Pitbasu Bhoi’s son Santosh died in hospital while he was trying to arrange money for treatment that would have saved his life. This is money that he was due – having worked for a 100 days building a village road under India’s well-known MNREGA scheme. On his 100th day, he hadn’t been paid a single penny for his labour. In Pampapur village of Surguja district, Chhattisgarh, far away from the media’s glare, his is but one among many such stories.
If you’re reading this, chances are you have an internet connection, a mobile phone that is likely smart, and either consume your news loudly, digitally or in print (or not – we’re not judging). You’re also spoilt for choice on platforms to protest against injustice or voice your opinion on what matters to you, no matter the audience. For most of us dealing with a constant deluge of news and information, 'media darkness' is something your therapist might recommend. But for millions of Indians like Pitbasu Bhoi who live out their lives in ‘media-dark’ areas, it implies the terrifying disquiet of no journalism, and the disenfranchisement that accompanies it.
The Evolving Face of Traditional Indian MediaWhy is media so important? Because when it does exist, independent, inclusive and accessible news media can have a tremendous impact on governance, and the accountability of governments to the people, by effectively playing the roles of:
- Watchdog, protecting public interests and highlighting any malpractice or corruption in government;
- Agenda-setter, raising awareness of pervasive and under-reported development issues; and
- Gatekeeper, uniting a plurality of perspectives and voices to enrich the public discourse.
It’s no secret that news media in India grapples with opposing forces. Journalistic scape-goats emerge periodically in the tussle between editorial independence and political/business interests that may be at odds. An alarmingly widespread trend of ‘paid news’ has blurred the lines between truth and propaganda. Ownership patterns are shrouded in mystery and ideological positions are hard to gauge. Imperfect as our media is though, no one would disagree that we are much better off with, than without it.
But when overwhelming sections of the population have no means of accessing media or having their stories told/heard, it renders them invisible and voiceless – and resigned to a reality where authorities and governments lack the information and incentives to give them a better life.Amid this sobering landscape are emerging unsung heroes of a new brand of citizen-led journalism –helped in no small measure by a mobile revolution that has put the nifty mobile phone into more hands than could have been imagined a decade ago. Today, with over 900 million mobile connections and a mobile network that has brought connectivity to over 90% of the population, the mobile-phone is the game-changer of 21st-century India.
Shubhranshu Choudhury, founder of CGNet Swara, and Aaditeshwar Seth, founder of Gram Vaani, understand this deeply. Through their free mobile-based media platforms CGNet Swara and Mobile Vaani, millions in neglected rural and tribal communities in India can now share and listen to locally relevant news and current affairs in their local languages using a piece of equipment that even they can readily access – the mobile phone. Callers are guided through simple menu options for recording or listening to recorded messages on an IVR platform. In the true spirit of ‘media for and by the people’, communities elect their own moderators who are trained on skills such as fact-checking and verifying recorded stories before they are broadcast.
These platforms embody the democratization of media, by creating a new kind of media that acknowledges, engages and empowers these forgotten people. It respects and accommodates their multi-lingual and social traditions and low literacy rates, and seeks to include them in the larger public discourse.
CGNet Swara: Creating Dialogue In Central IndiaShubhranshu is a Knight International Journalism fellow and was a South Asia producer for BBC TV and Radio during the 1990's and early 2000's. After covering stories of conflict and strife around the world, work and life brought him back to the village where he grew up in Chhattisgarh. Here terms like ‘Maoist’ and ‘Naxal’ are loosely used to describe the local population. He realized that which the outsiders viewed as insurgency was in fact the defeated reaction of a poverty-stricken majority – sick of inaction and corruption, and the lack of basic services – not irrational trigger-happy criminals. He began to question his ideas of journalism, journalists, what constitutes news and whose news it is. CGNet Swara was born of his realization that people must be able to tell their own stories. It caters to the central belt of tribal Gondwana (Hence, CG; ‘Swara’ means voice in Sanskrit) which includes parts of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. The name derives from the Gond people, an estimated eight million strong ethnic minority that speak Gondi – a language spoken only by a handful of India’s mainstream journalists. The Gond people live in remote villages, often without running water and schools. For them a platform like CGNet Swara has given them renewed hope for change and strength to raise their voices against injustice.Pitbasu’s story was first featured on the CGNet Swara platform by a citizen journalist from his village. It was subsequently picked up by the BBC and Hindu. The media attention helped. He was ultimately paid the Rs. 10,000 that the Government of Chhattisgarh owed him, but two weeks too late.
There are other happier endings. Stories are varied and range from a report about a forest ranger who asked for bribes, to teachers’ absence at a school that had been shut for seven months, to another report about high numbers of blind and mentally-ill children in an adivasi village. Days after the report about the blind village children, a health team arrived to find out more; the administration reopened the school and sent in a teacher; and the ranger has now repaid his bribes.
