Palagummi Sainath has been the stalwart correspondent of our times. In an era of “feel-good” journalism, the Hindu‘s rural affairs editor has an been unapologetic harbinger of drought, disease, despair and death from parts of Bharat that the Indian mass media can’t reach, won’t reach, and no longer wants to reach.
At the same time, Sainath has also been sharply critical of the mass media’s methods, priorities, skillsets and doublespeak—its disconnect from mass reality, its loss of compassion and outrage, its chase of the trivial and the frivolous that will fetch advertising lucre.
But, quod erat demonstrandum, few in the English hack-pack, have had the intellectual stamina (or editorial freedom) to attempt a counterpoint to Sainath’s blistering barbs. Is the agrarian crisis the only story the media must follow all the time? Is it so wrong to be interested in the stock markets? Is the media doing nothing right? Are reforms a bad thing merely because Sainath says so?
London-based journalist Salil Tripathi wrote a much-required piece for Mint, the business daily of the Hindustan Times last week, in which he raised precisely those questions. (Reproduced here with the author’s permission)
The foreign correspondent Edward Behr had titled one of his books Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? It pithily shows journalistic callousness, where reporters hardened by tragedy cannot respond in a humane way to a crisis. But it is one thing to be moved, quite another to be moved by the idea of being moved. And honest reporters try to avoid falling into that trap by reporting facts, letting them speak for themselves.
A journalist is supposed to be good at observing facts, reporting them accurately and objectively, and telling stories. A journalist is not a post-trauma counsellor, therapist, medical assistant, or someone who can compensate victims financially or represent them legally.
Accepting this circumscribed role requires humility: Journalists are neither qualified nor elected to play roles requiring different skills. And yet, in a scathing indictment, distinguished journalist P. Sainath has criticized his colleagues for their lack of outrage and compassion over India’s rural crisis, and for paying attention to frivolous stories, such as fashion shows.
In a recent address before the Editors’ Guild of India, the Magsaysay Award-winning journalist said the media is charmed by frivolity because of a fundamental disconnect between mass media and mass reality. The poor, he argued, are structurally shut out from the media. Corporate agendas dictate the media, and the institution has become more elitist than the other estates of democracy—the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.
To be sure, the Indian media is not infallible. But if newspapers fail to serve readers, the market will fix the problem, and more serious alternatives will emerge (as indeed they have).
By juxtaposing a fashion event with the Vidarbha farmers’ suicides, Sainath is pitting the so-called India against Bharat, or “shining” India versus “declining” India.
Far from solving any problem, it accentuates an unnecessary divide.
The tragedy of farmers’ deaths cannot be denied. But on a scale of outrage and compassion, is it the most important story of the day?
What about the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster, or the oustees of the dams on the Narmada river? Or the Sikh survivors of post-Indira Gandhi assassination massacres in 1984? Or the victims of the Gujarat pogrom, a group I feel compassion for, after the failure of Narendra Modi’s administration to protect civilians?
Who, if not the Indian media, kept those stories alive?
In any case, how sound was Sainath’s analysis of rural India and the solutions he offered? Was the narrative, in each case, one of debt-ridden farmers, driven by hunger and poverty, taking their lives? But then, in The Times of India, earlier in April, Mohammed Wajihuddin wrote of alleged murders passed off as suicides to get compensation from the state, making real the morbid fears of perverse incentives the government’s compensation package created. Economists had already pointed out potential moral hazard by loan waivers; few had predicted that the word “moral” would be in its original, and not economic, sense.
Sainath also lamented that eight million people have given up farming in the past decade, and many are looking for urban jobs “that are not there”. Really? As the informal sector of unorganized workers is far larger—and undocumented—on what basis can one conclude that there are no jobs for migrant labour in towns and cities? And what’s wrong with a few million farmers giving up farming?
Many economists have shown that Indian farm productivity is low because the land-holdings are too small, making efficient farming unviable. There are too many Indians trying to work as farmers and many would prefer to do something else. The land is not productive; agriculture’s share of India’s wealth is declining, and the sector is not growing rapidly. A transition to services or industry is a good thing.
