Sitting down with P. Sainath

P. Sainath, the former Rural Affairs Editor of the Hindu, has won an outrageous number of awards for his journalism (over 40). He recently launched his latest project, the People’s Archive of Rural India, where he hopes to document the “everyday lives of everyday people.” It provides multimedia coverage of subtopics such as “Women,” “Things We Do,” Things We Make,” and “Farming and its Crisis.” The Herald sat down with Sainath in Luce Hall to discuss the role of objectivity in journalism, what goes into capturing the lives of the 1.2 billion people who live in India, and his golden rule of always being aware of what he doesn’t know.


Rural reporter, P. Sainath
Rural reporter, P. Sainath

YH: How did you get involved in Journalism?

Sainath: Historically the Indian press is a child of the Indian freedom struggle, and I came from a family that was heavily involved in the freedom struggle. Almost every major nationalist leader in that struggle, whether it was Gandhi, or Nehru, or the women Sarojini Naidu and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, every one of those leaders also doubled up as a journalist. They saw journalism as a society in discussion with itself. They saw journalism as a mode of social change.

When I finished my higher studies or left them halfway through, there was no great plan or grand design. It was perfectly natural for me to go into journalism because that’s where all the people I associated with the freedom struggle went. I was born ten years after it was over and I would say my values are rooted in that generation and in that struggle. So, it was a perfectly natural move to make.

YH: Has your role as an objective journalist ever forced you to make some difficult choices when working with the rural populations you cover?

Sainath: Absolutely, and I have very serious issues with the use of the term “objectivity.” By the way, we are sitting in the Henry Luce building. Right? Do you know that one of the more famous statements from Luce about the doctrine of objectivity is, “Objectivity is strictly a phony”? There are three kinds of objectivity in my opinion. One is desirable. One is genuine. And, one is a fraud. The doctrine of objectivity, which is really a North American product, the doctrine, in my view, is a fraud….

So, the first kind of objectivity is the objectivity of the pure sciences. Now, that is admirable, desirable, but not replicable in journalism.  Because, say, suppose someone claims they have created cold fusion, you remember the claim a few years ago of cold fusion? A thousand scientists across the country, across the world, are able to replicate those conditions in a lab and check the veracity of the claim. You and I can’t do that as journalists. Our labs are entirely different…The laboratory is the laboratory of daily life and human beings are incredibly different from chemical compounds. The objectivity of the pure sciences, where something can be verified, checked, and examined, that is very desirable and it’s admirable but it’s not replicable beyond a certain degree in the social sciences and in journalism.

The second thing is the doctrine of objectivity, which I consider a fraud and really ends up giving the last word to authority and the powerful. Incidentally, all this doctrine of balance and two sides goes out the window when the major interests of the newspaper or the channel or the country it represents are threatened. There is a difference between objectivity and the doctrine of objectivity. The doctrine of objectivity, which is the gift you guys give the world, is a fraud. It defends the powerful. It always weakens the arguments against power.

Though, one caveat, there are people who follow schools of journalism… which have tried for a third kind of objectivity that I am very supportive of, which is your personal objectivity, the honesty with which you deal with a subject. The first thing about being honest is to accept that our value systems have an impact on us. Now, the day that we accept that journalism is a very subjective art is the day we begin striving for objectivity.  Now, if I start with the myth that I am objective then you will be actually committing a serious disservice to your readers, or viewers, or listeners. If you start from the point of view that we all have our deep subjectivities, we all are affected by our sensitivities and our socialization then you know what to look out for. You know the biases and the prejudices to watch out for when you write.

YH: What would you say your subjectivities are when you start writing a piece?

Sainath: It depends on the subject of the issue. I have different subjectivities on different issues.  I have never been dishonest with my readers. They know where I stand. I never conceal that. My journalism is about the everyday lives of everyday people. I write about the work poor people do. I write about the work ordinary people do.

