Everyday Lives of Everyday People: the P. Sainath lecture


As part of its annual Academic Conference, the department of Humanities and Social Sciences organised a pre-conference lecture on the 19th of January, by P. Sainath, the eminent journalist whose chronicles of rural India have won him critical acclaim across the globe. This year, the theme of the conference, to be held between February 6th and 8th, is “On Migration” — according to the website, “…migration does not only refer to physical displacement but is inherently related to questions of identity and values – both native and adopted. Its impacts are not limited to the individual or the local but transgress transnational and global borders, overcoming geographical boundaries on the surface but also economic, linguistic and cultural differentiation.” The papers presented at the conference will present different theoretical perspectives, from the fields of Economics, English Studies and Development Studies.

The previous week being full of successful EMLs and an institute-wide internet outage, CLT was full before the lecture began — people arrived in good numbers, either prompted by the above reasons or drawn by Sainath’s reputation in the media. The lecture was titled “Everyday Lives of Everyday People: Journalism From Below in a Digital Age”, and its primary focus was the increasing rural migration of largely agricultural labourers to urban centres, in search of better-paying jobs.

IMG_6905The effects of globalisation on the urban centres of India have been documented and analysed often, but its insidious link to rural poverty, and the lives of people in villages across India hasn’t received similar attention. As has been the case in the decades before economic liberalisation, inequalities in the quality of life of urban and rural populations are stark, but mainstream media still displays a breathtaking ignorance of this state of affairs, as it largely caters to a class of people (those in the ‘middle’) who are English-speaking, have disposable incomes, and are unbeatably aspirational — for more wealth, and greater social standing. Sainath’s crowdsourced website, the People’s Archive of Rural India (Pari) is a visual archive of life in India’s villages, where most of the country’s population live.

According to the National Sample Survey (NSS), the average farming family (agriculture is still the primary occupation in rural India) earns a total Rs. 6426 a month, from all its working sources (the average strength of such a family is 4.9 members). More than 50% are in debt, a figure Sainath called a ‘complete joke’, as it implies the other half is not, which is not the case. NSS records only institutional debt, and hence informal debt — money borrowed from village lenders and other private sources — goes under its radar. Farmer suicide rates are high — and this might be data that the government no longer records. Previously, when attempting suicide was a crime, the National Crime Records Bureau had an annual record of suicide statistics in the country, but it is uncertain whether they will continue to do so now that suicide has been decriminalised.

The 2011 Census has recorded a staggering drop in the number of full-time and main cultivators, and the picture becomes clearer when the focus moves to the number of agricultural labourers (landless workers), which has shot up. Others have moved to cities and towns in the last decade. For the first time since Independence, the Census reported that the urban centres of India collectively added more people to its population than the rural ones. Migration to urban areas, in search of jobs which pay, and jobs which are secure and to escape restrictive caste structures has increased over the past decade.


Sainath pointed out the unbelievable diversity in rural India — 830 million of out nearly 1.5 billion people live in villages, and they speak about 730 languages currently. Rural India is also witness to ‘unrivaled occupational diversity’ — people usually work at 3-4 different jobs, ranging from manual scavenging, toddy-tapping to domestic labour. Although their lives might not seem very different from those of their grandparents six decades back, Sainath points out that globalisation and economic reforms of the last twenty years has wrought great change in these places. He cited the example of Kancheepuram silk weavers from Tamil Nadu, who work now from China, producing the same designs at cheaper rates. Children from the Edamalakudy village in Kerala, a place deeply isolated from the surrounding towns, endearingly sing ‘I love potato’, even though there is no potato in their traditional diet, or any cultivated close to the village. The irony of India is that amidst that such mind-boggling variety (‘a continent within a sub-continent’), regressive elements sometimes get stronger, and the number of Khap Panchayats increase, while that of traditional weavers comes down. Most of the talk was spent looking at the various projects undertaken by Pari, which include a face-book of sorts — which has several images of people from all over India, a visual record of the racial diversity of the country — and videos of labourers and school-children — all plainly meant to promote contributions to the site. The lecture was an eye-opener to the complexity and variety of rural India, which is often dismissed as an unproblematic monolith in public and policy discourse.

Photo credits: Rahul Nath

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