Finally, Sainath returned to his perennial theme, rural hunger. He said that per capita availability of certain foodgrains had declined, implying that farmers committing suicide was a tragic consequence. He said, “The availability of foodgrain has fallen from 510g a day in 1991 to 422g in 2005—a fall of 88g for one billion people for 365 days a year! That means your average family is consuming 100kg less of foodgrain than it consumed a decade ago. Where is your outrage?”
My outrage is over questionable statistics. As economist Surjit Bhalla showed in response to an earlier Sainath assertion, food consumption per capita has risen. As Indians have prospered, they are eating different types of food—not coarse cereals, but fish, meat, eggs and milk. In a 2007 study in the Economic and Political Weekly, Praduman Kumar, Mruthyunjaya and Madan M. Dey concluded that food consumption in India was moving towards higher-value commodities.
Maybe those reforms are working. Anyone here with an open mind and reads English?
The tone and tenor of Salil Tripathis article and the barbs that he is hurling at Sainath are quite surprising and shocking indeed.
Is Sainath wrong in pleading for a better deal for the seventy percent of the people of the country who are poor and voiceless.? This may suit America and WEst and certainly not a country like ours.
This definitely shows a mindset which is more elite, which does not take the hard reality of the life into considerations. May the poor in the rural areas according tot hem have to right to survive in this present liberalised regime.
Indian economy, which is essentially agrarian cannot look up unless the lot of those in villages is improved and thier potentialities are properly harnessed.
What Sainath is doing to help correct the aberrations which has crept in.
The contention that the consumption in India has increased only shows that how our academics live in ivory towers and think about the toiling citizens in the comforts of the airconditioned cabins.
Re boring journalist
is hardship exclusive to rural population? talking stats is elite? no wonder you are a boring jouno. Get real, not all of rural india is suffering as people with vested interest make it out to be. Who told you Indian economy is agrarian predominant? Just to give you more info, i am a farmer based in periyapatna taluk, mysore. Counter me.
All this problem arises because of the “halo effect” attached to some of these awards given to NGOs and activists. All of a sudden what those winners say become gospel truth.
It is only when some one treats a problem as a zero sum game, it seems to get the attention. In the zero sum game, one party is victimised by the other. As in the case of framers, implied assumption is that farmers are mistraeted by the government or society at large. Some one like Sainth could have taken the appalling conditions of slum dwellers in urban areas. Their condition is no different either. They work very hard and earn megre amount. Who is responsible?
A very average article.
The claim that “But if newspapers fail to serve readers, the market will fix the problem,” is downright ludicrous. For one, the claim is not that the newspapers are failing to serve the readers, they are merely failing to serve the poor (who may not in fact be the readers). Thus, the point is that the poor are not in the market, in the main, for newspapers (or are in the market only superficially as a whole village may subscribe to one copy). Furthermore, each newspaper is pandering to the rich, english-speaking elites simply because they are the ones with purchasing-power who are more likely to buy goods advertised in the paper. That is exactly why, even though the readership of Prajavani far exceeds that of DH, advertising revenue of DH is many times that of PV. Thus, the problem is that every newspaper must serve the rich of society, pandering to their tastes in news stories which may be bollywood and fashion shows. The free market will not, and cannot correct this problem. Any newspaper who focuses too much on the poor and too little on fashion will risk losing rich readers and consequently advertising and become unviable. And this is to say nothing of the massive barriers to entry for new newspapers. His faith in the market, while touching, is totally misplaced and naive.
Second, he says, “The tragedy of farmers’ deaths cannot be denied. But on a scale of outrage and compassion, is it the most important story of the day?” and goes on to claim that the Gujrat riots, Bhopal tragedy etc may be more important. As far as I know, the claim is that the media is focusing too much on fashion and bollywood (i.e. ‘trivial’ things). Now, to make the claim that the media is doing its job by citing the fact that it has covered some mass murders in the past, is to completely miss the point. Yes, in those instances the media did its job. But it is not doing its job now of covering farmers’ suicides and is covering trivial events instead. The choice today is not between the SIkh riots and farmers suicides, the choice today is between the tragedy of today (farmers suicides) and Hritik Roshan.
