Journalist Speaks on Rural Inequality in India
Issue   |   Tue, 10/25/2016 - 23:44

Award-winning Indian journalist Palagummi Sainath gave a talk titled “Inequality and the Rise of Rural Distress” on Oct. 19. The event, held in Fayerweather Hall, focused on the growth of economic inequality in rural areas of India, as well as the social implications of these trends. The talk was free and open to the public.

Sainath was introduced by Professor of Political Science Amrita Basu, who mentioned Sainath’s 40 national and international awards and his professorship at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, India.

Sainath first spoke about his early work in journalism. Prior to focusing on rural inequality, Sainath worked to uncover the trend of suicides among farmers in the countryside in India. According to Sainath, over 300,000 Indian farmers died by suicide between 1995 and 2014.

During the investigation, Sainath began to note the increase in inequality throughout rural India, particularly in relation to the use of water. He discussed several examples of this unequal water distribution, showing images of the luxurious apartment buildings in Mumbai and Chennai, including one that featured personal balcony pools for each resident.

“Not very far from all these buildings are how ordinary Indians actually get their water,” said Sainath, referencing the routines of much of the rural poor, who often devote hours of their day to obtaining water from various public wells.

Sainath went on to discuss statistics on economic inequality in India. According to Sainath, the top 1 percent of Indians own 53 percent of the wealth, compared to 37 percent in the United States.

While Sainath acknowledged that India is not the most unequal country in the world and that “South Africa is far more unequal,” he said it is important to look at trends in context.

“Brazil is more unequal, [but] it has been improving its condition,” Sainath said. “In India, it is the other way around — inequality has grown. Between 2000 and 2015 … in no country in the world did inequality grow faster than it did in India.”

According to Sainath, this inequality has had far-reaching effects. For example, over 300 million Indians have been unable to seek health care due to high expenses, and the number of calories consumed by the average Indian has decreased from 40 years ago. Meanwhile, wealthy Indians are able to indulge in expensive “theme weddings” and live in gated communities.

Sainath’s talk was followed by a question and answer session, which covered topics ranging from the impact of social inequality to the policies of the Indian government. When an audience member asked why he decided to pursue journalism, Sainath pointed to his disinterest in working in academia.

“I do think my academic training as a historian made all the difference to the kind of reporter I became,” he added. “I value it.”

Both Basu and Philosophy Professor Rafeeq Hasan helped organize the event, which was sponsored by the political science and philosophy departments.

Hasan said that he found Sainath’s discussion of inequality in the real world relevant to modern American culture.
“Both the decisions our governments make about trade policies [and] the decisions we make about what to buy have huge global impact,” said Hasan. “So I thought it would be neat to have someone who’s thinking about these issues — not from a particularly abstract, philosophical sense, but from a very concrete sense.”

Basu, who specializes in the study of India, said that Sainath offered a significant perspective on India that differs from those typically presented in the United States.

“I think it’s important for students to learn about the side of India that isn’t as commonly covered in the news,” Basu said. “We hear a lot about India’s success story amidst economic growth, but not as much about the kinds of inequalities that growth has generated.”

Raina Chinitz ’20 attended the event because of her interest in “the intersectionality of different forms of inequality and injustice,” she said.

“I think it’s important to learn about struggles taking place all over the world to better understand how all of those struggles are connected with our own,” said Raina.

“It’s always empowering to be reminded that there are people working for social justice in every part of the world,” she added.