Documenting India's Villages Before They Vanish

The country's greatest chronicler of rural life embarks on a mission to digitize, well, everything.

NEW DELHI—When Palagummi Sainath was starting out as a young reporter in the 1980s, his news agency sent him into India’s heartland to collect the usual sob stories from farmers devastated by drought. Farmer after farmer explained to him that the disaster was not an accident of weather, but a man-made crisis caused by bad government policies. But when Sainath got back to Mumbai and read through the stories that he’d filed, he found that none of them captured what was happening on the ground. Relying on his training, he’d afforded undue weight to the narrative put forward by Indian officials. “That’s when I realized that conventional journalism is about the service of power,” he says today.

The epiphany shaped his career.

Frustrated by urban Indians’ headlong sprint to forget their rural roots following the liberalization of the country’s economy in 1991, Sainath applied for a journalism fellowship to travel through 10 rural districts in various Indian states and report on how the end of socialist-style planning, and the residue of its mistakes, was affecting India’s farms and villages. The senior journalists on the selection panel begged him to reconsider. The task was too big, and the budget too small, they warned. “‘You’ll be bankrupt after three districts,’ they told me. I was bankrupt after two,” Sainath recalled when I spoke with him by telephone last week from Princeton, where he is teaching this semester. Nevertheless, he kept going, selling cameras to stay afloat. “In the end, I did 19 districts. I covered more than 100,000 kilometers, much of it on foot.”

The result was a series of newspaper articles, later collected in book form under the title Everybody Loves a Good Drought (the title refers to a quote from a villager describing the way local bureaucrats and contractors line their pockets with government-relief packages). The reporting captured the complexity of rural poverty in India as a function of state policy and centuries-old social relationships—not in dry statistics but through engaging characters whom urban readers could recognize. When I searched out a copy a decade or so ago, it reminded me of James Agee’s Dust Bowl classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But Sainath’s style is less high-flown and his tone less earnest. He’s more like a world-weary cousin of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, as illustrated by a lengthy flight of fancy about all the brilliant progress India could make in eliminating its housing shortage if it redefined a sleeping bag as a house.

Now Sainath is at it again, leading an encyclopedic, volunteer-driven effort to digitize the faces, songs, arts, occupations, and struggles of India’s rapidly changing farms and villages. Called the People’s Archive of Rural India, or PARI, the project—in its ambition, at least—dwarfs Alan Lomax’s campaign to collect American blues and folk songs and James Murray’s crowdsourced Oxford English Dictionary. The website went live in December, featuring photographs, audio recordings, videos, and texts that document the celebrations and tribulations that make up “the everyday life of everyday people,” as Sainath puts it.

Among the goals: collect photographs of the faces of one man, one woman, and one child in every district of India; record speakers of all 780 Indian languages; chronicle the story of India’s agrarian crisis; and gather in full text all official (and unofficial but credible) reports relating to rural India, so researchers will not have to scour badly designed government websites to access vital studies. Sainath wants the archive to be as much a weapon as a resource. It will document not only music and festivals but also the rural India that remains “ugly, obnoxious, and dehumanizing, and deserves to die—like untouchability and atrocities against women.”

A suave, erudite man with a disheveled mop of silver curls, Sainath is not the son of the soil I imagined when I first read Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He hails from neither the grain belt of Punjab nor the cotton belt of Maharashtra, but from Tamil Nadu in India’s deep south. Though he sometimes dresses like a jholawallah—a mildly disparaging term applied to India’s leftist activists—he speaks in the plummy, British-inflected accent that marks the Indian elite of his generation. He lives in the metropolis of Mumbai, though he claims to have spent an average of 270 days a year in Indian villages beginning in 1993. Since his first drought, he’s been fascinated by the resilience of India’s farmers and forest-dwellers.