Oh and finally, he doesn’t do a great job in refuting Sainath’s statistics either. While he makes the claim that people in India have merely substituted fish/meat/milk for foodgrains, he doesn’t provide any quantitative evidence that this substitution has been able to completely overcome the fall in the availability of foodgrains. Indeed, is milk even a substitute for foodgrains?? One may supplement milk to ones diet, but one doesnt substitute it in for basic necessities like foodgrains. Yes, it may well be that some amount of substitution has occurred, particularly among those who have prospered in this economy, but has that substitution been enough and has that substitution been across the board? Further, while he says that per capita food consumption has increased, this is fairly meaningless as it hides disparities in consumption which may well have increased. That is, is that because *everyone* has increased consumption evenly that per capita consumption has increased, or is it because the upper-middle class has increased consumption dramatically with the economic boom so as to increase average consumption, while consumption among the poor has stagnated or even declined? Thus, this statistic is not sufficient. Indeed, it tells us close to nothing about the food consumption of that strata of society that we are most concerned about in this context – the poor.
IMHO the ‘Real’ boring journalist is P Sainath. I only wish the politicians would start doing the honorable thing emulating the farmers after they have been exposed in corruption and other cases. As Tripathi says the ‘Market is fixing the farmer’s woes’ by driving them to suicides. As always our farmers are honorable men.
What a sham, Tripathi,
All is well and our standard of income is slowly rising. Indian agrarian economy is doing well, farmers are eating well, there is no steady migration to urban areas, and loan waivers should not be encouraged.
And this is what got my goat – the market is going to fix the problem. Yes, lets forget Subbammana tarkari angadiand and go to Reliance Fresh for our vegetables, oops… sorry, groceries.
What nonsense. Tripathi making all the wrong noises.
Boring journo and the likes,
Please stop leaving comment here. Go and live in some god-forsaken village and dedicate your life to the upliftment of poor downtrodden masses who you feel so much for. Stop being a hypocrite.
Salil Tripathi, Eight million did not give up farming, most probably as they must have become debt ridden, and not because they have all become industrialist and service people. Otherwise Otherwise India would have been in the forefront of the industrial nations. Do the present food shortage has anything to do with the farmers quitting the profession?
Food consumption has increased, but in which section of the society? Per capita calcualtions doesn’t indicate the disparity between the extreme ends of the spectrum. And that is what P. Sainath was trying to tell. the village farmers per capita consumption has fallen while in the whole country, it is on the upsurge!!!
When anyone talks about the plight of the rural poor and their plight, the ‘city intellectuals ‘ flare up. Is this forum only for the ‘city intellectual, by the city intellectuals and for the city intellectuals’?
May be the plight of the rural poor has dimmed the happiness of the ‘India Shining’ slogan raisers!
Dear BVS, just because Sainath has not taken up slum dwellers case does not make his stand for the farmers irrelevant. In numbers, the farmers far exceed the slum dwellers, right?
Gujarath, Bhopal, 1984, and slums – city dwellers and their journalists need to probe much beyond this. of course, the question is ‘why should they?’ After all these are incidents that catches their myopic eye.
IMHO P Sainath is a ‘farmer’s suicide’ ambulance chaser!!
He will gain my respect if he can show enough courage to write about the coterie of venal Kongas like Balu, Karuna, Chidu, Jyothikumaran, Mara and many more…the system is totally effed because our politicos are corrupt and they ensure that nothing reaches the poor farmer down the line.
aruna, is your livelihood dependent on your agrarian output?
Agriculture supported and still supports my family and my basic leaving. I do earn a pittance as a professional and it supports my “vice habits”.
Moral of the story is this “if you are a farmer and you are into Rum, Rummy and Ramani, you are screwed”.
Sainath is too busy xxxxxxx xxx xxxxx no, strike that out, dancing to the dictates of commie overlords to write about some real crises, such as farmers getting thrashed by commie thugs in Kerala for growing cash crops (mind you only the poor farmers in Central Kerala get thrashed not the acchaiyans in S. Kerala) the food riots in Waste Bengal etc. I have never thought much of his Magsaysay award, and would rather read Arun Shourie, another Magsaysay awardee whose learning, erudition and concern shames poverty poorism purveryor Sainath.
