Vantage point

Monday, August 06, 2007

Objectivity and Sainath

Last week I was at a PhD students conference in Washington D.C. During one of the sessions on theory construction, the topic being discussed was the importance of objectivity. To come up with good theories, is objectivity sacrosanct? Do your own passionate beliefs about something blind you from seeing a truth which might be contrary to what you hold dear? Or is passionate subjectivity necessary to give you the firepower to buck trends and break new ground? As with most things to do with research, there was no clear answer, with equally compelling arguments given by both sides.

Just a couple of days before the conference came the news that P Sainath is the recipient of this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award. Having read his book Everybody Loves a Good Drought and many of his newspaper articles, the objectivity debate seemed even more relevant.

Sainath thoroughly deserves the award. I have great respect for him, because he has always displayed something sorely lacking in the Indian media - initiative. Bucking the urban-centric trend of journalism, he travels to the hinterland and brings us stories from there. Sainath's work is thought of by some as the injection of reality into our affluent middle class world views.

Which is why personally I am very disappointed at the inadequacies of the way he brings us this reality. Often I get frustrated, because he is obviously a very intelligent and circumspect man. I can only blame those inadequacies on the lack of objectivity. Even though he does a fantastic job of unearthing stories and documenting them, the spin he puts on it betrays his own beliefs, which are at the very least left-of-centre.

His book was about people who were nothing but victims of the state. Those displaced due to dams, coal mines, and so on, and now leading a penniless existence. Tribals who were forced up to give up the very forests that sustain them. There is one thread common to all these stories - someone sitting either in the national capital or state capital deciding what is the best for everyone. And a complete lack of the sanctity of property rights, due to which anyone, whether it is the government or a private corporation which has bribed the government, can steal your land from you.

But "sanctity of private property rights" probably seems like too capitalist an idea for Sainath. The truth is interfering with his subjective opinions. Which is why most of the times, Sainath is there-but-not-quite-there. Some of his opinions like the ones here are correct. The WTO IS a sham. Subsidies ARE cornered by the elite. Food security IS a myth. And anyone who knows free markets will join Sainath in voicing those opinions.

Where he falters very often is labeling the post-1991 policies as "free market capitalism" and saying they have been as bad, if not worse for the poor of this country, as socialism was. The neo-liberal policies often cop the blame from him. But whenever you take an issue he has raised and dig deeper, the underlying reason is still statist interventionism. However his overall writing continues to create the illusion, willfully or otherwise, that free market ideas are part of the problem.

I wrote a post a few weeks back about a specific point he raised. The disparity in power supply to urban and rural households. Dig deeper and the problem lies with monopolistic state owned electricity boards that have no incentive to even serve their customers, let alone treat them fairly. Leave resource distribution to a central authority like the government and some will always be more equal than others.

But Sainath never goes that deep. Even his harshest indictments of the government have been at a fairly superficial level, probably because he knows that if he goes too deep, the answer he comes up with may not suit his own tastes. And that stops him from becoming a truly great journalist.

Of course, losing his subjectivity would also mean he loses his passion. If he didn't have this very passion, he would have been happy covering the meaningless lives of film stars or politicians or cricketers. His biggest strength is also his biggest weakness.

As Surjeet Bhalla wrote in an article critiquing(registration required) a specific point Sainath made

Populism pays and pays much more than hard-headed factual analysis. By keeping the guilt in check, it makes the Scotch of the elite go down that much better.

There is no point in expecting Sainath to change. In fact there is no need for Sainath to change. He is playing his role well enough. He continues to get his hands dirty and inject doses of reality into our consciousness, though the reality itself is a bit skewed. What we need is people having a different belief system getting their hands dirty. What we need is a more diverse marketplace of ideas. We need people to go to villages, and tell those stories, pinpointing the real problems instead of guilt-peddling.

It seems hypocritical for me, sitting in the United States to exhort people to do what Sainath does, but in a complementary fashion. All I can do is hope that such people turn up. And I am fortunate enough to know personally, a few friends who are also getting their hands dirty in rural India. They are not journalists.... not yet anyway. But a counter-movement based on real free market ideals, not the government-contract-variety of free markets ideals, is slowly but surely taking off.