Main content

A Tribe of His Own

At a time when government propaganda and corporate spin are increasingly presented as fact, and a handful of corporations control the news, A TRIBE OF HIS OWN: THE JOURNALISM OF P. SAINATH reminds us what news media can be.

In India, nearly 400 million people live in poverty. Believing that responsible journalism can help to change things for the better, Palagummi Sainath wrote a series of 70 newspaper articles for The Times of India chronicling the living conditions in the ten poorest districts of the country. For two years Sainath lived in the communities he wrote about; he traveled across India, often on foot, in hill areas, drought-prone areas, and tribal areas to put the issue of poverty back on the national agenda.

After nearly a decade of work and dozens of awards, Sainath remains as passionately committed as ever. According to Sainath the shift from hard-hitting, truth-seeking journalism to innocuous, promotional stenography goes hand in hand with the increase of globalization. This, he believes, has also contributed to the 1990s becoming 'the time of the most gross social inequality since the Second World War.'

A TRIBE OF HIS OWN follows Sainath to the Indian villages he writes about and explores his contention that 'journalism is for people, not shareholders.'

'Mesmerizing...In less than 60 minutes, this little film about an Indian reporter delivers powerful insights into the enduring story of human suffering and its shining corollary, imperishable hope. Equally interesting is the way it turns a cold analytical eye on mainstream journalists like me and challenges us to do more with the privilege of free expression bestowed upon us by democracy.' Stephen Hume, Vancouver Sun

'In the age of media convergence and indistinguishable pack coverage of staged events, news conferences and celebrity capers, Sainath's passionate pursuit of individual truth to illuminate society is a clarion call for more thoughtful journalism. All journalists, veterans or newcomers, would benefit enormously from learning his methods.' Lionel Lumb, Acting Director, Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication

'Through his writing, photography, and teaching of young journalists, he has become a powerful and passionate voice for the people...The film itself is a solid piece of journalism...Recommended for academic and public libraries.' Library Journal

'An intriguing educational tool, useful for both journalism students and veterans of the business...outstanding film documentary.' Library Bookwatch

'Highly Recommended' Educational Media Reviews Online


Main credits

Moulins, Joe (film director)
Moulins, Joe (film producer)
Sainath, P (interviewee)
Sainath, P (photographer)

Other credits

Edited by Tyronne L'Hirondelle; video photography, Paul Borkwood [and 3 others]; still photography, P. Sainath; music composed by James Hamilton.

Docuseek subjects

Distributor subjects

Asian Studies
Child Labor
Developing World
Human Rights
Labor and Work Issues
Media Literacy
Political Science
Social Justice
Women's Studies


journalism, India, poverty, Sainath, globalization; "A Tribe of His Own"; Bullfrog Films




A man’s face, extreme close-up.  He lifts a camera to his eye..

Cut to a series of photographs of women and children doing manual labor.


Peter Desbarats

Former Dean of Journalism

University of Western Ontario


Because he’s become less and less fashionable, he’s become more and more interesting.


Barrie Zwicker

Media Critic, Publisher


I mean, how many other journalists, no matter how great… invented at least possibly, sort of two forms of journalism?


John Stackhouse

Globe and Mail reporter

(Former India Correspondent)


India needs a thousand Sainaths.


[cut to photographer, following men and women farm workers in muck and rain]




In 1993, a freelance reporter from Bombay convinced the Times of India Newspaper to let him write a series about the people who live in India’s ten poorest communities.  India

was in the midst of sweeping economic reforms.  Foreign investors were being courted, while social programs were being cut.  The news media was chock full of business news and stock market analysis.  For 18 months that reporter lived with and wrote about some of the poorest people on earth.  He revealed an India many Indians didn’t know existed and he forced the media to pay attention to what was happening outside the business districts.  He dispelled myths and exposed stereotypes.


SAINATH: I’m not taking too much of the plowing pictures because that is the most common representation of the countryside.  Man and plow. I’m sick of it.


