Sainath's book provides vignettes of soul-destroying poverty and degradation in the poorest states in India. It is an attempt to correct the `event' approach which the majority of the media takes to India's ills, which tends to view India's problems simplistically as singular aberrations, rather than taking a broader `process' approach, which looks to less immediate causes. His writing is angry and passionate, but always clear.
What certainly comes through in Sainath's book is the incredible arrogance of much of the Indian administration. Save a few isolated cases, the examples of the arrogant official class are myriad - the official insistence that they know better than the very natives who had lived in an area for years; the mass sterilisation of perfectly good cattle, already adapted to the environment, in order to make way for a so-called "super cattle", which turns out to be useless; or the mass uprooting of millions of people to make way for useless dams, now brought to the attention of the West through the thankless activism of Arundhati Roy (the author of the God of Small Things). A consistent theme running through Sainath's reporting is a lack of honest and sincere consultation with the very people the `reforms' are supposed to help.
There are hopeful stories too - like the story of women's collectives. Sainath tells of how groups of women have gotten together and formed organised labour, and which do a better, more efficient work than the more `sophisticated' industries and companies. Indeed, industries come across as monopolies only interested in maintaining their corner of the market, and more than willing to resort to nasty tricks in order to maintain their dominance (for instance, creating rival groups to undermine the administration's trust in such organised groups, social ostracism, even physical abuse). Corrupt officials don't help these collectives' chances either - since the collectives' cheaper and more efficient labour threaten the kickbacks the officials get from the industries.
The Indian middle class are also chastised by Sainath. Like their Western counterparts, they require a diet of horror stories to grab their attention. Hence, stories are often reported as ahistorical events, rather than dealing honestly with the process which led to the `event' in question. More than this, the middle classes have become so numbed to the poverty of the majority, that they require exceptional suffering to warrant their time - thus, there are reports of `epidemics' and `droughts' which are often exaggerations or mistruths.
After a while, I felt myself becoming numbed by the stories. There were simply too many tales of woe. This isn't really a complaint about Sainath's reporting, but maybe more of a plea for longer, more detailed stories from him. But this is the nature of his book, which is essentially a compilation of newspaper articles. Although Sainath makes a plea in his book for a view of Indian poverty as process rather than event, sometimes I felt his stories were too short to support the process approach he himself advocates. Still, this should not stop any reader interested in India from reading this book. It is a shocking indictment of the India that should have been.
A standard criticism of works like Sainath's would be that it is merely critical, and doesn't provide any answers. How can one learn from the mistakes of one's predecessors? The impression I got from Sainath was that the best that could be done is more consultation, more historical awareness, more backup studies, more studies of the actual effects of the reform process itself on the environment and the people actually involved, and so on. It's not a particularly innovative conclusion, but it's probably realistic.