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Rural Archive of India
Stories from Provincial India

Palagummi Sainath
Palagummi Sainath | © Martin Jahrfeld

With his online project, Rural Archive of India, journalist, Palagummi Sainath, is trying to give India’s rural inhabitants a face and a voice. The images and texts on his website speak to the cultural diversity and the vitality of provincial India, but also from poverty and instability.  

A leopard is sitting only a few paces away. There’s only about five meters between the predatory cat and the camera lens. “It’s a fantastic picture, but from the animal’s perspective, it’s also a great opportunity for lunch,” jokes Palagummi Sainath. The story he tells about how this picture was taken is just as spectacular as the picture itself. Because this dangerous motif wasn’t captured by a professional wildlife photographer, but rather a common Indian farmer from the state of Karnataka, using a little digital camera Sainath gave her so that she could document her life and her surroundings. You can find the picture of the leopard and the story behind it on the website, Peoples Archive of Rural India (PARI), with which the renowned journalist has been documenting the lives of common people beyond the big cities for many years.
Most of the stories and photos on the site come from the Indian backcountry – places hardly ever mentioned in reports by mainstream Indian media. They’re about people who carry water, plant rice, dig ditches, build roads, clean latrines, pick up trash, weave baskets, keep animal and collect pelts. Sainath gives all Indians a chance to speak with the support of a small editorial office in Mumbai and a network of volunteers. People, who are often illiterate, are better able to describe their own situations and environment than most journalists.  Many of them are Dalit or Adivasi – outcasts or members of Indian castes who have always been disadvantaged in Indian society. “We want to let people speak, to give them names, faces and voices. I don’t believe the experts who get so much attention from the media. Experts are often totally alienated from the subjects they focus on,” exclaims the journalist, who is very distinguished in his country.

All the same, the editorial standards of the People’s Archive of Rural India are strict. All stories a researched on site, which sometimes means going to the most remote parts of the Subcontinent. In addition to that, the 61-year-old values journalistic independence. His project doesn’t have advertising and there are no commercial interests involved. It’s financed exclusively from private donations. And there’s a reason for that. For Sainath, there’s no doubt that India’s big media outlets have leveraged commercial interests against journalistic independence. “In my early years, there was a journalist in every newsroom who covered the labor world, factories and agriculture. That was a long time ago. Today people cover rich people, their home interiors, their favorite restaurants. India’s newspapers make a lot of money because they’ve sold their journalistic integrity to their advertisers.

And there’s a lot to report on outside of India’s big cities too. With 833 million inhabitants, 780 languages, some millennia old, 86 different alphabets, countless ethnicities, traditions, rituals, trades, crafts and techniques, rural India is something like the biggest, living cultural archive in the world. Sainath wants to save as much of it as he can and at least document it for future generations. The editorial office is currently working to collect songs people sing while working the land and uploading them onto the site. “It’s a mammoth project. There are thousands of songs in each state. The diversity is just astounding,” says Sainath, who’s also working on a bunch of other ideas. In order to grow the site, the texts, which are mostly in English, should be gradually translate in to the most important provincial Indian languages. This is another giant project, which would require the help of many volunteer translators.

As enthusiastic as Sainath is, he doesn’t believe that the great cultural diversity of rural India can withstand the pressure of globalization and open markets. “You have to be honest, that a lot of what we’re documenting today won’t exist in 15 or 20 years. His work puts him in touch with the darker side of Indian modernization. Since he started researching poverty in India, in 1993, he’s covered over 100,000 kilometers on the Subcontinent, an extensive part of it on foot. His reportages on farm families destroyed by suicide are famous. He’s visited and interviewed over 900 of them. “I wouldn’t wish anyone to have that kind of conversation. The desperation in these households is indescribable,” he reports. The death of the head of the family often means the beginning of a long path of suffering for the rest of the family. The patriarchal and caste order imposed in Indian villages means that primarily female relatives are often left unprotected from their harsh surroundings.

Women in general: “More than 80% of the work done on the countryside is done by women, often while these women have a lack of rights and aren’t adequately paid. “That was one of the first things I learned,” Sainath says. The picture of the leopard is also part of a story that shows that rural Indian women can be brave and fearless, but are nevertheless discriminated against. The farmer who took that picture spoke of her two nieces who had to walk several kilometers to school along the leopard reserve. The village community petitioned for a school bus connection because the path was too dangerous to walk. This petition, however, was denied. This meant that both of the girls had to stop going to school.