It’s a picture, it makes a nice picture and all that and gives this very idyllic, rural sojourn kind of story, but it’s not the conceals more than it shows.

What we’re looking for is what she does.


[sets to take photo of old woman crouching to pick weeds]


NARRATOR: The reporter is Palagummi Sainath.  His project led to a book.  “Everybody Loves a Good Drought” is its title. 

It pushed Bill Gates from the top of the Indian bestsellers list. 


[sainath walks toward camera, on country rode. Slo-mo]


SAINATH: Yes, I have been described as arrogant. 

My reply is that if I look at what people are doing in journalism, if I look at what the great leaders of journalism are doing everywhere; when you look at the kind of crap they churn out day in and day out, it’s impossible not to be arrogant.  After a while it leads to illusion.  The stuff that mainstream journalism is now made of is so bad, content-wise, it’s so ridiculous that you can’t help feeling superior.


STACKHOUSE: He wrote an extraordinary piece about coal harvesters in Bihar.  And there was a community of people who went and dug up the scraps of coal from a huge coalmine and had to transport these on the backs of their bicycles for miles to a local market where they would sell them to a trader for an absolute pittance, for maybe fifty cents.  And that would be their day’s earnings from a physical labour that most of us can’t imagine, and Sainath, he’s almost like Sebastio Salgado, the great photographer who shows in his photographs the epic effort of a lot of people in this world in physical labour, which we in our society almost know nothing of now, we just live in this wonderfully convenient, mechanized society, we don’t understand hardship the way that most of the world does, the way our grandparents probably did.  And Sainath was able to document a lot of that epic effort and that’s crucial for us living here to understand that right now there are millions of people doing that right now to survive.


[zwicker’s office]


ZWICKER: Sainath’s work is, what shall I say, it puts first things first.  He has a global grasp, he has a worldview, which is impatient that the world should become better, more just, less unjust, that there should be more equitableness around the world and in every country.


[photo montage, historical images of Mahatma Gandhi)


SAINATH: The press in this country is the child of the freedom struggle.  It came into being with a clearly defined purpose.  It didn’t just fight to throw the British out of India.  It fought for the freedom of this country, it fought for the liberation of the human being.  I think it was one of the noblest, most romantic periods of Indian history.  After independence, as the values of the freedom struggle have declined in so many other spheres, so have they declined in the press. 


I’m not ready to give up on my legacy yet.


NARRATOR: Sainath’s work reached a broad audience in the late 90s with the publication of his book, but Sainath was already well known within journalism circles.  In 1984 he lectured at Canadian universities as the innovative 26-year-old editor of a Bombay tabloid.


[zwicker holds newspaper, points to pictures)


ZWICKER: These supplements are composed of photographs that he has painstakingly gathered.  What he does in these supplements is to take government statistics, which are usually self serving, often confusing, occasionally are lies, but he uses the government statistics to show, A: that the government is lying about what’s going on that is portrayed in the pictures.



NARRATOR: Many of Sainath’s most powerful stories have come from the Western part of the state of Orissa.  He returns her regularly to write and to teach young reporters.

[Spartan rural Indian classroom, students sit cross-legged on the floor]


SAINATH: One of the things that I found most satisfying in the last eight years is training young rural journalists.  I’ve been teaching journalists for about 15 years.  In the last eight years I’ve been concentrating a lot on rural journalists.  There’s incredible energy and zest for journalism within the young stringers here.  Now they need some kind of input, they need certain kinds of guidance, but they are far more on the ball and alive and quickly off the mark than urban journalists because these guys are so firmly rooted in their societies.


NARRATOR: The caste system is outlawed in India, but caste discrimination is practised openly.  Most of the people Sainath now writes about, and many of his students, are from the Dalit caste.  The group widely known as untouchables.


SAINATH: When fifteen of us move together, each village becomes a new session.  Each village becomes a workshop in itself.