“My generation has lost its connection to rural India,” Sainath, who’s 57, told me. “The generation that’s coming after us doesn’t even know that a connection existed. My grandmother’s generation knew that water came from rains, and they put out vessels to catch the rain. My generation grew up thinking that water came from a tap. Today’s generation thinks that water comes out of plastic bottles.”

So far, Sainath has recruited more than 1,000 volunteers for the archive project, ranging from 30-year veterans of the journalism business to software engineers who’ve nary written a word. They’ve documented some fascinating characters. One of them is a 73-year-old librarian who manages a trove of 170 classics, mostly translations of Russian masters, in a tiny forest village frequented by wild elephants. Another is a young folk dancer who overcame poverty and untouchability—the outlawed but still lingering practice of treating certain castes as “polluted” sub-humans—to win a spot at the country’s top institute for the classical Bharatanatyam form, which, after India’s independence in 1947, has become as much the domain of the elite as ballet is in the United States. Still another is a tribal bard, captured in spontaneous composition-performance of a song protesting the acquisition of his tribe’s ancestral lands by the South Korean steel giant POSCO.

But there are hundreds of thousands of miles yet to travel. Rural India is home to some 800 million people who speak hundreds of languages. Sainath reckons that he’s already spent between $30,000 and $40,000 on the nonprofit project since late 2012, drawing on journalism awards and prizes, along with his own money. But he says he’ll need around $240,000 over the next two years to fund sojourns in rural India by 70-odd “chroniclers.” Though he attracts 150 volunteers a week to do everything from writing articles to helping with back-end work, the quality of some of the content is spotty. And as with many other new-media ventures, it’s unclear whether sufficient thought has gone into the question of what the archive will be—a historical resource or an outlet for subaltern journalism—or how it will survive.

India is currently undergoing what Sainath calls “an extremely painful transformation.” The country’s 2011 census reflected one of the largest mass migrations in history—one that has swelled over the past decade. For the first time, the census recorded more population growth in cities than villages. But despite rapid economic growth in India, the shift bears more resemblance to the Joads leaving the Dust Bowl for California than the Great Migration of southern blacks to Chicago and Detroit. Indians are not so much leaving the countryside to seek better-paying jobs in the city, as they are fleeing increasing poverty resulting from the stagnation of agricultural growth, the rising cost of inputs like water and fertilizer, and a shortage of land. India’s landless agricultural laborers now outnumber landed farmers, and the average plot size of those who do own land is shrinking. Roughly three-quarters of India’s land-owning farmers now till less than two and a half acres of land, according to the latest report by India’s National Sample Survey Organization. They can hope to earn around $84 a month with that sized plot, but it costs them $96 a month to raise their crops, forcing small-scale farmers to take on other jobs to make ends meet. A lack of crop insurance, poor access to low-cost loans, and unpredictable rains—plus cultural pressure to shell out fat dowries and lavish weddings for their daughters—leave many farmers crippled by debt.

A woman picks tendu leaves for use in beedi cigarettes. (P.Sainath/PARI)

Some give up altogether. As many as 300,000 farmers have committed suicide over the past two decades. While statistics such as this, along with the causes behind them, are hotly contested, Sainath argues that the suicide rate among Indian farmers is 47-percent higher than the national average—and believes that the actual number of farmer suicides may be higher than reported. Countless indigenous tribal people, too, have lost their lands and cultures to dams, mines, and tiger reserves.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi sees this transformation as inevitable. Expressing scorn for programs like his predecessors’ rural-employment guarantee, which helped the poor survive but kept them on the farm, he has promised to create 300 million jobs in “industrial corridors” through schemes like “Make in India,” which reduces or removes caps on foreign investment in various business sectors. But critics like farm-policy analyst Devinder Sharma say desperation is pushing people out of the countryside far faster than industry can create jobs for them in cities and towns. Among the hot-button issues in India at the moment is an executive order by Modi that allows the government to force farmers to sell their land for infrastructure projects without seeking their consent.