Each day, CGNet Swara receives about 500 calls, of which 50 are recorded. After checks, 5 stories are broadcast. Since it went live in February 2010, more than 300,000 reports have been called in by the new citizen journalists of Chhattisgarh, and 4,700 fact-checked stories aired and shared, many of them translated into Hindi and English and posted on CGNet Swara's website, from where they have been picked up by mainstream media in India and abroad, bringing the voices and views of the villagers in rural Chhattisgarh to the outside world for the first time.
If CGNet Swara’s is a journey of journalistic passion meeting technology, Gram Vaani’s is kind of the reverse.
Gram Vaani: An Independent Media Company Facilitating Dialogue in the North and North-Eastern Parts of IndiaGram Vaani founder Aaditeshwar, an accomplished techie (graduated from and teaches at an IIT) with a passion for social development, says he was inspired by the CGNet Swara model. A voice-technology research hub based in IIT Delhi, Gram Vaani started off in 2009 by developing technologies and an IVR platform for community radio stations. The idea was to support non-profits who managed these stations with their outreach to communities in remote parts of India. Mobile Vaani, Gram Vaani’s own mobile-based community radio platform, was a natural extension of this IVR system, but with a specific focus on bringing greater transparency and accountability in local governance. According to Aaditeshwar, “Initially, our growth was constrained because we were only a technology provider and it was difficult to scale through scattered NGOs. With Mobile Vaani, we evolved into a media company that runs its own network, which is enriched by partnerships but doesn’t depend on them.”
Today, Mobile Vaani integrates Gram Vaani’s phone networks in Jharkhand, Bihar, and the North East, with its network of over a dozen community radio stations in the Hindi belt. This gives Mobile Vaani a reach of over half a million households, primarily comprised of low-income families in rural areas.Mobile Vaani’s receives about 5,000 calls every day and has become a vital platform for local knowledge sharing, discussion, social campaigns to collect data and raise awareness on specific issues, as well as entertainment. Locals provide feedback on important government schemes such as MNREGA, the Public Distribution System (PDS) and Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). They ask for information about government policies or best practices around health or agriculture. They even sing songs.
But what then? The action that follows local grievances is critical to what Gram Vaani has set out to do and it understands this. To increase external pressure on the authorities to act, it ties up with mass-media (Prabhat Jha, a local paper dedicates a page a week to stories from Mobile Vaani), and partners like Oxfam and Breakthrough that publish the results of social campaigns on Mobile Vaani. Having built a sense of trust with the community, Gram Vaani often develops helpful relationships with senior officials such as the State Commissioner, who can, and often do, ensure speedy action. Finally, Gram Vaani’s volunteer network (150-160 strong in Bihar for instance) identifies issues in the community and trains and encourages villagers to raise awareness on platforms like Mobile Vaani.
Volunteer action or direct government tie-ups have led to a response in over 50 cases, including cases of corruption around MNREGA job-card issuance, illegal mining and water-availability.
In the Domchach district of Jharkhand, on Jharkhand Mobile Vaani, local villagers began to relate several stories of illicit land-dealing with details about the involvement of the Block Development Officer and other senior officials. In a rare move especially in such far-flung parts, the District Administration took up the issue and promptly suspended the Block Development officer and other officers involved.Following another report by Kailash Giri on Jharkhand Mobile Vaani, the local authorities distributed books in middle schools in different villages of Nawadih block in Bokaro district, including Teo and Tapno.
We may not be able to fully appreciate how much it means to the vulnerable and voiceless to be paid their wages and pension on time, have running water and a regularly and well-functioning school or clinic that isn’t miles away, and be spared constant harassment by the authorities when seeking rights and services to which they are entitled. For many of us with little every day interaction with the State, these interruptions are inconvenient and perhaps enraging. For them, it’s often life and death. Thanks to people like Shubhranshu and Aaditeshwar, at least now they have a real chance.
“It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.” – Sam Cooke, American singer-songwriter
Words: Akanksha Malhautra[Akanksha was the lead researcher and author of Dasra’s report ‘Good to great: Taking the governance leap in India’, during which process she interviewed over 30 governance experts across stakeholder groups including non-profits, funders, academics and government. She has been selected to attend the Latin American Forum on Global Governance in Brazil this year alongside government and development sector professionals from 30 countries. She has also led research and writing on Dasra’s reports on mobiles for governance, and domestic violence. She has a dual Masters in Business from ESCP Europe and Management Development Institute Gurgaon, as well as a Bachelor in Engineering from Delhi College of Engineering.]
To learn more about social organizations like Gram Vaani and CGNet Swara that are adopting a variety of powerful approaches to strengthen governance in India, read Dasra’s report ‘Good to great: Taking the governance leap in India’ here.
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