Atanu Dey On India's Development

Manufacturing Discontent

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It’s an easily verifiable unpalatable fact that there are oppressed and oppressors in our world. That we should help those oppressed is both a moral obligation and a practical necessity because it has enormous implications for social welfare. But manufacturing discontent out of thin air is neither morally right or practically useful. It is more than just wrong-headed: it harms precisely those who are the least able to bear any more injustices. Yet, there’s an industry solely dedicated to manufacturing discontent against the very instruments and institutions which hold the promise of alleviating material human suffering.

P. Sainath is a celebrated journalist who has spent decades reporting on the heartbreaking condition of the poorest of the poor in rural India. He has done what few of us would dare to do: live for significant time with the wretched of India, the hundreds of millions of poor subsistence farmers of India, and report their conditions accurately. I first came to know about his work through his book, “Everybody Loves a Good Drought” and met him when he came to UC Berkeley (in the late 1990s if I recall correctly) to promote his book.

As a reporter on the ground, he’s good. He’s very, very good. He tells it like he sees it. If you can’t actually go to the so-called grassroots, you have Mr Sainath to observe and report. As a journalist reporting facts he is as good as you need one to be. However, if you need to understand the implications of the facts he reports, you will have to look elsewhere. Sainath is a good journalist but his understanding of the economic causes of the problems he observes is abysmally inaccurate and fundamentally flawed. Read him for his reportage but when it comes to the implications of the data he reports, and his analysis of the causes and what’s to be done to fix the problems, it is best to ignore him. Unfortunately, most of his audience are a bit more clueless than he is and they get taken in by his rhetoric.

Here’s Sainath’s talk at the University of Texas, Austin, of 6th April 2011 titled, “Mass Media vs Mass Reality: From Farm to Field to Wall Street Deals.”

It’s an instructive talk. The main lesson I take away from it is that there’s much profit in the manufacturing discontent industry. I wish it were a cottage industry but unfortunately it isn’t. It’s much more than that: it’s as much of a multinational global industry as the multinationals that it so vehemently opposes. It seeks to promote and sell its branded products — discontent and victim-hood which I wrote about in my last post — globally, and its captains seek its profits as assiduously as any CEO of a multinational selling soap.

I want to deconstruct that talk in a bit. For now, I leave you to take a look at it. As I said, it is instructive and well worth the time. The lesson can be titled, “How to misinterpret the world and make a killing at the same time.” I don’t wish to impute dishonorable motives on his part. The most charitable interpretation is that he is misguided. Perhaps he is simply ignorant and to a degree that he is ignorant of his own ignorance.

  • DesiGuru

    You are being extra ordinarily kind towards P Sainath. Not fair comparing your excellent but over done bashing of specifically the Congress types. If you actually had an economic model to calculate the real loss to the Indian economy because of fools like Sainath compared to your average politician. You will be surprised that the loss due to fools like Sainath would end up much much higher. Because they form the base of the narrative that surrounds India. It is these people who lay the intellectual architecture of the thought process of the average Indian to the average Intellectual in the case of these English speaking journalists.

    For example the idiot has been ranting about farmer suicides for his entire life. By somehow semi conjuring up suicide numbers. Like it being 250000 over 16 years etc recently. The usual tricks to make the number as big as possible. But not once in his Magwhatever award winning journalist career has he given it even a hint of a context. Like what is the actual suicide percentage ? I have done a reasonably indepth calculation. And the actual farmer suicide rate even in a drought year is less than that of non farmers anywhere in India !!

    On top of that this suicide rate is so low that it can barely be proved to be due to any event other than the usual suicide rate that human beings show elsewhere. Infact there are over 100 countries, half of them much richer than India where this suicide rate is much much higher. South Korea for example is over 50 per 1 lakh while the India rate is in the low 3-5 per lakh range for everyone including farmers.

    I mean when you think P Sainath you remember his persistent rant about farmer suicide. But what is the reality ? The truth is that it is extra ordinarily low a figure looking at the total number of people doing farming in India.

    Anyways. P Sainath is the Sachin Tendulkar of intellectual fools.

  • Loknath

    DesiGuru,

    You succintly put it.

    “fools like Sainath would end up much much higher. Because they form the base of the narrative that surrounds India”

    Harsh words but true.

    The farmers suicide reporting is part of the same victim-manufaturing industry sponsored by the powers that benefit from it. That probably explains why Sainath was left alive. He is a free spokesperson of the Govt.

  • SV

    I attended his talk in Austin, it was a revelation.

  • Sriram

    Whoever thinks he is pro congress or pro govt should revisit Sainath’s lectures/writings.
    I’d be waiting for the deconstruction promised

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  • DesiGuru

    @Loknath

    No I’m pretty sure that there is no particular motivation that P Sainath has so as to say that he is pro or anti government.

    He is the average human being who sees an easy market for such a topic. So for example, being theoretically and economically correct in analysing the farmer suicide topic simply will not make you famous but socialistic ranting about the farmer’s state increases your award winning ability in idiotic foreign/US sponsored NGO type awards.

    Simply put,it is the sheer low level of his thinking process that is responsible for his output. Just because it works well for his career its not exactly what he hatched up as a plan. It is really the way he thinks.

    You should just go through some of his numerical analysis or financial economic analysis of anything throughout his career. I guarantee you that even an intelligent left centric economist in the US, will probably die laughing reading his works.

  • RC

    Whoever thinks he is pro congress or pro govt should revisit Sainath’s lectures

    We dont care whether or not he is pro or anti Congress. His dangerous lack of understanding of basic economics is the concern.

    DesiGuru,
    “Magwhatever Award” – Great word coinage!!

    The farmer suicide issue is twisted senselessly by these economic illiterates who speak in great English prose. The same evil-MNC seed that is supposedly causing farmers to kill themselves is tripling cotton yields in Gujarat. Go figure!!!

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  • Rajarshi

    I’ve been on the look out for books which delineate the reasons, and provide detailed analysis of the policies which have aggravated poverty.
    I’d be very grateful if someone can recommend a few books which will help me to comprehend the prevailing economic conditions.
    Thanks :)

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      I suggest reading bits of this blog. Start with “Why is India poor?” category. (I have not been categorizing all posts — so all posts dealing with the topic are not under it.)

      You could also read my book, “Transforming India” to get some more ideas why India is poor and what can be done about it. You can buy the hardcopy of the book from Flipkart. The pdf version of the book is available for download (free) at TransformingIndia.in.

  • Rajarshi

    @Atanu Dey : Thank you sir, for replying to my queries.