Arunaji, Only a real peasant could have made those comments :-)
Thank you for the various comments. A few clarifications: India is not an agrarian economy, because agriculture accounts for about a third of the gross domestic product. It is true that over 65% of Indians depend on farms and say they are farmers, but that term is very vast, and covers landowners with tractors and landless labourers. Agricultural productivity is very low in India despite heavy subsidization due to poor irrigation and an arbitrary system of allocating water rights. But that’s not the topic at discussion here; my point is to let Boring Journalist know that India is not an agrarian economy anymore; bulk of its wealth comes from industry and services, and those sectors are moving far more rapidly than has agriculture.
Regarding Mr chaitanya’s point that newspapers don’t serve the poor, my humble response is that newspapers do not have an obligation to serve the poor – or the rich – or any specific segment, except those who are willing to pay the price of the paper. Editors can choose to publish articles that they feel their readers should read, but they should respect the reader’s right, if s/he stops buying the paper and moves to another paper.
This does not drive out bad journalism: as my column shows, journalists who don’t go to Vidarbha are not going to fashion shows instead – some are covering Godhra, some Ayodhya, some Trilokpuri, some Godhra, etc. I would not accuse any journalist who covers rural India of being callous and ignoring the victims of Gujarat or Nandigram.
As regards nutrition – I am not claiming that people are moving from coarse grains to more nutritious foods. That’s the evidence in the EPW and in National Sample Surveys. Or the Statistical Survey of 2004-05, table S-17. If Sainath bases his arguments on one set of statistics, you have to consider the data that contradicts it. Otherwise it tells me more about the reader’s bias (besides Mr Sainath’s).
Gatekeeper, I don’t use Reliance Fresh, but when you buy vegetables that are stale, you can take them back to Reliance Fresh, get refund, and if necessary, can sue for compensation/medical expenses. can you do that with you corner grocer, or a no-name farmer, who stores his products in a warehouse that may not be inspected, and may not have refrigeration?
Odd-Man-Out, surveys have shown that some 40% of Indians who say they are farmers want to do pursue any other profession. The alternative is not an IT job. It could be as a sorter/packer in a supermarket chain. Yes, may not be dignified for everyone, but it will pay salary each month, and have medical and other benefits, unlike toiling on a small farm, with guaranteed employment for less than 150 days in a year, and the harvest itself a gamble with the monsoon. Please, lets not “glorify” small holdings. I am sorry you consider Gujarat and Bhopal as incidents that can only be seen by myopics. Good taste prevents me from getting personal.
Finally, Mr Sainath is an excellent reporter, and I do not, for a moment, question his dedication. I question his analysis – of the media, and of the causes and responses to the rural distress.
Thank you for your patience.
I sure cant sue my roadside vendor, and I dont want to. This may sound a little cliched, but I know my “roadside” vendor for the past 20 years and, believe me, she sells the best vegetables.
She will never sell stale vegetables in the first place. Guess why? Because my “roadside” vendor thinks it is unethical. Or like she puts it: “How can I have you eat what I cant eat myself?” She has no MBA from Wharton Business School, and uses only her common sense.
And needless to say, I enjoy an organic relationship with her. I call her amma, have attended her daughter’s wedding, and stopped by her house numerous times for coffee. And if I cant fish out a one-rupee coin when I buy a kuttu of kotambari soppu, she smiles and says I can always give it to her the next day.
The trade off with any organic relationship – much like the vegetables – is that it is less about business and more about warmth. Kindly enlighten me on where I can find such warmth at “Reliance Fresh” where the only things fresh are vegetables and the employees, who are replaced without any concern for their wellbeing. Should we squander relationships so we can save Rs 10 a week on our groceries? And what about the millions of people who live by selling vegetables by the “roadside”?
Oh, sorry, I guess the urban economy will absorb them, right? Wonder why my roadside vendor does not find a better job.
Good for you; you have such a friendly road-side vegetable-seller. I envy you. My mother, in Bombay, was not so lucky; my grandmother, in Nadiad in Gujarat, had to argue, constantly, with the corner grocer, whose cereals had little stones, and occasionally, bugs.
