Mobile phone journalism helping underprivileged Indian villagers to voice their plight

Singrauli district is in the eastern part of Madhya Pradesh, bordering the state of Uttar Pradesh. If the district has been talked about in the mainstream media, it is for the fact that it is emerging as India’s energy capital. But what about the 14,190 people whose lives are being adversely affected by the subsequent and steady wipe-out of Asia’s oldest sal forests, Mahan?

A local in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh, records a story for Radio Sangharsh, an initiative by Greenpeace India

For over two years, Greenpeace India has been battling against giant corporations Essar and Hindalco to get them to stop mining and save Mahan for the adivasis who live off the forests. In March this year, the organisation helped 11 villages around Mahan get together to form the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) to continue their fight. But one major issue remained -- getting their stories and news of their struggle across to the outer world.

A workshop by CGNet Swara held in Koraput, Odisha

Enter Radio Sangharsh: a platform that allows the locals to voice their concerns to an entire world of Internet users as well as playback reports recorded by other callers, with the help of even the most basic mobile phone.

A CGNet Swara volunteer records the plight of a woman in Koraput, Odisha

Digitising voices
Radio Sangharsh, which was set up in mid-July this year, is not the first and certainly not the only one of its kind. It was CGNet Swara -- quite possibly a pioneer in the country -- that inspired Greenpeace to make use of the innovative technology.

Locals in Jharkhand have been introduced to Jharkhand Mobile Vaani, GramVaani’s flagship deployment. Apart from allowing callers to voice their concerns, enquire about government schemes, share folk songs or request for emergency medial aid, the service also runs campaigns that address social issues

Shubhranshu Choudhary, a journalist formerly employed with the BBC, founded CGNet Swara with the help of Microsoft Research India’s Bill Thies in February 2010. Choudhary, a Knight International Journalism Fellow, created this unique, non-commercial, open source platform in a bid to offer long-lasting solutions to the adivasis in the Maoist-dominated regions in Chhattisgarh. And while Radio Sangharsh is, at least for the moment, single-mindedly focused on the issue of Mahan, CGNet continues to be a platform without an agenda.

“Our idea was to create a dialogue-model of communication to replace the aristocratic one that exists in the media today. For a functional democracy, communication must be democratic. Everyone has an equal right to be heard, and while the Internet allows urban India to speak up, rural India was missing a two-way communication model. Even now, we’re the only ones who provide a communication platform in the Gondi language, which is spoken by a section of the tribals in Chhattisgarh,” reveals Choudhary, who more recently set up numbers for subsidiary sections such as Adivasi Swara (for the Gond-speaking tribals) and Swasthya Swara (as a health telephone line).

A force to reckon with
While Choudhary’s initial plans included a combination of a community radio and use of the Internet, legal restrictions forced him to replace the radio with mobile phones. Callers are greeted by automated messages on the interactive voice services (IVR) platform. If they choose to record a message, it is reviewed by a team of moderators, and then uploaded on the CGNet Swara website as well as on the phone service. Those who prefer to listen rather than to record messages are welcome to do that too.

Currently, CGNet Swara gets about 500 callers daily who call to listen to podcasts, 50 who want to record messages. “Out of the 50, only about five messages are uploaded after the process of cross-checking,” reveals Choudhary.

“About 80 of the 100 houses in our village have mobile phones and everyone in the village knows how to use one,” claims Naresh Bunkar, who hails from Baiga in Chhattisgarh. Bunkar has been running an organisation in aid of the tribals since 2001 and began using CGNet to air their concerns as soon as it was set up. “I travel from village to village, talk to the adivasis and find out about their troubles. I’ve introduced several of them to CGNet and now many of them call the portal themselves,” he reveals.

Over the years, says Bunkar, CGNet has become a force to reckon with. Listeners are encouraged to call and make a petition to the administrators, whose numbers are usually provided at the end of a podcast. This ensures that government officials are kept on their toes.

“After one report I made about the closure of a school in Kavirdham, the officer-in-charge called up to apologise. He ensured that the school would be up and running as soon as the rain stopped and the repair work was completed. The officers are terrified of CGNet. Corruption has certainly reduced. Now when I meet an officer, especially the forest officers, they request me to call them with my complaints and not report it,” he recalls with a laugh. “But I will continue to call CGNet with my complaints, or else the government officials will go back to doing just as they please. This way they are pressurised into doing the right thing,” adds Bunkar.

