As mainstream newspapers and television stations increasingly leave out the voices of the marginalised, an alternative press is emerging that's trying to correct the anomaly. This new breed does not possess any fancy journalism degrees. They are just slum dwellers, farmers and diamond polishers who want to tell their story
In Anna Bhau Sathe Nagar, one of Mankhurd's larger slums, 26 year-old Amol Lalzare emerges from his 20x7 feet one-room home, ready for work.
Everyone knows me as a reporter. My last story on a local pickle maker and how his factory was unhygienic, led him to clean up his whole operation. I wonder what impact my pothole story will have? Amol Lazare Maharashtra Community Correspondent
IndiaUnheard's team of Community Correspondents hold up their camera-laptop kits. The news service has 45 Community Correspondents fanned across 27 Indian states. This group has undergone a crash course in reporting, recording and editing videos. They come from marginalised communities. Some of them are Dalits and tribals from Manipur and Chhattisgarh, reporting on stories that unfold around them
The working of the six-member team is simple. The motley group of diamond polishers, farmers, housewives and a marriage video maker, has undergone year-long training on how to report, use cameras and edit videos. They conduct an 'editorial meeting' every three months, where attendees apart from the team, include panchayat sarpanchs and representatives of various communities in the villages.
Often, these representatives or other village sources, who trust the team, then ply them with information. This is then cross-checked, and once a subject is frozen upon, the team starts its reportage.
What began as reporting and screening in 25 villages has now expanded to 42.
Like Aapna Malak Ma, the IndiaUnheard group is also seeing success. Early this year, from January till March, NewsX, a national news channel, tied up with them buying the agency's content for Speak Out, a weekly 30-minute show aired on the channel.
Their content has also been purchased and aired by other mainstream bodies like the MTV network and Al Jazeera, and now, the popular news website Rediff plans to run a pilot IndiaUnheard story on its website before a deal on a regular show is worked out.
Apart from such mainstream outlets, their stories are also carried on the IndiaUnheard website and spread through networking sites.
While much of the fanfare associated with the mainstream press may be missing, the journalism of the correspondents is thorough. For his Zakir Hussain Nagar story, Lalzare says he is following the regular approach of case studies and expert opinion.
On an average, he spends about five days on every story. "The first couple of days go into researching the subject. Then I find the right people to interview," he says.
When heavy rains lash Mumbai's slums, the drains running nearby overflow, leaving pedestrians tripping over potholes which they are unable to spot. "I have interviewed a number of people but my main case study is a lady who was heavily pregnant when she tripped in one of these potholes, leading to a leg fracture."
Jessica Mayberry, founder of VV, who has experience of working in television stations including the Fox News Channel and CNN, says, "In both, the production and meaningful consumption of media, the poor and marginalised find themselves excluded.
If we want to change the way people think we must change the way the media operates. Community media can become a global movement because of the cost of technology and the ease of distribution."
When a Thakur was brought to his knees
Ever since Aapna Malak Ma was launched, the group has made much impact within the community. One of their best stories was screened last year. It concerned the Chorniya village, where a powerful Thakur had built a hotel on a national highway and was dumping its waste in the village pond.
The men, afraid of the Thakur, did not put up a fight but the womenfolk were galvanised by the video. They carried out a demonstration at the Collector's office and handed him a copy of the video.
"The Thakur had to come to the village to apologise. He had to build an entire system to dispose the waste," says Jitendra S Makavana, the 25 year-old Community Producer, who previously worked as a diamond polisher.
Otherwise, even to get members of upper and lower castes to sit together for a screening is a big achievement.
Makavana says, "Sometimes, members of upper castes dislike the content of the videos. At times they have hurled stones at the screen." At such times, the screening is moved to small gullies where the lower castes watch the videos without fear.
A recent video by IndiaUnheard, about the lack of healthcare in a remote Manipuri village called Bongli, where residents were resorting to herbs and faith-healing to cure their sick, led to various organisations helping them get access to medicines.
