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Vol. 8, No. 3 July - September 2002

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Editor's Corner
From the Grassroots
ADPC Programs & Activities
Training & Education
AUDMP Making cities safer
Book Review



Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts. P Sainath, Penguin, New Delhi,1996. ISBN 0-1402-5984-8, 470 pages. Price Rs 350.

Everybody Loves a Good Drought is a difficult book to review. It is not about drought, yet anybody working on the problems of drought in developing countries will benefit from reading it. Those looking for recipes, or in development parlance, “conceptual frameworks” or “strategies”, to solve the problem of drought or any other developmental problem will be disappointed. The author, a freelance journalist in Mumbai, India, has based this book on a series of reports that he filed for the Times of India from India’s poorest districts between 1993 and 1995. The emphasis is on highlighting the processes that lead to poor people’s vulnerable condition rather than on events of droughts, famines or starvation deaths. The book is divided into 11 chapters, each bringing together reports on different aspects such as health, education, displacement, justice, drought and the role of the press in poverty and development. 

The book demolishes several established notions of poverty, poor people’s vulnerability and development. Through extremely tragic stories from the ground, the book shows how governments’ preoccupation with the introduction of new concepts and technologies in poorer areas, rather than a focus on fundamental (and more contentious) causes of poverty, actually makes them more vulnerable. Through numerous examples, Sainath indirectly demonstrates how successive failures of development programs on the ground never lead to a better policy environment at state and national levels.

In the chapter on drought, Sainath highlights that the problem of drought is not lack of adequate rainfall. He points out that lowest annual rainfall (over a twenty-year period) in some of the worst drought-affected districts in India is more than the average annual rainfall of some other districts. In these drought-affected districts, even a significantly higher rainfall in a subsequent year does not reduce people’s suffering. Clearly, there is more to it than the lack of rainfall. The problems are more fundamental. There are interest groups that reap benefits from projecting droughts as anomalous events rather than as an outcome of the interplay of a range of complex economic, social and political processes. In the Indian context, Sainath contends that declaring a district drought-prone is “a purely political decision”. It helps attract more resources for drought relief. For one of the states in India, the author points out that 73 percent of the sugar cane (which is a highly water-intensive crop) comes from the so-called drought-prone areas! While exposing various such complex facets of drought, Sainath does not spare his media colleagues either. He asserts that the media play a big role in “dramatizing an event without looking at the processes behind it”. While it helps to draw the initial attention of governments, donor agencies and non-governmental organizations to the poorer areas, it does not help in resolving the fundamental issues. Within this context he also takes on donor governments for their preference for providing emergency relief over addressing more fundamental causal issues.

Everybody Loves a Good Drought is full of insights into what is wrong with existing development processes in highly inequitable poor societies. What gives credence to these insights is that they emanate from extensive field research and much interaction with poor people themselves. On the whole, this is a depressing book that can make most of the work currently being done by humanitarian agencies look almost peripheral. But the book does have occasional sprinklings of “what went right” experiences. It can help bring about a much-needed sense of realism, and a sense of proportion among people working on poverty-reduction and development issues – of how big and complex the problems are and how much more inclusive and participatory development programs will have to be.

Kamal Kishore is Regional Disaster Reduction Advisor, Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery, United Nations Development Program (UNDP), India. He can be contacted at

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