Can this model – of a small, roadside shop and a loyal client – really be replicated across a billion people? How sustainable is it? What happens the day the roadside vendor is sick, and can’t be at the kerbside? What if she wants to have a different future for herself and her children? What if Reliance Fresh offers the same quality, significantly cheaper? (Usually, large entities have economies of scale, and in a competitive economy, pass on the surplus to their customers; small shopkeepers cannot). Does it mean patronising road-side vendors is a privilege that only those wealthy enough to have the extra disposable income can afford? You mentioned saving Rs 10 a week – small change for you, but is it for those not so well-off? In the developed world, Reliance Fresh and its equivalent supermarkets aren’t targeted at the wealthy, but at the poor customers.
This drama gets played out day in and out in the developed world, and will do so in India, too. Yes, things change; times change; and we need to change, too. But I am really pleased you have such a wonderful organic relationship, and I do mean this sincerely. I wish everyone were as lucky!
Yes, the urban economy can absorb the millions with jobs or their own professions – or, as Madhu Kishwar’s work with road-side traders shows, if the state does not interfere with their lives, they will live. The question is about choice: you should have the freedom to go to the vendor; the vendor should have the freedom to close shop and do something else, or keep selling vegetables to you; Reliance Fresh should have the freedom to sell its products; and other customers should have the freedom to choose – between the vendor and Reliance Fresh. I thought that’s what 1947 was all about – individual freedom.
I meant, if the state leaves them alone, they will thrive (of course, they will live!)
What a classic case of recuperation. In 1968 when students erupted against the Vietnam war in the U.S., the media, instead of highlighting what was wrong with the government/foreign policy, flipped the incident on its head and started making a case for how democratic America was. Where else can you protest and get away with it?
Your argument reminds me of recuperation, the ability of capitalism to turn everything into its favor. For instance, its ability to become an advocate of individual freedom which it so efficiently undermines. Instead of making a case for roadside vendors, allow me to look at whats wrong with Rellance Fresh (RF).
RF will undersell for a very long time, not because of economy of scale but to gradually kill competition. Once all the roadside vendors are off the street, and when RF is the only place selling vegetables, they will make a killing.
Like WalMart has so efficiently demonstrated in the U.S. Enter a community, undersell until you finish off family-owned businesses and, then, become a market monopoly. So, the choices left with the average customer is WalMart or maybe another supermarket chain, tweedledee and tweedledum, if you will. Isn’t monopoly the biggest contradiction facing supporters of neoliberalism? I have 500 different jellies to buy from, but they are all being manufactured by Krogers. So, where is the real choice?
And slowly, RF will proceed to commercialize farming and sell vegetables produced in “its own farms” (quality control, you see) which means farmers will have to grow what sells in the market, irrespective of sustainability, historical cropping patterns, eco-friendly farming practices and the like. And slowly, GM food will become widespread, but lets not even go there.
Can this model – of a small, roadside shop and a loyal client – really be replicated across a billion people? Yes it can. We have lived like that for centuries. And yes, time does change. But for whom and who makes the best of it needs to be investigated.
Two more issues. Should we continue to keep our vegetable vendors as vegetable vendors for generation to come? No. But what is the alternative?
The one that you are suggesting- urban economy jobs- is not something I will buy into, at least after seeing what a sham service sector jobs are in the U.S.-dehumanizing, taking money off from the poor to fatten the rich, and throwing the society into insecurity.
So whats the average urban economy job in India? Working as a cab driver at odd hours for a IT company? Or repackaging good old domestic helps as “cleaning service assistants” so someone else, who brings the employee and the employer together, walks away with the money?
And the “individual freedom” argument is an old one most capitalists use. Nothing personal about it, Salil, but its also a very cheap one to use. For there cant be freedom in the presence of structural inequalities. Akin to saying “I will free you up for eternity but make sure the system does not work for you.”
So what we need to realize is the “roadside vendor” as well as “urban economy jobholder” are both positions created by capitalisms. If the former was created by bourgeoise-style capitalism, the latter responds to the needs of neoliberal capitalism.
Ideally, I want to see my “roadside” vendor lead a secure life. I want her to turn into a social commentator someday and shake up the middle class. But I would never want her to become a pliant blue-collar worker, though she is the master of her own destiny and can do whatever she wants. The job of a roadside vendor is fraught with problems, but I fail to understand how urban economy jobs are any better.
