Skip to main content Skip to local navigation

Telling the stories of climate, farm distress, inequality and justice

Telling the stories of climate, farm distress, inequality and justice

Sainath talks about climate, farm distress, inequality and justice at EUC.

From March 4-8 renowned journalist and author P Sainath visited York for a week as a scholar-in-residence. He delivered two separate seminars about climate, farm distress, inequality and justice in rural India and discussed his latest book on the foot soldiers of Indian freedom. Both talks were co-organized by EUC and the York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR) as part of their climate seminar series, March being a climate change research month at York University.

A journalist since 1980, Sainath became a full-time reporter on rural India in 1993 and since then spends around 270 days a year in India’s poorest regions. He wrote for some of India’s most important newspapers, including The Times of India and The Hindu (of which he was Rural Editor for a decade), before founding the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), a new form of journalism in the era of corporate media, in 2014. His is the largest-ever body of journalistic work on rural India, where 69 per cent of the country’s population lives. In 1995, Sainath became the first Indian, and is the only one so far, to win first place in the European Commission's Lorenzo Natali Prize for journalism. In 2000, his path-breaking reporting placed India’s ongoing agrarian crisis and farmer suicides on the national agenda. In 2007, Sainath won the Ramon Magsaysay Prize (referred to as the 'Asian Nobel’), given to outstanding Asian individuals who have exemplified integrity in governance, courageous service to the people, and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society. Sainath has also won all the major Indian awards for journalism, including "Journalist of the Year" in 2009, the highest award run by The Indian Express, a rival publication to The Hindu, where he was working at the time.

Sainath with the PARI team of reporters and researchers who have published about 150 landmark stories and documents related to the impact of the lockdown on livelihoods and on the daily lives of the most marginalised segments of India.

PARI is a unique online project on rural India, with its 833 million people, speaking 780 living languages and boasting a bewildering array of stories, occupations, arts, music, culture, and more. PARI is a contemporary journal, a digital textbook for the young. It publishes daily in 15 Indian languages and is a totally independent multimedia digital platform.  Its unique database is the only one of its kind in journalism, wholly dedicated to rural India and representing the incredible diversity of every region and section of the Indian countryside. It is also independent of both governments and private corporations. During the pandemic lockdowns, PARI did over 200 stories on the single theme of Livelihoods Under Lockdown from over 25 regions across the country.

Telling some of these stories in his Climate Seminar for EUC, Sainath noted that the impacts of climate change will be most severe in poor countries, regions, and communities where vulnerable populations reside and work. “People in these areas will have to choose between starvation and migration. The rich people in the country can migrate, however, we cannot imagine what will happen to the millions who live in the slums and rural villages,” Sainath says.

Hailstorms wreck farming in Latur, Maharashtra in 2019. Photo and story by PARI.

Citing an event in the state of Maharashtra where hailstorms at 43°C wrecked farming in Latur district in 2019, he noted that farmers are facing challenges due to extreme weather events, which have become more frequent over the past decade. These events have led to significant damage to crops, particularly fruit orchards. “The changing weather patterns, including hailstorms and erratic rainfall, not to mention the decline in groundwater levels and the increased use of pesticides, further exacerbate the agricultural crisis in Maharashtra's Latur district,” Sainath said.

Sainath also noted that human-wildlife conflict is escalating in Radhanagari, Kolhapur, where gaur buffalos are raiding nearby farms -- spurred by deforestation, cropping changes, drought, and fluctuating weather patterns. Farmers are forced to guard their fields at night to block the massive bovine, leading to increased farming costs and risks. Mining activities and sugarcane expansion further disrupt the ecosystem, impacting land, water, flora, and fauna. “As conflicts escalate, farmers face substantial crop losses, highlighting the urgent need for sustainable solutions to address the complex interplay of environmental and human factors in the region”, states Sainath.

The lockdown revealed the brutality of India's chronic disregard for the rights of migrant labourers – The migrant and the moral economy of the elite by P Sainath, June 2020.

Covering the human cost of COVID-19, PARI found that nationwide lockdown triggered distress among millions of ordinary Indians – migrant workers, farmers, sugarcane cutters, Adivasis, Dalits, sanitation workers, brick kiln and construction labourers, pastoral nomads, and others.

“The sudden lockdown forced millions of rural workers in India to return to their villages from cities where they had been employed as cheap labour. The media criticized this mass exodus, but the real issue lies in why they left their villages in the first place, which can be attributed to the agrarian crisis,” notes Sainath.

In India, census data reveals a significant decline in full-time farmers over two decades, with 15 million leaving agriculture between 1991 and 2011.  During the pandemic, an unprecedented number of people migrated, with estimates ranging from 30 to 40 million. PARI covered this massive migration, highlighting the immense job loss, with 118 million jobs lost in April 2020 alone.  Still, while many are on the brink of disaster, with no work, income or food, others continue to work amid extremely hazardous conditions.

Sainath takes his own photographs for all his journalistic reports. His photo exhibition, Visible Work, Invisible Women: Women & Work in Rural India has been seen by close to a million Indians around the country since its first edition in 2002.  It mixes text with visuals and brings home the astonishing but unacknowledged contribution of the poor rural women to the national economy. Typically, his exhibition is inaugurated by the women who feature in the photos: landless, poor and ‘Untouchable.’ Most of the exhibition venues are villages, factory gates, schools and colleges, cafeterias or corridors, entrances to mines and quarries, even railway stations.

Since 2015, a digitized version of Visible Work, Invisible Women: Women & Work in Rural India is available on PARI.

The women’s work exhibition is perhaps the first Indian photo exhibit seen by more rural than urban people. Yet, the same exhibition has been sought out and hosted at the Asia Society, New York, the International House of Japan in Tokyo and several universities in Canada and the United States, as also at venues in South Africa, Switzerland, and The Netherlands.

In April 2020, the United States Library of Congress included PARI in their web archives, describing it as "An important part of [their] collection and the historical record." In 2021, Sainath became the first-ever working journalist to win The Fukuoka Grand Prize, one of Japan’s top international awards in either the field of academics or arts and culture in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the preservation and creation of Asian culture and for having exhibited the significance of Asian culture to the world.


P. Sainath is the founder-editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). He has served as a journalist, reporter, rural affairs editor, and deputy chief editor of periodicals like The Hindu, Blitz and The Daily. In June 2011, the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, conferred on him its highest award – Honorary Doctor of Letters. In 2017, he was conferred another doctorate (honoris causa) by the University of St. Francis Xavier, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada, where he was also appointed to the Coady Chair in Social Justice. Sainath was McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton University (Fall 2012) and has taught journalism for 35 years.

Sainath has won over 60 national and international awards including the Fukuoka Grand Prize, the World Media Summit Award, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Amnesty International’s Global Human Rights Reporting Prize, the Ramnath Goenka award and recently the Narla Venkateswara Rao Award by the B.R. Ambedkar Joshua Phule Periyar Literature Foundation. His earlier book Everybody Loves a Good Drought (1996) is now in its 60th reprint. The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom (2022), his latest publication, is already in its 5th printing.