[students loading into jeeps, travel montage]


NARRATOR: This traveling classroom serves two purposes.  Sainath gives hands-on instruction on how to recognize and report a story and he hopes all the attention will force government officials and big city media to pay attention to the issues being reported.


[poor village.  Women and children eye crowd of student reporters]


SAINATH: Those are the night soil workers.


Women who carry human excreta upon their heads.


This is a very, very disgusting, dehumanizing, obnoxious practice enforced on a particular caste as its hereditary occupation.


[woman speaking, gesturing, disgusted]


SAINATH: She’s telling you how horrible it is to pick up human excreta and put it in a basket and take it out.  She said…


[woman speaking]


SAINATH: She says the stink comes to your face, you feel sick and nauseous.


[woman speaking]


SAINATH: She’s just coming from a house where they’ve given her a little food, a few morsels of food as payment.


[student speaking, interpreting  villagers for sainath]]


SAINATH: He said, she’s a widow, but she’s not getting the widow’s pension that she’s entitled to.  She has no other source of income, so she does the only kind of work that she does, which is carrying night soil.  She’s just come from one of those houses, and what Jagdish is saying, is just look at the payment that’s she’s got.  You know, a morsel of rice, a tad of vegetable, and just as much lentils as you can hold in your palm without spilling it all.  That’s all she’s been paid.  And she’s a widow and she has no other source.  She’s helpless.


[same student speaking to women]


SAINATH; This is the home of Jagdish Suna, who’s come out of this very colony.  It is a community where most children drop out of school by fifth or latest, by eighth grade.


Under these circumstances where it’s very difficult for these children to complete high school, Jagdish has completed a BA, is doing a degree in law, and is an award-winning journalist.


You don’t need to know his language to know what he’s saying.  About how angry he is. 


There’s over a million people in this country doing manual scavenging and cleaning of dry latrines from amongst these communities.


It’s the duty and the responsibility of the Indian state to rehabilitate each and every one of them and offer them alternative employment.  What do the states do in India?  They simply deny that the problem exists.  So that really makes you angry, that you can treat human beings like this.  That’s why I said, the first human right the Dalits are fighting for is the right to be recognized as humans.


[final still photo, night soil worker walks away from camera]


STACKHOUSE: He demonstrates a great diligence, which should be the fundamental point of journalism anywhere, is diligence, and he exemplifies that.


A phrase I like to use, is the importance of using extraordinary research to ordinary events.  And I think that’s what Sainath does.


He doesn’t go out to the plane crashes or to governments that are collapsing.  He goes out to places that would strike 95% of journalists as very humdrum, ordinary, it’s a poor village, nothing ever happens there.  Well, of course a lot happens there, and it’s quite extraordinary.  But you won’t know that until you apply extraordinary research.


DESBARATS: What he does is very simple really, he’s an investigative journalist in a sense, but not in a North American sense where we think now of somebody using computers to investigate complex situations.  He’s an investigative journalist, and he goes out and he spends a lot of time observing with his own eyes.  Most journalists don’t have the time to do this.  Journalistic organizations don’t promote that kind of journalism.  It’s expense and it may not produce a product that people necessarily want to read.  He’s in a very old fashioned tradition.  He’s a muckraker in a sense.  He goes out looking for a scandal but not political scandal necessarily or business scandal, he goes out looking for scandal that involves the way people treat other people.  And the way governments and large corporations treat people. 


[woman talking in front of mud home, small crowd.  Sainath listens)]


SAINATH: Essentially what she’s saying is that, as part of the relief works, this organization went to dig a tank.  Now the land for the tank was donated by very poor people in the village.  People who hardly had any land gave some land to be able to dig this tank.  Now the village head, the big man of the village.  His fields would benefit from the digging of that tank.  But he opposed the tank, opposed the water coming, even to his own land, because they had not taken his permission to do that in the village, it’s not his property.  But since he’s the big man of the village people had to clear it with his authority.  So for days he’s been harassing them and trying to stop them from building the tank, which would actually benefit his own land.