This is the reaction the Greenpeace campaigners are hoping for in Mahan. “Our beta website, through which we plan to target an urban audience, is already up. It has all the details required to help them get more involved -- who they can call, who to email and so on,” explains Mumbai-based Anirban Chakrabarti, who works on Radio Sangharsh, transcribing and moderating the content. “The idea is also to reduce the disconnect between the urban and rural. We are attempting to build a bridge between the two and take the unheard voices across to the urban population,” he adds.

Spreading the word
With the success of what he refers to as a mere experiment, Choudhary decided to introduce CGNet Swara to organisations working with tribals across the country. “While CGNet initially stood for Chhattisgarh Net, I now want it to refer to Central Gondwana, which encompasses Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand,” shares Choudhary.

“About nine per cent of the Indian population is adivasi and they suffer because they’re in a media-dark zone. I strongly believe that there is a direct co-relation between violence, poverty and a break of communication. I am already in touch with organisations across the tribal areas and hope that Swara picks up there as well,” says Choudhary, who recently helped Shibayan Raha set up the Seven Sisters Project. Raha’s project allows users from the poorly connected states in the North East to call in and voice their complaints in the language of their choice.

Jharkhand Mobile Vaani (JMV), a slightly more corporate cousin running along similar lines to CGNet Swara, was set up about 17 months ago. An off-shoot of Dr Aaditeshwar Seth’s community radio project GramVaani, Mobile Vaani’s flagship deployment was set up in Jharkhand because it is the poorest state in the union.

Apart from allowing callers to voice their concerns, enquire about government schemes, share folk songs or request for emergency medial aid, JMV also runs campaigns that address societal issues. “We have run 12 campaigns over the past 17 months. One campaign was against child marriage in Jharkhand. We had constructed plays and programmes, which were aired during a particular time on Mobile Vaani. If users called within that particular period, they could listen in. We had high TRP ratings, and people also left comments. One man spoke about how his brother wanted to marry off his young daughter and how much it had upset him,” reveals Ashish Tandon of GramVaani.

A sustainable model
The next step for the team at Mobile Vaani is to devise a self-sustaining model. “We’re trying to get advertisers on board. But apart from that we also want to encourage the local businesses to offer classifieds -- perhaps a local coaching institute, or a local kirana store. People could also advertise job openings,” offers Tandon.

Choudhary, however, is completely against the idea of letting advertisers in. “I am just as keen on creating a more cost-effective, duplicatable model. But we must remember that advertisers --whether it is a Tata or one of the wealthier villagers -- tend to have a certain control over content. And since I want this to remain a bottom-up model of communication, I’d rather depend on volunteerism than advertising,” concludes Choudhary.

An archive of tribal culture
Radio Sangharsh’s Anirban Chakrabarti hopes that the service can also act as an archive to preserve Mahan’s culture. “We fear that the culture of these tribal folk will slowly perish along with the dying forests. We can’t let that happen. This is why we encourage the tribals to call and record their folk songs, share tips about the medicinal herbs found in the sal forests and so on. We also find that many of the ‘amplifiers’, who we have trained as citizen journalists, are far more comfortable singing than reporting stories. But that doesn’t matter, just as long as they share a part of their culture,” says Chakrabarti.

Villagers in Kunkuri, Chhattisgarh are taught to use their mobile phones to access CGNet Swara’s voice-based portal

Finding their voice
“This is Rajesh Tripathi from Janchetna Raigarh, Chhattisgarh. A few days ago, I had recorded an interview on Swara with a farmer called Chhotedas Mahant from Dumarpali village who had said that Visa company has taken more than two acre of his land and not paid the R24 lakh they had promised. No one was listening to his complaint. But now the farmer has received his money. It is a big success, as no farmer has got this much money per acre here before.”

CGNet Swara, which also hosted workshops in Delhi, is poised to introduce services to adivasis across the country. They are in talks with organisations in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Odisha, among others

Rajesh Tripathi, CGNet Swara
October, 2013

“Katwarulal (village Amelia, MP) is demanding justice against the village patwari (government official who keeps records of land-ownerships and tilling for a sub-division) Dhiresh Tripathi’s atrocities. He asked for the permit map of his land from the patwari.

Moderator Vivek Goyal gives a demo of Radio Sangharsh in Suhira village in Singrauli district in Madhya Pradesh

An already drunk patwari abused and told Katwarulal to get four beer bottles. When he declined, the patwari threatened that he would not fulfill Katwarulal’s request of land permit map.”

Interviewed by Virendra, Radio Sangharsh August, 2013

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