make a change. The book transcends mere statistics to raise troubling concerns which need to be addressed. Sainath chides the media for failing in its duty to raise awareness on the range of issues. Most of the stories in his book are succeeded by a postscript, which tells us what government actions followed the publication of the story then. Some of the work done since the publication of these stories show what a dutiful media can accomplish. 

Sainath in the last few chapters provides some hope, with stories of seemingly small successes in rural India. Reading them I am reminded of what Robert Kennedy said: ' Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills – against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence'.

Read another review of the book here.