[ from a distance, Sainath photographs woman working in front of house.  She notices him, stops and walks into house]


SAINATH: Uh-oh..She stopped doing it, seeing us in a big group here. 


DESBARATS: This is what journalists did in the 1920s, in the 1930s.  This was the positive side of the sort of trench-coated journalist, the Humphrey Bogart image.  Most of us don’t end up doing that kind of journalism.  I didn’t end up doing that kind of journalism.  But Sainath was very independent.


It teaches us what, I don’t want to exaggerate this too much, but I think Sainath’s reporting teaches us the things that great literature teaches us, you know, about human suffering, about human compassion, the desire of people under the most impossible circumstances to try to improve their condition.  The heroism of the ordinary person under very difficult conditions.  Those things are always fascinating.  He’s not a propagandist.  We get propaganda in journalism constantly from government, you know spin-doctors from big business, Sainath is at the opposite end of the scale and he’s writing about things that are true and that really matter.


[cut to bustling Indian city, images of poverty clash with McDonalds marquee, billboards advertising internet access]


NARRATOR: Indian newspapers are as lively as its city streets.  Advertisers aggressively chase the small minority of Indians who can afford microwave ovens and cellular phones.  Television feeds them a steady diet of stock market quotations and celebrity gossip.  If this is how you get all your information about the country, you might never guess that half a billion Indians live in poverty.


[modern newsroom scenes cut to image of young girl with hoe in rocky, desolate field]


SAINATH: Conventionally trained journalists are completely ill equipped to handle the complexities of serious reporting in the countryside.  I was one of those.


In 1983, there was a major drought in the country and I went out reporting. 


I came back and I wrote a number of conventional stories for which I did not take  a by-line on a single story, I was so ashamed.  I’d had a very powerful experience.  It was not reflected in the copy.  Because I was still in the “prime minister said here today, officials confirmed”, in that tired, sterile framework.  I realized I would have to do it again and do it differently.  Ten years later I tried. 


[montage of Sainath working in various rural settings]


NARRATOR: Sainath was supposed to write a handful of stories about how the poorest Indians were making out in a period of economic reform.  Readers responded with a flood of letters asking for more, which surprised both Sainath and his editors.  So he kept writing and the Times kept printing his work.  Eventually, more than 80 articles and dozens of photographs from India’s ten poorest communities made it into print.



SAINATH: We are sitting in a quarry called Kudimianmalai in Pudukkottai district of southern Tamil Nadu, which is a state in the south of India.

The people we are with represent the poorest strata of the country. 

But there’s one difference about the people you see here.  These are people who have broken the chains that bind them.  These are the women who work at twelve noon in 40-45 degrees Celsius to provide the profits of the contractors.  They are illiterate; They are earning as much as five or six rupees for slaving twelve hours, fourteen hours – they earn less than 25 cents Canadian.  Then, in 91-92, a major change took place in this district.  A very, very progressive minded woman collector by the name of Sheela Rani Chunkath  utilized an existing government scheme, which did not really cover them at all, it had no reference to them, it’s called the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas program. 


CHUNKATH: Most of the quarries belonged to the government.  And these are auctioned by the government to contractors who in turn employ men and women to break the stones and give them a small wage.  So I was looking around and I thought, why not try giving these women labourers themselves the quarry?


NARRATOR: Sheela Rani Chunkath became familiar to readers as the government administrator who took up the cause of adult literacy in this remote corner of Tamil Nadu.  Kannamal was a shy, young office worker who emerged as an unlikely leader in the literacy movement.


KANNAMAL:  No God or Angels will come from heaven to change the situation.  I had to do something for those workers.


SAINATH: Consequently, 4000 to 5000 of the poorest of the earth came to be in control of 170 quarries.  In the process they did several things.  One, they broke out of the chains of bondage from the contractor.  They were bonded serfs.  Today these women are the bosses in the quarry.  Second, from low productivity, they’ve raised these quarries to extraordinarily high productivity, and are giving the state revenue it never dreamed of.  Third, their husbands are earning daily wages.  The husbands are casual labourers, working and reporting to the women.  The profit making, the productivity, the ownership of this organization rests with the women.