And talking again of freedom, RF will first kill her business and then say she can join their company if she wants. Wow, freedom at its best. Where is the real choice for her if her business has already been killed?
Ever read Marx on working class and optimization of leisure time to develop critical faculties, Salil?
You had written,’ I am sorry you consider Gujarat and Bhopal as incidents that can only be seen by myopics. Good taste prevents me from getting personal’.
Well, I quote it again here, ‘After all, these are incidents that catches their myopic eye.’
It means the rest can see other catastrophes, big and small, as well, not Gujarat and Bhopal alone.
But the journalist with short sightedness is lost in the glare of Bhopal and Gujarat.
There is a much bigger tragedy in the agrarian crisis and the media has a responsibility to serve the people, irrespective of what you think or write from London.
As the ‘gatekeeper’ said even the roadside vendor takes his/her responsibility to serve people seriously.
But, no, not the elite journalist, if one has to believe you.
You said,’ newspapers do not have an obligation to serve the poor – or the rich – or any specific segment, except those who are willing to pay the price of the paper. Editors can choose to publish articles that they feel their readers should read.’
May be the vendors of vegetable have more sense and are willingness to serve the society, even when they too are trying to make a living.
You are welcome to go personal, Mr. Tripathi, if that is all what you are capable of.
I meant, how the working class can defeat false consciousness if it develops critical faculties.
Is there a real saving of Rs. 10 per week? I doubt. I have found the prices to be lower with roadside vendors and at the main markets like Devaraja Urs market.
At least one can see the vegetable vendor eye to eye and tell him what one think of the quality, quantity and price of his merchandise.
In ‘Reliance Fresh’ one encounters paid employees who most of the time will be indifferent to any comments or complaints about the quality and price.
Once, one has trekked to the ‘Reliance Fresh’ and find the vegetable not so fresh, it is not easy to find another place nearby.
And what happens when all the vendors are kicked out of business and the market is ruled by the like of Reliance Fresh?
The one with deeper pockets like Reliance Fresh offer competitive prices in the beginning, only to kick out the smaller ones. Once they get monopolistic control of the market, the customer will be forced to buy things at whatever prices they dictate.
The theory of market forces controlling the quality, quantity and prices works only in the west and that is applicable to newspapers and their stories as well.
Odd man out,
Believe me, market forces do ot work in the West either. I tell you this by experience.
In a very capitalist system I have my leisure time, as do many others; moreover, I don’t get bundled into a prison merely for thinking differently as in Marxist paradises like China, Soviet Union, Vietnam, Cambodia (I could go on – I’ve reported out of some of those places), and I prefer the more erudite Marx – Groucho.
Now that I know where your arguments emerge – a critique of mid-19th century capitalism – I understand; I’ve discovered that Hegelian/Manichean dialectic is interesting, but only upto a point. Been there, done that. Thanks for the conversation….
But no, I’m not a card-carrying (if there’s such a phrase) fan of big companies…. Look up back issues of India Today of 1980s, and my reporting on Reliance, and you’ll get the drift.
It will always remain a debatable issue, whether the bigger crisis facing India is communalism and violence among people who are incited to hate each other because they believe in different gods or speak different languages or are, well, different, and the agrarian distress, to fix which there are solutions (not easy) available. I respect your opinion-you think farm distress trumps post-Godhra violence in terms of scale; I differ on that point. It is clear who is to blame for post-Godhra violence; it is not clear who is to blame for the farmer’s distress.
Markets strive towards efficiency; it does not hurt only small vegetable sellers. Companies collapse too; most people should pick themselves up by their bootstraps, and not depend on others for help. To support small businesses so that they don’t go under while facing a juggernaut-like supermarket – there is a patronising element to it. Small businesses DO survive while facing big businesses; they do different things. And monopolies do emerge, but they cannot sustain high prices afterwards in a competitive economy. Walmart’s rate of return is an abysmal 1.8% over its billions of dollars of sales. Why? Because if it tries to secure monopoly rents, Target, Costco, or someone else will eat Walmart’s lunch. Walmart’s client-base is the poor of America; the rich go to Whole Foods and other gourmet/organic places. And in large American cities, you will still find Korean vegetable vendors, looking into your eyes, smiling, serving you, asking about your kids, etc, if that’s what you like doing when you shop.
