A farmers’ bugbear trumps a farmers’ bandhu

ASHWINI A. writes from Bangalore: Artists and artistes have angled for it; bureaucrats have gone on bended knees for it; industrialists have moved mountains for it. Lobbying, self-promotion, chamchagiri, proximity, friendship, favouritism, nepotism, caste, region, religion, language—everything counts in the Great Padma Race.

Sometimes, when none of that works, the truly deserving get it.

So, let’s not bury ourselves in the burroughs of our mind pretending that the Congress-led UPA government has done something new or unheard of. If, for all its sanctimony, the BJP-led NDA government of Atal Behari Vajpayee could hand it to the surgeon who operated on his knee, it shows that there are no angels in the nanga hamaam.

Still, a nation subliminally reveals itself in the kind of people it chooses to drape the tricolour around. And, in the process, a government reveals how its mind works in the way it goes about it.

So, whilst we may blow hot air over whether N.R. Narayana Murthy should have been chosen for the Padma Vibhushan the same calendar year he “insulted” the national anthem, and whether a one-hit wonder like Manoj Night Shyamalan should have got the Padma Shri, there is one unmissable irony in the UPA list.

And it is this: P. Sainath, the pioneering journalist who implanted the plight of our farmers on the national consciousness, has been ignored. And K.V. Kamath, whose ICICI Bank has played a stellar in the deaths of so many debt-ridden farmers, has been recognised with a Padma Bhushan.

No to Sainath, yes to Kamath: how’s that for a cocktail coalition that came to power on the aam admi‘s shoulders and is forever announcing farmers’ packages!?

As it is, the omission of a journalism giant like Sainath from the honours’ list is surprising when relative gnomes in the profession like Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt are on it. It reveals the kind of visibility that the mandarins of New Delhi prefer, despite all the pre-poll rhetoric about “reforms with a human face”.

But even if that can be explained as a savvy, politically correct move to give television its due with elections around the corner, it is the Sainath-Kamath disconnect that is the more striking.

True, Kamath has been a visionary banker, who in the space of a decade has created a global giant that is snapping at the heels of State Bank of India. But what is ICICI Bank’s record and reputation despite all its growth and profits? It is the byword for banking thuggery and each day it sets ever lower standards.

It hires goondas and criminals to recover money from loan defaulters. It employs thugs to flex their muscle and take away cars at traffic signals if they miss an EMI. Its foul-mouthed “executives” call customers in the middle of the night and mouth obscenities to housewives to break them down.

Government workers with a Rs 15,000 loan have died, unable to bear the physical torture. And dozens of debt-ridden farmers have eaten pesticides, unable to bear the humiliation. No single bank has prompted the Supreme Court and Reserve Bank of India more in issuing fresh guidelines than Kamath’s ICICI.

For this, we decorate him with the Padma Bhushan?

Is this the Manmohan Singh government’s way of running with the farming hares and hunting with the banking hounds?

In the opposite corner is Palagummi Sainath, whose reports in the last decade and a half on the plight of farmers and the myriad issues confronting the farming community, post-liberalisation, have shamed governments, exposed the bureaucracy, and stirred the conscience of the public.

A man whom Amartya Sen describes as “one of the world’s greatest experts on famine and hunger.”

In 2006, when Manmohan Singh was going to Vidarbha to announce a package for India’s worst-affected farming belt, he invited not his agriculture minister or some IAS officer but Sainath to brief him. Yet, when it comes to a civilian honour, a bugbear of farmers gets the nod over the benefactor of farmers.

Maybe, Sainath was asked, but he said no.

Maybe, but how likely considering that he has had no qualms in receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award among several others?

Still, a civilian honour for a CEO whose bank has institutionalised criminal ways for loan recovery reveals more than a little on how the “system” works. And the lack of civilian recognition for a missionary journalist, whom the world honours, for writing about the trials, troubles and tribulations of those who feed us, tells its own story.

But, maybe it’s a good thing Sainath is not on the list.

On a list dotted with bold-face corporate names like Ratan Tata and Lakshmi Mittal, Suresh Neotia (Gujarat Ambuja) and Shiv Nadar (HCL), Baba Kalyani (Bharat Forge) and Vikram Pandit (Citigroup), Amit Mitra (FICCI) and Colette Mathur (World Economic Forum), Sainath would have looked very odd indeed.

Maybe. But how likely?

Photographs: courtesy The Hindu (Kamath); Sadanand Menon (Sainath)

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