Merinews' team of sub-editors
And then there is the story of a demonstration launched in a conservative town in Chhattisgarh, with protesters demanding acceptance of sexual minorities, after a video about the repression, was aired on its website.
Expansion of alternate voices
In Mumbai, Hamari Awaaz, a team of slum dwellers, who film videos about life in the city's slums, was able to stop the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in 2007 from privatising water services in the K East region. A video on the issue was screened and led to protests by slum dwellers.
The fear was that water services, once privatised, would lead to restricted access to water for slum dwellers. The Hamari Awaaz team consists of six producers or reporters, and is supported by the NGO Yuva. They have been in existence since 2006 and have made films on subjects ranging from garbage disposal to slum demolitions.
However, the group now has bigger plans in store. Since 2010, no videos have been produced and the group is eagerly waiting to start operations in the slum areas of Navi Mumbai and Raigad.
"We want to take this idea ahead. We will now spread the concept of alternate voices to neighbouring regions," says Anil Ingle, Hamari Awaaz Coordinator. While no date has been fixed for the launch, according to Ingle, the logistics are being finalised.
However hopeful their message, the one major challenge that these outlets face is to move from being charity-funded operations to self-sustained bodies.
IndiaUnheard, though still largely funded by VV, is trying to move in that direction. Mayberry says, "TV channels and papers are starved for good content. If there are well-trained people in remote under-reported areas who can produce quality content, why can't they be utilised?," she says.
Whether such alternative journalism will survive has to be seen, but the most visible impact it seems to be leaving is on the journalist himself. Lalzare sat for his Class 10 board exams this year after dropping out of school as a child. He now plans to pursue Mass Communication.
"Everyone knows me as a reporter. My last story on a local pickle maker and how his factory was unhygienic, led him to clean up his whole operation. I wonder what impact my pothole story will have," he says.
"Perhaps the potholes will be filled up. Imagine that! Even the big papers and TV channels haven't been successful in making Mumbai's roads pothole-free."
Look how Citizen Journalism is thriving
One form of alternate media that has come to form a successful and profitable model is that of websites based on citizen journalism. A large number of such Indian websites, some of which have specific target audiences, have sprung up in recent years.
These include The Viewspaper (http://theviewspaper.net), a website for the youth, and White Drums (www.whitedrums.com) which publishes content on environmental issues. Merinews (merinews.com), the first such website, and considered one of the best, is owned by Bizsol Advisors, a well known business incubating company in Gurgaon.
The only people on the website's payroll are a staff of 20, many of who are on the news desk. This team, which edits articles that are written by citizen journalists, and in the case of 'big' story, speaks and helps them out with news angles, is the backbone.
Sudipta Sengupta, General Manager of the website, says this form of journalism has a definite space since it is far more democratic than mainstream media.
He offers as way of example a recent news development. "For the past month, while TV stations and newspapers were talking about the nation's support for Anna Hazare's, most of the articles I got done, surprisingly did not reflect that view. Such a model is perhaps the best tool to gauge people's mood," he says.
The new crop of journalists
Daniel Mate, Manipur
Community Correspondent Mate's story on a rural village in the Chandel district of Manipur, an area rife with ethnic and political conflict, which did not have access to basic healthcare, had a major impact. Within a month of the video's broadcast, several cartons of lifesaving medicine, were sent in by a local organisation.
Bhan Sahu, Chattisgarh
Sahu thought being poor meant walking a kilometre to school and then having to drop out when she was eight years old, until she started working at an NGO and realised there were others less fortunate than herself. Her interest in education didn't wane, however. Using video as a tool to bring people together, her reports focus on education and the rights of tribals.
If we want to change the way people think, we must change the way the media operates. Our community media can become a global movement.
Jessica Mayberry Founder, IndiaUnheard
Today anyone with a mobile phone can record events and most people have views which they cannot otherwise express in the media.
Sudipta Sengupta General Manager, Merinews
Sometimes, members of upper castes dislike the content of the video. There have even been instances where they have thrown stones during the screenings
Jitendra S Makavana Community Producer