CHUNKATH: These women, because they had the money in their hands, they were able to make changes in their dietary patterns.  They started eating better food, they started buying better clothes for themselves and the children, sending the children to schools, if necessary arranging for private tuition, rebuilding their homes.


KANNAMAL:  There is  a pride among them.  “This is my quarry.  I am doing work for my family.  I am one of the bosses of the quarry.”

Like this, they are having pride


SAINATH: Since they produced such spectacular results, a coalition of contractors, MLAs, so-called people’s representatives government officials who were on the take, getting money from the contractors… have all ganged up to smash these women’s organizations and take the quarries back to private control.  Every sort of subterfuge has been resorted to, bribing government officials, threatening these women physically, they’re being bullied, pressurized, these contractors have come and told them, you’ve got a lease for three years, at the end of three years we’ll smash you, so why don’t you just hand it over to us quietly, why don’t you just compromise, you know at the end of three years you’re going to be at our mercy.  But they refused to do that, they refuse to be bribed, they were offered bribes to sell out on their sisters but they didn’t do that.  They formed their groups and they have fought.  The breaking of poverty here has not come from experts sitting in the World Bank or in the IMF or in the planning ministry.  It has come from these women, who have shown that “we can make our lives. Give us a chance”.  It’s come from activists like Kannamal and people who are ready and willing for change and willing to fight for their rights.

It is one of the greatest success stories in the fight against poverty that I am aware of.  The only point is that the fight isn’t over.

They’re still being told that five year lease will not be signed.  So they’re still fighting.


This isn’t empowerment from above.  It’s people who have taken the initiative and fought their way out of their chains.  I think it’s an inspiring example the world over of what ordinary women  can do when they put their minds to it.  They have literally moved mountains of stone.



STACKHOUSE: Well he helps explain the culture of poverty, which very few journalists in the south and the north in India or Canada do.  He helps explain the pressures, whether it’s from state agencies or the environment, from the economy, that exacerbate poverty, even cause poverty in some places, as well as the local social and cultural conditions that can also contribute to poverty.


SAINATH: When that story appeared, one of the things that happened quite interestingly to me, I went to Madhya Pradesh, 14 months later, to do the districts there, and the chief minister of that state, showed me the clipping of that and said, “I’m going to try this experiment in my state”.


STACKHOUSE: I find a lot of journalists just use the third world, the so called third world as a backdrop for the hopelessness stories, saying, “Oh God, isn’t it awful”, and there is no context, that none of the complexities of human development are explained, very little of the hope and success that’s out there in great abundance, I’ve found, none of that is given its proper place.


NARRATOR: After reading a few of Sainath’s stories, some of our ideas about poverty tend to fall away.  We’ve come to expect tales of drought, disease, and charitable organizations doing good works, but Sainath has a knack for finding the unexpected.  For instance, when he was in Pudukkottai, writing about the women in the quarries, he found a revolution launched on wheels.


[cut to dusty rural streets, women walking, a few cycling]


SAINATH: As the literacy movement unfolded it became necessary to train women activists in bicycling so that they could go out to the rural areas and reach women in the literacy program.  Now that wasn’t possible unless the activists themselves learned bicycling. 


It is virtually unknown for a woman to be cycling about the countryside.  It is virtually unknown for a woman to know cycling in the first place.


KANNAMAL:  There was a resistance to the rural women.  “Don’t cycle! If you want to learn cycling, I will break your legs!”


CHUNKATH: It requires a lot of courage.  In India especially, where you don’t show your ankles, to put your legs over that crossbar and ride that cycle.  Because you are breaking every kind of taboo.  The taboo that said you can not show your ankles, the taboo that said you can’t throw your legs over,  a taboo that said you can’t be boyish, you have to be sort of very circumspect, walk sedately.