Even the vegetable seller is selling the vegetables for the same reason the newspaper proprietor prints newspaper – to make money, to earn a living. There is nothing particularly more noble about one trade over another – all trade, markets, are like human conversations, as Amartya Sen said, arguing against restricting either. Yes, the same Sen. Look it up :-)
Let people have choice. Let the farmer decide on whom to sell and let the consumer decided on where to buy. I am sure people like you will keep the road-side vendors in business. Others may go for either HOPCOMS or other organised vendors.
Moreover, I don’t think anybody is destined at birth to be a road-side vendor. They chose that path as they found an opportunity. If things didn’t work out, wouldn’t they have moved on to something new or even blue-collared work? Why do you want them to sell on the road forever?
Let us assume that there are about 60 crore farmers in India. I think about 2 lakh farmers have committed suicide in the last 10 years. With all due respect to the dead, their number is only about 0.3%. If there was a real agrarian crisis – why 99.7% are still alive?
Dear Aruna Urs,
‘Why 99.7% are still alive?’
You are not convinced of the agrarian crisis just because they are not dead???
Weird and interesting argument Arunaji, to say the least.
Dear S. Tripathi,
You expect RF or anyone else to maintain a low rate of return, just like Wal-Mart? And remember, it is here in India that we have something called MRP on each product because someone had the foresight to see how the ‘big traders’ were going to be happy with ‘low returns’.
Yes, it is not clear who is to blame for the farmers’ distress, but that does not take away the urgency to find it out or the responsibility to report it, right? It won’t diminish its magnitude either.
Roadside vendors versus corporate retail marts is a non issue. Just like KFC or Macdonalds can never out sell local retail food vendors. Udipi’s and Kamat’s will out sell all of them any day.
In USA Walmarts and Macdonald’s are on the lower end of the market chain. Surprisingly in India they are perceived as superior brands.
I was recently shocked to note the price difference between the wholesale market and the local vegetable vendors. The Hindu paper had a news item of the price variations and very casually mentioned that potato prices varied marginally by 25% due to poor arrivals. What I mean is that if 25% is a minor change then we Indians are the most tolerant people in the world.
Further the price difference between the whose sale market and the street price is higher by almost 60%. Where is this margin going? Assuming a vegetable vendor buys from the market veggies for Rs:5k and is able to sell it for Rs:8K, his expenses for travel and cartage are perhaps Rs:0.5K. So he has earned 2.5K for a days work. Look at the ROI.
I know my argument sounds simplistic. But there is a lot of money floating in those circles and we white collared bourgeois are unaware of it.
Lastly let not the commies get into the fray, they had their way in India for over 50 years, now let the market forces decide.
So what do you have to say about the prison-industrial complex in the U.S.? Do you even know that 1 out of 10 African-American males and 1 out of 36 Hispanic males are behind bars even as we speak? Ever heard of maximum security prisons or looked up the work of Angela Davis?
And “some people” do have leisure time under capitalism. But believe me, capitalism does take care of it too. By turning people into couch potatoes. We again have the choice of surfing through 500 channels which are owned by seven multinationals and they all dish out the same stuff.
And my argument is not a critique of mid-19th century capitalism. It, rather, questions neoliberalism and some of its basic tenets, like markets take care of people. Markets, at best, are a folk concept, heavily compromised. And there is nothing scientific about them.
Thanks for the conversation.
And Ms. Urs
Like I argued earlier, I dont want my roadside vendor to remain a vendor all her life. But the “choice” and “freedom” you talk about does not exist.
Nobody becomes a vendor because she “found the opportunity.” Rather, it is a matter of lack of choice. The only choice open to my vendor is to become a blue collar worker, and thats no choice at all.