“We have not created 300 million jobs over the past 67 years since independence,” Sharma told me, noting that only 8 percent of Indians work in the formal sector of the economy. “How can you create that number in five years?” he asked, referring to the Indian government’s term limit.

Technology, including the Internet-based sort at the heart of Sainath’s archive project, has both been blamed for causing India’s agrarian crisis and held up as a magical solution to farmers’ woes.

For example, hybrid wheat and rice sparked the Green Revolution that saved India from starvation in the 1960s—that is, until pesticides and chemical fertilizers depleted the soil and boosted cancer rates, according to activists like Vandana Shiva, a prominent advocate of organic farming. Banks and finance companies often grant farmers easy access to loans to buy tractors, whether or not the farmers own enough land to make a tractor pay for itself—to the point where Punjab villagers routinely take out a loan to buy an $8,000 tractor, only to flip it and buy a new car for their daughter’s dowry, according to Sharma. “One of the biggest reasons for farmer suicides is that we have loaded the farmer with unwanted technologies,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Indian Tobacco Company and various nonprofits have promoted Internet kiosks as a way to free farmers from rapacious middlemen by giving them direct access to market information. Companies like Reuters and Nokia have proposed mobile updates with weather reports and expert crop advice to increase farm output. Top banks and mobile-service providers have teamed up to offer financial services through rural Indians’ mobile phones in a bid to get hundreds of millions of people out of the moneylender system and into the banking system. And, in the latest silicon dream, Modi has proposed 100 technology-enabled “smart cities” to bring rural Indians out of the countryside altogether.

But none of these innovations has struck at the root of the problem, which is that farmers who increasingly till plots smaller than a football field cannot hope to earn a living wage. Still, Aditya Dev Sood at the Center for Knowledge Societies told me that mobile- and Internet-based technologies have increased rural incomes and had more radical sociological effects. Interconnectivity with the outside world is eroding the “closed social networks” of the village that have fostered the ghettoization of Muslims and untouchables. “I’m willing to hazard that within my lifetime we’re going to see that change utterly,” he said.

Sainath—whose archive project lies somewhere between these dystopian and utopian visions—is not so sure. One moment he’s enthusiastically relating an anecdote about a taxi driver in the city of Raipur who hailed from a Punjab village and found Sainath’s project so interesting that he posted about it on Facebook using his mobile phone. The next he’s expressing reservations about the growing monopolization of the web, which in India has recently taken the form of companies like Facebook and Flipkart (an Indian competitor to Amazon) teaming up with mobile companies to offer free Internet access—a move that some see as a threat to net neutrality.

Peasants and small landholders have historically resisted being documented in archives, Sainath notes, since they recognize that being measured and recorded may be the first step to being dispossessed. Recently, for instance, slum dwellers prevented the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board from conducting a survey of 33 out of 622 slum clusters slated for “resettlement” in low-income housing. And governments have often found reasons to censor or restrict access to the archives they control. Today’s India is no different, Sainath says.

Sainath’s project accepts no government funding or corporate sponsorship. And unlike a magazine or TV station, it grants primary credit for all its material to the people who are depicted in the archive rather than the writers or filmmakers who document them, in addition to training and encouraging “subjects” to take pictures and make films themselves. In other words, control over information related to rural people is taken out of the hands of governments and corporations.

“Ours is a people’s archive,” Sainath said. “It can’t lead to dispossession. Nobody can take it down or make it their own.” Yet the archive’s very reason for existence is the rapid dispossession of the people it seeks to celebrate and defend. And even if nobody can take down the site, the archivists may struggle to avoid sinking into oblivion amid the cacophony of the Internet, which itself operates at the whim of governments and corporations.

Sainath is optimistic about what the archive could become. “We want that parents will show this to their kids. We want schools to use it in their courses,” he said. But he also concedes the challenge ahead. “The site is gigantic,” he noted, “and we are few.”