KANNAMAL:  I told all the women my feelings.  I was the most timid person in the world.  If I can learn cycling, you will learn cycling. Only the first three days are difficult, on the fourth day you will be able to learn cycling.


CHUNKATH: This has become a kind of social movement in Pudukkottai.  And it is a nice activity.  For example, if you have been told that you can’t ride a cycle all your life, and suddenly you find the entire village is doing it, and it had a kind of social sanction.  You would happily join in.


That made a tremendous difference in the lives of the people,  the lives of the women.  Especially the men, you know, they used to make fun of them.  Now of course, there are about two lakh women riding cycles, so there’s no question of making fun of the women, because how many women can they make fun of.


SAINATH: Soon, it emerged that bicycling spread like wild fire across the rural women community as thousands upon thousands of women insisted upon learning bicycling.  A number of these women in the rural villages are small producers.  They take their vegetables, they take their little produce and sell it in other villages. 


So what happened, is that if I was a woman selling small produce in different villages, the job might take me 8 hours, 10 hours without a bicycle, it might take me 3 hours, 4 hours with a bicycle.  Secondly, if I was covering four villages earlier, I can now go to 8 villages, 10 villages.

Another very important difference, conservative Muslim women have started cycling.  A lot of women, one for example said, “for me it’s a great economic difference, but for me, I don’t own a bicycle, but with the little money I’ve earned, what do I do with my spare money, I hire a bicycle and go around, you wouldn’t believe it because it gives me a feeling of freedom, I’ve grown wings.”


[sainath at home]


SAINATH: I think the women of Pudukkottai are going to liberate themselves.  I believe my role comes in trying to make you understand what they are trying to say.  My role comes in, in trying to make you understand that many of the things you’ve heard and believed about them are not true, these are not the facts.  My role is to make you understand that these people are setting a tremendous example for the rest of society, which is being lost because the press doesn’t cover them, or when it does, falsifies the nature of their movement.


[cut to travel montage]


SAINATH: I have now criss-crossed this country for more than eight years – it’s my ninth year.  I’ve covered over a quarter of a million kilometres in this country. 


Everybody Loves a Good Drought took over a hundred thousand kilometres of travel.  And since then, I’ve travelled a hell of a lot more than that.


We’re going through a block called Boden.  It’s estimated that over 90% of the people in Boden are below the poverty line.  Over 90%.



PETER: Sainath doesn’t believe in propaganda.  I think he would never deliberately put a spin on a story, but he believes in being passionately involved in the story that you’re covering.


[cut to dusty rural road with decrepit looking mud hut]


SAINATH: This is the hotel Raj Kumar.  It’s a hotel owned by the people of the Dalit communities and they have faced a series of boycotts because of caste and other pressures.  The hotel is located in a prime space next to the main bus stand of this block headquarters and the inter-district busses go right by this.  So they’ve struggled very hard to make a living out of this hotel, but have faced a lot of social boycotts, due to caste discrimination.  Today they have 25 journalists eating here so let’s see what happens.


[student reporters and others crowd interior of restaurant.  Elderly men serve rice and curries with their hands]


PETER: And if he thinks injustice is being done, he doesn’t believe that you should say, well on one hand you have to take account of this, on the other hand you have to take account of that, Sainath says, no no, don’t try to balance it, this is wrong, and I’m going to passionately say that it is wrong and I’m not going to be neutral about that, I’m not going to be objective about that.


SAINATH: The main crime these people committed was to try to improve their conditions and change their occupations and change their station in life.  That is the cause of a whole heap of resentment.  I mean, they’re trying to improve themselves.  And society wants them to know their place, so that’s why they’re facing all the trouble that they are.


NARRATOR: While Sainath and the other reporters talk to the owner of the hotel, Jagdish steps outside to field questions from owners of competing businesses and local government officials.


[outdoors, jagadish and onlookers eye each other menacingly.  Officious looking man invites jagadish to visit government office.  He declines, “it’s not our duty’.