Like I said, there is no true freedom or choice as long as structural inequalities persist. Solve them and we shall then talk about freedom.
gk, i am seriously interested, tough i dont know how to frame the following question without sounding like a troll.
in your mind, what is a truly free society? what would be the condition of the vegetable vendor in such a society.
i ask this, because in my mind, the vegetable vendor is a capitalist, who perhaps is constrained by geography, politics, product value, and capital even. but, who i think of latently capable of putting a sam walton to shame if any of her constraints – natural or artificial – were half as severe.
imo, there is no difference between a beehive and a skyscraper. they are exactly the same things and are subject to exactly the same constraints. man is not beyond natural selection, whther he gets his high on ganjam and bvlgari or on gauDapaada, nitzche, basava or marx. fundas remain the same irrespective of theories and conditions.
even if i can appreciate the importance of workers rights – which imo is the most decent thing to do, the world is as it is bcoz that is the the only way it can be-naturally. a cry for worker rights without a concomitant cry for worker duties/responsibility is shallow and an unstable situation. its one thing to fight for rights of AAI unioun, yet another to turn a blind eye when they cannot even keep a toilet clean. even as people actually working on drains get killed. i wtoo will fight for the neighbourhood vendor, but purely on nostalgia, not on theories.
the us might have jails filled to the designs of an industrial complex, yet it will not preside over politically or socially over the death of its pourakarmikas.
i am willing to be taken to school.
fundas remain the same irrespective of theories and conditions. man is an animal, even if a social one.
For me, there is no free society. Human society is beyond freedom. Freedom is like a lost ideal; it is used to keep people in place, give them a false hope. For life is socially controlled beyond what we can comprehend. Everything from language to knowledge is already structured in a very peculiar way to enhance a certain possibility and to hinder others. Our social positionalities, as members of a certain class, caste, religion and sex, only worsen things.
So, putting it in a nutshell, there can be no true freedom, or true choice, for that matter. We have too much of historical and other baggages for that to happen.
So let me come to what I consider my domain. The world is not what it is because that is the only thing it can be. It is actively shaped by forces that are controlled by a certain class. If we run out of oil tomorrow, do you think the world will just allow chaos to prevail? No. It will actively intervene and bring what you may call “order.” The question is where are those energies hidden, and when do they come into play and who controls them.
And coming to respecting workers rights, I should seriously question your assumptions. First, the broadly held view that workers are a drain on the exchequer, dont do any work and feed off the welfare state. Or the problem of psychological association: Say “Nazis” and I think of “concentration camps.” Say “workers” and I think of “union militancy” or “inefficiency.”
True there are problems with unions. They do turn militant and shun work. But not to the extent that its made out to be in the media. Its so interesting to me how deeply this has been fed to the middle class and how badly the middle class has internalized it. Yes, we need to make sure that rights are packaged with responsibilities before they are delivered. But to say workers are a drain on the welfare state and that they breed inefficiency is a white lie and as stupid as claiming that all IT firms take the government/public for a ride.
So, how good is the alternative, that of corporate-style disciplining of labor? We see the results all around us. A few getting richer while the rest get poorer and poorer. Nice sham of efficiency there.
Lets take Nirmala toilets, ostensibly employing private or un-unionized labor. Sure they are clean. But how many of us can afford to pay a rupee everytime we pee? And ever talked to the workers there? What are the benefits they get? What about the usurpation of public land to build toilets? Who authorized it?
And like a professor of mine says, we are already interpellated into positions for which we merely become spokespersons. Very few escape such roles. If I was born in a Brahmin family with lots of cultural capital (if not other capitals) and grew up basically told that reservation had ruined the country and workers were living off the state, that would shape my outlook. On the contrary, if I grew up as a Dalit in an improvished neighborhood, my life would reflect a different story.
Man, like you said, is an animal. But a vile one at that. And there is a difference between a beehive and a skycrapper – one of surplus value and, more importantly, that of who gets to build the skycrapper and who gets to live in it. The worker bees may build the beehive and allow the queen bee to occupy the topmost chamber. Man does not have to.
And believing that the world is in its natural form takes so much of moral responsibility off our chest, right? We don’t have to do anything, don’t have to interrogate our own positions of privilege or part with our supposed fortunes, which are not ours in the first place.
Blame people for their misfortunes, without even questioning how our privilege is someone else’s un-privilege.
Inevitability (or karma), I must say, is the greatest rationalization tool available to man.
thanks i have read it.
one correction. no i did not say unions are bad or worker rights are a drain of xchequer.
the drains i was talking about was charanDi and how people actually working in them risk lives.