Young People Do Care: Indian journalist P. Sainath inspires students

By Robert Jensen

Published in Progressive Populist · February, 2001

[This article appeared in the print version of The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2001, pp. 20-21.]

It is just after 9 a.m. — still painfully early for most university students — and about 30 students are crowded around our guest speaker after class, craning their necks to see his photographs of the poorest of India’s poor at work. They have just listened to him talk for an hour, and they won’t let him leave, peppering him with questions about the people in the photos.

The scene is at odds with what one often hears about today’s college students — that they all are apathetic, self-interested career-seekers who have no concern about the rest of the world and no interest in social justice.

That is certainly true of some — perhaps even the majority — but it is not an intrinsic state of being of today’s youth. My students’ reaction to the visiting Indian journalist, P. Sainath, and his compelling work on social and economic justice reminded me that young people are waiting for something from their elders, and that too often we don’t provide it.

What they don’t want or need are pious lectures, stories of the good old days, or marching orders, nor do they need heroes. After a decade of university teaching, I think what young people are looking for are role models — not just one model, but different models to help them find their own place in a complex world where it is difficult to be a decent person. They don’t need people to worship, but people to learn with.

That is what Sainath offered. He walked into my large class in a big, ugly lecture hall at 8 a.m. and grabbed their attention, but not by preaching at them. He simply told the story of how he walked away from a career as a high-ranking, well-paid editor in Indian newspapers to become an under-paid freelance writer covering the poor — and the social, political and economic systems that keep them poor.

“As the Indian media, much like the US media, concentrated more and more of their coverage on the lives of the top 5% — the rich and the beautiful people — I decided I would cover the bottom 5%, to tell their stories that are almost never heard,” Sainath said.

Sainath’s work has garnered awards — most recently Amnesty International’s Global Award for Human Rights Journalism — and his book Everybody Loves a Good Drought has sold well around the world. But my students were fascinated not just by the results of his reporting but by his passion for people and justice.

In a world that spends more time glorifying the few who are rich than asking why so many are hungry, Sainath’s commitment to reporting on the poor — and to asking critical questions about why they are poor — may seem out of step. In the world of dot-com billionaires, who cares about poor people half a world away?

My students came to care that morning, because they saw someone else care, and care deeply enough to act.

Sainath is not falsely modest; like most journalists, he’s proud of his work and eager to have it read widely. But his work in India’s poorest districts gives him a sense of perspective that we so often lack in the United States. He said that people always ask him how he deals with the suffering he sees in these districts, expecting him to be depressed by it.

“What I feel when I return from those villages is a sense of hope after seeing how strong and resilient human beings can be,” he said. “I ask myself if I would have that kind of courage in the face of such conditions. I’m not sure I would.”

Whatever Sainath’s level of courage, he brought to my students a relentless honesty about how the power wielded by corporations and their elite partners in government — in the United States and around the world — hurts people. He also gave them a model for how one can face that power, which can look so overwhelming and unstoppable. There is courage in his work, and my students could see it. And just as Sainath returns from poor villages with hope, I think most of my students left that class with a new sense of hope.

And I left with the reminder that if at the end of a semester most of my students are cynical or apathetic, I should blame myself not them. If we are to expect more from our young people than the greed and indifference to the suffering of others that they see all around them — including in the university — we must start by expecting more of ourselves.