SAINATH: I was just here a month ago, since then different departments of government have sent them notices of errors, revenue notices, encroachment notices, basically as a form of harassment, because these notices have not gone to the competitors.  It’s just to these guys.  Although these guys have acknowledgements showing that they have corresponded properly and appropriately with the concerned departments, they are under a lot of pressure and that’s why they had to close down.  So now they’re facing pressure from the government also, because at the lower levels of bureaucracy,  there is a lot of caste prejudice.  And despite this, against all these odds they’ve been struggling to keep their hotel going.


I believe that what we call value free or neutral journalism is essentially the journalism of the advertiser or the monopoly house.  The journalism of the status quo always prides as being neutral.  Because it wants neutrality.  Because it defends and protects and entrenches the status quo.  Now, the status quo may be a very good thing.  I don’t believe that in India it is.  I believe it’s a very reactionary and very bad thing.  As I believe it is in most societies in the world.


PETER: I think we’re getting more and more tired of big journalism for big audiences and we realize that journalism basically, is something that is very individual, produced by an individual to be read by individuals.  Sainath’s journalism is that, Sainath’s journalism is highly individualistic, and he’s aiming at us as individuals, not as part of a big audience, not as part of a consumer group, not as part of a newspaper circulation group, but as individuals. 



SAINATH: The corporate this year, and since last November has completely played down on of the most important events of the last forty years, which was, the protests and the media fall out of Seattle.  Very, very interesting things happened in media terms in Seattle.  All over the United States when I was travelling, I have been in about sixteen cities in the last eight, ten weeks.  Groups have sprung up calling themselves “indy” media groups, have you seen any of these?  During Seattle, some of them ran a newspaper called the “People’s Newspaper”, and all those who were part, who were eyewitnesses to what happened in Seattle were welcomed to post their personalized reports on the web.  It was very interesting to me that the two editors …I had an hour with the editor and the foreign editor of the New York Times – they read it, and one of them was willing to say, “Some of the stuff on that page was not bad, it was good”.  Very condescending and very… By the way of all the editors and all the meetings I had, with Cronkite, and I met Studs Terkel..and mavericks like Gore Vidal… The single most boring meeting I had was with the editors of the New York Times.  You can see why that paper is a cure for insomnia.  They are executives, they’re not journalists, there’s no passion.  You cannot be a journalist if you don’t have a passion.  A journalist is someone who creates problems.  A journalist is someone who questions.  The kids, and some of the people in the indy-media groups are kids, some of them are really young, some of them are teenagers, I was very impressed with some of the reporting I saw.  I was very impressed by some of the faithful – you know why, because it’s unrehearsed, it’s straight from the heart.  They have reported and reported truthfully about what had happened.


PETER: And what we see happening, I think here and there on the Internet, is the individual voice.  The passionate individual voice finding a platform and finding an audience.  A good deal of the journalism I read now, that influences me most strongly in fact, comes from odd sources on the Internet, not from the New York Times page or not from the Globe and Mail page.  So I think we may actually be returning to a world where there will be room for more cyclists to express themselves.


SAINATH: The Australian Sociologist Alex Carey summarized the three great developments of the twentieth century as the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda to help corporate power halt the growth of democracy.  And I think a truer word hasn’t been said post World War Two.  Today six conglomerates set the agenda of much of the media in the world.  The power of a Time-Warner-Disney, the power of an AOL is simply phenomenal to not just set agendas but to distort the news, to change priorities, to start creating audiences which have no interest in what’s happening to other human beings.  Mercifully, they haven’t fully succeeded though they have made considerable progress.  And I think before they make that successful conclusion, those of us who believe in good, old fashioned shoe-leather journalism, that journalism is about ordinary people, that it’s for people not for shareholders, that journalism is about how women are doing, how labourers are doing, how landless agricultural workers are doing, those of us who believe that this is what journalism is about then have to take a stand against the trivialization and idiotization of journalism.


