Sisters Archana and Rekha Gautam, both in their mid-teens,come from a poor Dalit family and live in Jankinagar, a remote village in Uttar Pradesh. Rekha, the younger one, is vocal and fierce, while Archana is soft spoken and the brightest student in her class. Their father supports their education, but the sisters have been fighting constant pressure from their extended family who insist they get married. Of late, they have been under the scrutiny of villagers, who have been critical of them spending too much time outside their homes with ‘strange’ men.
When asked how she deals with the lewd comments and the pressure, Archana says, “They’ll get their answer when Sir comes to our village.” ‘Sir’ is Neelesh Misra, a 39 year-old writer, who has co-written the script of forthcoming Salman Khan starrer Ek Tha Tiger, a lyricist who has written songs for films such as Agent Vinod and Shanghai, and a seasoned journalist who has worked with news agencies such as the Associated Press and Reuters and was at the deputy executive editor with a national English daily newspaper until two years ago.
Misra has been teaching journalism to Archana, her sister and other youngsters in remote villages of Uttar Pradesh in a bid to empower them to run Gaon Connection, India’s first professionally managed rural newspaper, published weekly, created by the villagers, for the villagers and of the region.
The inception of the idea can be traced back to 50 years ago, when Neelesh’s father SB Misra would walk 12 km every day to get to school. He got an opportunity to go to Canada for higher education. There, he discovered a few fossils and became an overnight star in the world of geology. After living in Canada for about four years, he decided to come back and fulfil his desire of setting up a school. “He married my mother, who was a city girl, and, in 1972, they started the school, Bharatiya Grameen Vidalaya, in a hut in a remote village in Uttar Pradesh called Kunaura. “That school changed thousands of lives. It gave access to education to Dalits and Muslims in the area, and even the son of the local dacoit sardar started coming to school,” recalls Misra.
Readers and content
The 12-page weekly Hindi broadsheet will be available at newsstands from August. Its target audience is village readers, people living in urban India who have a connection to villages and NRIs who are inclined towards reading interesting stories coming from the heart of India.
The unstated mantra of Gaon Connection is ‘rural cool’, says Misra. “The paper will write about issues villages face but it won’t be filled with just that. The idea is to document changes and trends in these areas, feature new innovations and inform readers about what is in vogue here, including what people are eating, watching and wearing,” he elaborates.
The pilot project planned by Misra and his partner Karan Dalal, who has been an intellectual property attorney, and director at a software products company, and involves printing 50,000 copies that will largely be distributed in rural Uttar Pradesh and to opinion makers across the country. The copies will not be distributed in cities. Urban readers and NRIs will be able to access the paper online. The GC team plans to tie up with local shops, schools and cart pullers to stock the newspaper and will also use a travelling library — a converted jeep — on fixed routes.
Over the past few months, Misra has been teaching journalism to a batch of 10 youngsters, five from villages and five journalists from cities, who have been reporting in several villages in pairs. “I started by teaching them the basics — like the fact that they need to note down information and not memorise things, and that they must note a person’s quote entirely and not write four key words and construct a sentence later. The learning curve of interns from villages is faster than city journalists and that’s probably because city journalists have a lot to unlearn,” he feels.
The story of Gaon Connection is also told by the poster that is part of their online crowdsourcing campaign. The poster says very simply, ‘we tried to raise lakhs, but couldn’t’. “All of last year we tried to bring in investors. Finally, during Diwali, we decided to start it with our own resources. We are going against the current. The paper can’t be like an NGO newsletter, it needs to be a regular newspaper that will hold its own at a newsstand,” says Misra.
For now, the team will run operations at modest capacity. “Our small office in Kunaura has a cooler that blows hot air, the reporters carry old point and shoot cameras, the photographers use my camera and I just convinced my parents to buy a new fridge for the house so I could bring the old one to the office,” says Misra candidly. More financial help is coming from contributors, people who have worked with Misra before, or those who believe in the potential of the paper.
It seems to be working. “In the last three days, an MNC and a big e-commerce website have shown interest in the paper. The paper is a not-for-profit venture and we will scale up operations eventually, but we will also ensure that we fiercely protect our editorial integrity,” Misra stresses.