In 2009, P Sainath, a former Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu, documented the plight of farmer suicides rampant in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. The 1-hour long documentary, dubbed “Nero’s Guests” draws a parallel between the Indian citizens, Indian government, and the mainstream media of the country with the Roman Emperor Nero and his guests, who are infamous for their insolence towards the Roman population.
He spoke of Tacitus’ account of a party thrown by Nero, wherein, Nero’s guests enjoyed the mirth of the occasion, without paying heed to the burning population of the Rome, much like how the citizens of India turned a blind eye to the sufferings of the Indian farmers in the wake of the mounting debt and insolvency they had to endure.
P Sainath’s coverage of the event drew nationwide attention, and for all the right reasons. Amid all the Sainath’s fervour with which he presented the accounts of deceased farmer’s family members in the documentary, telling facts about him could be protruded as a journalist. In this, I have ventured to analyze Sainath as a journalist of one of the most-read newspapers in the country, and how he has, or has not, upheld the values and principles expected from the media personality.
Within the purview of work ethic, P Sainath can be analyzed based on his knowledge, competence, aptitude, and attitude which were reflected in the documentary.
i) Knowledge: The documentary kicks off by summarising facts and figures circling the Agrarian economy of India and how a large portion of the population is impoverished. While Sainath spoke about different themes throughout the video, his focal emphasis was on the soaring suicide rates of Indian farmers, largely driven by mounting debt and distress.
The statistics that were displayed during the video time and time again reflect the in-depth research that was done before the documentary’s inception. Bits of helpful information was provided, such as how Mumbai rarely experiences any power cuts on the account of the concentration of the massic urban population, and with numerous shopping districts crammed up in the region, while rural areas of Vidarbha experience prolonged power cuts, massively affecting the way of life of the farmers.
“[With] A 20-minute power cut in Mumbai, can provide 2 hours of electricity to all the troubled districts of Vidarbha”, says Sainath. He also sheds light obscene number and number of subsidies the rich get in the garb of “incentives”, while poor farmers are left to fend for themselves. “The richer you are, the bigger the subsidy you get, or rather the bigger the “incentive” you get”.
Not just that, but as one of the farmers complained, they also have to put up with expensive fertilizers, and other materials used in farming, with no substantial relief from the government. Meanwhile, the budget allocates $6 million per hour is allocated to the Indian corporate section in the form of concessions, as reported by Sainath, which is a telling fact considering that little to no monetary relief is provided to the financially-distressed farmers of the country.
By using data and information to draw the differences between how the rich are treated despite having money, and how the poor are treated, despite having no money, shows just how unfair and profit-driven government policies can be.
ii) Competence: Competence consists of deliverables such as performance, dependability, discipline, quantity, and quality. Sainath collected stories of several farmers from their surviving family members to give a first-hand account of what the farmers went through in the days leading up to their deaths, and how their deaths affected the family at large. This empowered the performance and dependability of the documentary manifold. Sainath also managed to strike the right balance between quantity and quality, by focusing on the selected stories. However, he could have been more disciplined with the way he approached some of the stories.
For instance, the camera was focused on a farmer who had attempted to take his life by consuming chemicals. The farmer in agony was brought into the Government hospital, and during the entirety of it, the camera focused on him.
No attempts were made to blur his face. While it’s one thing to publicize the images of deceased individuals, it is totally another thing to publicize the identity, or a flash of the identity of a living person who had attempted to take his life, which is also criminalized under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. This, reflected the journalist’s momentary lapse of competence, with his failure to draw the line between accurate reporting, and insensitivity.
Sainath’s attitude could be judged based on three parameters, his character and personality towards his profession as a journalist, himself, and his audience. Sainath used his platform to shed light upon one of the most elusive topics in mainstream media, yet one of the most powerful subjects that required the attention of the world.
In his documentary, he not only put the government on trial, and demanded answers, but also tried and tested the general public, as well as the capitalist establishments that enabled the system that pushed our country’s farmers into a corner. His attitude towards his audience was not only of an educator, but also of a judge, who was baffled by how the public could turn a blind eye to the plight of the farmers, and go on about their lives. Primarily, he took a negative attitude towards the capital establishments.
By frowning upon how elite-class events such as the Lakmé fashion show get massive correspondence, while the same media outlets vanish when the topic of our nation’s poor is raised, he throws some light upon the irony and selective coverage of our mainstream media, who are meant to be the fourth estate/pillar of democracy. In doing so, Sainath deftly pointed out how there is no correspondence for the world’s poor, and plenty for the world’s rich.
By bringing these themes to light, he fulfilled his journalistic role, as he became the spokesperson of the grieving farmers and successfully got the attention of the country and the politicians in the wake of the agrarian crisis in India.
That is not to say, Sainath did not fail as a journalist in some ways. At 21:20, Sainath took the bites of three personalities, an actor, a journalist, and a choreographer, who were ignorantly downplaying the degree of poverty in our country by thinking donation camps are enough to eradicate poverty from our country. While the blatant disregard for the truth was evident in the bites, it’s the fact that Sainath attempted to make a mockery out of the three personalities, who in all probability, were in fact under the impression that their little effort could have a major impact, that made him appear insensitive and unprofessional.
As a viewer, we would be inclined to be smug at the imbecility of such a mentality, that is why it only goes on to defame the individuals. Sainath could have delivered the same message in some other way.
When looking at the bigger picture, Sainath proved himself to be the ideal journalist to cover the farmer’s crisis in Maharashtra. Be it story recognition, presentation, vocabulary, deliverability, or, identifying the relevant pieces of stories, he ticked all the boxes of being an adept reporter in the larger scheme of things, even though we could pick out some flaws when we put him under the microscope.
Role, Responsibility, and Accountability:
The key role that Sainath has appeared to have adopted is one that of an educator and change maker. He set out to make this documentary to bring about a change, and help the impoverished farmers get some attention and relief, and he succeeded in doing so when several of the high officials in the government were compelled to visit Vidarbha after Sainath’s reportage.
So much so, that as reported in the documentary, between 2006 and 2008, one loan waiver and two relief packages were declared for the aggrieved farmers. Sainath went on to speak in the Parliament and had his voice heard directly by the lawmakers, and spoke of the unfair treatment of the farmers in regards to the subsidies.
He fulfilled his journalistic responsibility of bringing about a change and having the voices of the aggrieved farmers and their family members heard. He also educated the masses about the issue and attempted to make his viewers resonate with the Agrarian crisis. Sainath appeared to have been accountable to the farmers who were still suffering from debt and wanted some assurance of relief from the reporter.
One of the aspects of the documentaries that struck a chord is how Sainath used the poems written by one of the deceased farmers to inspire empathy in the viewers. The poems were clearly written by an individual with certain suicidal thoughts in their head. It could have been written by the deceased farmer during the time of his distress due to the mounting debt, and he ventured to pour his emotions on paper.
The farmer himself may have given up on life, but his words continued to live and saw the light of the day through Sainath’s presentation. The poetry added an excellent touch to the whole narrative. As a human, Sainath’s sheer empathy towards the farmer crisis, and his vehemence in letting the whole country know inspired awe in each one of us.
By Khushi Khatter