An unrestricted and unbiased press is an aspect of democratic India that was long-applauded and respected. But in recent years, questions regarding bias and political control, misrepresentation, suppression of information and classism have risen as the credibility and accountability of major news organisations have come under scrutiny. At a time when almost the entire front page of newspapers get sold out for advertisements and Deepika Padukone’s cleavage makes headlines over floods; where voices of dissent remain unheard and those who pay enough get more than 15 minutes of fame, it’s no surprise that there has been a sudden rise of citizen journalism across the nation as people take it upon themselves to shed light on important issues, exposing unseen places and people, often in the media-dark zones.
Only light can drive out darkness
Rural areas fit into these dark zones best, having long been ignored when it comes to reflecting the realities across sections of Indian society. Strange when you consider more than half of the Indian population lives in these parts. Take 27-year-old Suneeta for example, a resident of Banda village, Uttar Pradesh, who was forced to leave school at the age of 9 and married off at the tender age of 12. Suneeta was born into a Dalit family, and for many girls like her, living in poverty and held back by social prejudices of caste and class, education and employment is not an option, leaving only marriage to lessen the ‘burden’ of a girl-child for their family. But Suneeta changed her story and now writes it herself. Today, she is a journalist whose job is to travel between different villages and collect stories. Suneeta is one of forty women working at Khabar Lahariya, an organisation that publishes a weekly, multi-lingual local newspaper, selling 6000 copies across 600 villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, to a readership of approximately 80,000 people each week, according to their management.
From a single local language to multi-lingual and more accessible
Founded in 2002, Khabar Lahariya (KL)--meaning ‘News Waves’--has paved its way through mainstream media, taking local news into their own hands, and covering hard-hitting stories that are usually ignored and left below the public radar. It was initiated by Nirantar, a gender and education organisation, as a way to encourage and sustain literacy in rural communities, especially of women.The goal was to create a ‘print rich environment,’ women were taught to produce locally relevant reading material for the local population, and with encouragement and training from the Delhi-based NGO, KL soon transformed into a full-fledged publication, the first and only one in the local language, Bundeli. Today, the newspaper is also published in Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Hindustani and Bajjika, brought about my an all-women team with members primarily belonging to marginalised communities of society.
A rare breakthrough in a biased world
“Khabar Lahariya was the kind of breakthrough that happens only every once in a while, when many streams of thought and action come together in constructive, inspired fusion,” writes Farah Naqvi in her book
Waves in the Hinterland: The Journey of a Newspaper that follows the newspaper’s formulation and growth. “Unlike other media products, Khabar Lahariya was not guided by commercial interests, nor launched by a large media company as part of its rural outreach strategy. But the paper like all others before and since did have an agenda: to empower the people of rural Chitrakoot, to give them a voice, to strengthen their fragile literacy skills and give them power to be heard. It was the product of an ideology, at the core of which lay the values of feminism, equality and justice for the most marginalized, the twice disenfranchised, the rural poor, the Dalits, the women.”
The eight-page newspaper covers topics that are of importance to the local populace, ranging from news from the village, national and international news, entertainment, information about current political affairs, women’s issues and editorials, specifically for their audience--rural and with low levels of literacy. Stories about the functioning of the Panchayat, schools, hospitals, crime, local policing and bureaucracy; a vast array of topics are highlighted in an objective and critical manner, often more rational and credible than the sensationalised versions you’d hear from major news agencies. The entire process of reporting, writing, editing, designing, photographing and illustrating for the paper is done collectively by the women each week. Sold for Rs. 2, reporters even distribute the papers by hand to people, breaking the barrier between writer and audience, and opening up a space for communication and the dissemination of information in an area where previously other sources of information and a connection to the world outside their locality was highly limited.
“People in villages had a problem with Dalit women going out and doing something of their own and that too a job that required them to stay outdoors for long hours,” says Kavita, an editor at KL, in an interview. “Also they would angst about the fact that they were reporting about people belonging to upper castes,” she adds. It’s reported that the women don’t use their last names viewing it as symbolizing generations of subjugation. The initial apprehensions have changed over time; “the demand for our newspaper is rising. It feels good when people gather around tea stalls to discuss our stories.” As members of marginalised communities, as well as being women, things haven’t been easy for the KL reporters as harassment and threats would pour in. Women are often seen as easy targets in our rigidly patriarchal society, but the women of KL have braved through it all and after years of hardship earned the respect of their society. “I am an inspiration to many in my village at Taarun block where I report from. A lot of girls want to be a reporter like me,” says Lalita to Youth Ki Awaaz.
From rural India to the cities and beyond
In 2014, KL was awarded the prestigious Chameli Devi Jain Award For Women in Journalism and the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize, in 2009. The collective went on to win the Laadli Media Award in 2012, The Amazing Indian Award from Times Now, and the Kaifi Azmi Award in 2013. 2013 also saw the launch of the KL website that took the local newspaper to the virtual platform, opening it up to a wider, diverse, national and international reading audience; KL also has it’s own Youtube channel.
“First when we went for reporting, people would not let us enter their homes or sit with us because of our caste. But now they know these are the reporters from Khabar Lahariya,” says Shanti. In a society where journalism is the monopoly of upper-caste men, these women have broken all traditional barriers and stereotypes, created an identity and voice for themselves in a place where they’re expected to be home-bound. On a national level, they’re speaking for people who aren’t spoken to or about, and venture into areas rarely visited by big-news cameras. As stated by Shalini Joshi, Director at Nirantar, “Khabar Lahariya has been able to fill a huge gap by providing information on entitlements and empowering the most impoverished communities in remote villages. Its hyper-local content in the local language is distinct and unparalleled.” What started off as a small project in Bundelkhand soon became a force of social action that transformed lives. It has created a space for rural Dalit women for empowerment, and to call-into question not just caste and gender discrimination, but the accountability and transparency of the existing dominant media forums as well.
Hear what the readers have to say about Khabar Lahariya in the video posted below. Find out more about the organisation’s journey and its journalists in videos posted on their Youtube channel.