[cut to view from inside car.  Torrential rain on city streets.  Music ]



NARRATOR: In restaurants and market stalls throughout Orissa, tin speakers blast the music of a legendary folk singer.  Indians have bought millions of cassettes of his music, but he lives here in a Dalit slum.




[interior, cramped home.rain leaking through roof]


SAINATH: This is Jitendria Haripal, he is the greatest living exponent of the folk music tradition known as Sambalpuri geet.  Record companies made tens of millions of rupees on his talent. 


His own rewards have been completely different.

More than a year ago I came and did a story on him, which I am now going to give a copy of. 


[voices and singing]


He could not enter an academy of music because he was a Dalit.  When he was young, he was not allowed to enter the music academy.  So he used to stand outside, sometimes in the rain, listening to the great singers of the time because he was not allowed to enter the music hall, he was not allowed to enter the music academy, but by listening to good people, and by just practicing and being a natural genius, he became the great musician that he became.




[background noise]




SAINATH: What is his contribution to society?  And what has society given him?


I think that this question should come in what you write.  I think it should be the essence of what you write.  


[travel montage, traffic in monsoon rain, dark dissolves to morning, clearing skies, dissolve to interview in sunny field]


SAINATH: Every leader who participated in the freedom struggle doubled up as a journalist, male or female.  Gandhi was a journalist.  He earned his living as a journalist for a while.  He ran a couple of journals, he established and founded and ran a couple of journals, which made this incredible historic point.  That you can have low circulation and very high impact.  Nobody had the impact he did.  And yet his journals were very low circulation, but what they did, because of their character they set an agenda that forced the rest of the press, including and especially the imperial press of the British Raj to respond.  Baba Sahib Ambedkar used journalism, who was, I think it’s wrong to call him a Dalit leader, because he was a national leader.  A man who was the architect of the Indian constitution, and unquestionably the great iconic figure of the Dalit movements today.  He was a person who used journalism enormously well.  He used journalism as a tool of change, as a tool of rebellion, of reward.  To exhort the untouchables to fight for their rights.  He entered into debates with very, very great minds and laid them flat with the power of his journalism.  So every great leader of the freedom struggle was also a journalist, so that for me is a very emotional thing, that this is where journalism comes from. You take that away, there’s nothing in my journalism, because journalism and freedom go together in this historic tradition.



[cut to UC Berkley campus lecture theater, Sainath describes slide show]


SAIANTH:Now, this is the state funded mid-day meal scheme in Orissa and all the children are duly seated according to caste.  These are all the Dalit children in one corner…

They’ve all been separated according to caste, even the woman that serves or the man that serves will not serve the Dalit children.  This is institutionalized.  It’s not just one school; I’ve documented 35 schools in Bolangir, Nuapada and Kalahandi.


CHUNKATH: People like Sainath are like catalysts.  Who bring  a lot of people together who are all working towards a common goal of making this country a much better place.


SAINATH: This is one of Kalahandi’s leading journalists, asking these boys why they are seated separately.  And do you know what the children internalized?

They said, we have to sit here, we can’t sit with those children.  They are good people.  We are not.  The children have internalized it at that age.  The schooling system drills it into their head.


[cut to zwicker’s office]


ZWICKER: His work regrettably, becomes more and more relevant in virtually every country, not excepting Canada, day by day.  As corporate agenda globalization continues to take its toll.  With the growing discrepancy between rich and poor in every society – on this street.


[cut to Kannamal at home]


KANNAMAL: He’s a different journalist.  I think Sainath is a real journalist.


[cut to Sainath, montage of faces]


Remember Gandhi’s famous talisman?

Recall the face of the the last man you saw, the poorest and the weakest and ask yourself, how will the decision you propose to take place him or her in greater control of his or her own life?








“In 1999 the Indian Government took control of the quarries away from the women of Pudukkottai.


Kannamal led a court challenge to have the quarries returned to the women.


The women won.”