I will write about agri-business. I will and have written about Monsanto. I will and have written about Cargill. And if I report them, I will report them very honestly. When I’ve done stories on these guys, they never ever complained that their version was unfairly represented, and I’ve done a lot of stories.

YH: Why did you choose to resign from the Hindu and start the People’s Archive?

Sainath: I was the only rural affairs editor in existence in India, in South Asia and as far as I know anywhere else at the national level. How many newspapers do you know of that have a rural editor full time? I spent 270 days a year on average of the last 22 years in the countryside.

I spent most of my time, even now, even after leaving the Hindu in the countryside in the poorest areas trying to understand how people cope, what are their survival strategies, and trying to do it as much from giving them a voice rather than imposing my own, that’s also a form of objectivity. As a writer, and a journalist, and a reporter. I bring in the data. I bring in the perspective. I bring in context. The story is theirs.

        I did this in the Hindu for ten years. I had a fantastic run at the Hindu. The Hindu took rural India out of ghettos of agriculture and things like that and put it on the op-ed pages. No reader of the millions that the Hindu has ever questioned the objectivity of any of these pieces. In fact, they had the highest number of hits. They had an astonishing following, which stands me in good stead wherever I’m writing, and it also shows that human beings in the cities are not brain dead consumers. They have an interest in other human beings who are less privileged and less fortunate than they are. My entire experience has been that people are concerned, that they are worried.

        So, the Hindu did this and it was hugely successful. In late 2013 and early 2014, there were changes in the paper that made me feel that that run had come to an end, and that the new priorities did not include the rural. It did not include the poor, the farmer, the marginal. And I left.

At that time, my eyes were being opened up to the possibilities of what the digital platform allowed. So, I’m doing the same thing that I’ve done for 20 years as a full time rural reporter, but the digital platform infinitely expands the scope for it. So, I’ve been concentrating on the People’s Archive of Rural India, which is both a living journal and an archive.

YH: Why have you chosen to use so many different forms of media–writing, photography, video–to create this archive? What does it add?

Sainath: I think that for me it is all about storytelling. There are two aspects. One is documenting the complexities of the Indian countryside which is the most complex part of planet earth, 833 million people speaking 780 languages, six of those languages spoken by more than 50 million people, three of them spoken by more than 80 million, some of them spoken by 10 people, the last speakers of a given language. I just did a video on that. Don’t you think it’s important to record a language that is about to go into extinction? It is part of my culture, part of my history, part of my legacy. As a journalist I want to be able to report on it.

YH:  I have a few more questions on here, but they seem to be questions that you’ve given answers to before. So, what’s just on your mind? What are you thinking about right now?

Sainath: Right now we are trapped with how to cope with the expansion of this project. It is growing much faster than we can cope with. We are getting 150 volunteers a week online. There are 14 of us in the core group. I had 200 or 300 volunteers before I began, mostly fellow journalists who were once students of mine. But, now we are getting 150 highly skilled volunteers ranging from accountants to medical doctors in rural areas to bankers. They want to do something for it. So, we are trying to see how to train them so that they can document, so that they can record, so that they can tell stories. And that’s what we are grappling with.

YH: Any words of advice for students who are interested in going into journalism?

Sainath: If you are someone burning to connect with other human beings, as I am, then it’s what I see journalism being about. Good journalism is a society in conversation, argument, often raucous argument, debate, and discussion with itself. Now, if that’s your view of journalism you will really enjoy it because you will be taking your studies and your knowledge and using it to interact with reality, where it will be a help to you and where it will be helped by the interaction with reality.

So, I would say this. If you are accepting corporate media as the be-all and end-all of journalism, and you are going there, don’t go. If journalism for you is about engaging with society, connecting with your fellow human beings, trying to do something to understand the world in order that perhaps there are things that could be done better, then go for journalism.


Interview condensed by Abigail Schneider and the Herald. Originally published at the Yale Herald.