Dial a report, become a citizen journalist. Here's how

Sep 29, 2013, 07:34 IST | Moeena Halim

North East India finds a voice with the Seven Sisters Project, a mobile phone-based initiative founded by Shibayan Raha. Not only does it encourage citizen journalism, but also enables mobile phone users to listen to the latest podcasts and comment on stories, discovers Moeena Halim

Last month, when Prahlad Chakma and his friends at the Arunachal Chakma Student Union identified members of the Khampti community who had shot at Chakma forest workers indiscriminately, they knew it was information they had to share with the media. “We wrote out a press release and sent it to the Arunachal Pioneer,” recalls 25-year-old Prahlad, a Teach for India volunteer based in Delhi. Unfortunately, pressurised by other student bodies of Arunachal Pradesh, the newspaper claimed they would not be able to publish the story.

Meena and her daughter Aleesha in Diyun, Arunachal Pradesh. Aleesha was born on 2011 at the local health centre. But even after repeated visits Meena failed to get a birth certificate for her daughter. Citizen journalist Prahlad Chakma called Seven Sisters Project’s toll-free number to report  the District Commissi oner’s complete disregard for the issuance of birth certificates to Chakma children

While local newspapers struggle with suppression, radio channels are denied the right to air news stories with a political inclination. Meanwhile, national mainstream media continues to steer clear of issues concerning the region. This is precisely what makes Shibayan Raha’s Seven Sisters Project (SSP), which enables citizen journalists to share their news reports and listen in to other podcasts, such an essential platform for the people of North East India. Whether it is support for Gorkhaland, deplorable conditions of a school in Nagaland, or a complaint about poor water supply, Raha ensures that the people’s voice is aired.

It has been a little over four months since Raha’s project was launched, and it has already made a sizeable difference to the Chakma community, which was granted refuge from East Pakistan in the 1960s and citizenship in 1996 by the Central government, but continues to be largely ignored by the AP government.

On September 9, Prahlad called SSP’s toll-free number to report the District Commissioner’s complete disregard for the issuance of birth certificates to Chakma children. “This has been happening since the 1990s. Several Chakmas are having a difficult time continuing their education because they don’t have birth certificates. In Changlang district, birth certificates are supposed to be issued on Fridays.

SSP enables citizen journalists to share their news reports and listen in to podcasts such as their support for Gorkhaland

But the officer in charge doesn’t show up on that day,” Prahlad tells us. In his first call to SSP, Prahlad urged listeners to call Changlang’s DC Chanchal Yadav, providing the number he obtained from her website, and petition for the Chakma cause. “You can say we succeeded to an extent, because after that, several newborn babies were issued birth certificates without any trouble,” says Prahlad, well aware that the fight has just begun.

Raha, who has worked with grassroots communities for several years now, believes the only way to get the system working in rural India is to let them know someone is watching. “Officials tend to slacken because they believe they can get away with doing nothing. The moment they realise they’re being examined, they’re forced to take action,” opines Raha, who spent weeks travelling across Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram to spread the word
about SSP.

Raha, currently the only one manning the project, has help from volunteers he has met on his travels across the region. “It works like a pyramid. The first level is the people I meet and interact with. They spread the word across their community, often sending in stories themselves, helping me translate stories sent in Nepali or Chakma, or encouraging others to use the services,” he explains over the phone from Delhi. In November, once the rain recedes, he plans to head back to the North East, this time visiting Assam and Manipur. During his first trip to the region, Raha introduced people to his service, often over one-on-one sessions. “This time I’m hoping to take the citizen journalism training a step further and also introduce them to storytelling,” adds Raha.

Power of the mobile phone
In 2010 it was found that over 47 per cent of the population in the North East owns mobile phones. “And by now the number has increased tremendously. Even in the remotest of regions, where electricity is scarce and running water a luxury, you will find people using mobile phones,” reveals Raha. And while Internet plays hero for city folks in the North East, not everyone is quite as well-equipped. “That’s why online petitions don’t work. Most times, the officials’ email ids aren’t even functional,” he adds.

SSP received its first report in June. The call was made from Mizoram, where a public health centre had been lying defunct for the past 20 years. “After a year long campaign taken up by the locals, the centre was finally functional again. They now have a doctor and a nurse,” says Raha. While good news like this isn’t too common, and graver reports tend to be given priority, tune in at the right time and you might just be treated to soccer score updates at school tournaments.

Founder of Seven Sisters Project How does the Seven Sisters Project work?
Our toll-free number, which we were able to set up thanks to the grant we got from the Access Now Tech Innovation Awards held in New York in 2011, works on the missed call facility. So when a user calls, it automatically cuts and calls you back within 20 seconds. Through Interactive Voice Response (IVR), the user is given options -- press 1 to listen to a different story, 2 to comment and 3 to report your own story. By offering callers a chance to comment on stories of their interest, we are attempting to replicate Facebook for the grassroots. Currently, I’m the only one working on the project full time. So when a caller records a story, I have to go through it, transcribe it and upload it on the website and on Facebook.

Shibayan Raha Founder of Seven Sisters Project

Do you screen the stories?
Screening the stories for accuracy is most important to me; I cannot publish stuff that is factually incorrect. For instance, there was a story about an abduction in Manipur where insurgents allegedly took two minors to Burma. I spoke to several locals and scanned the Internet, and uploaded the story only once I had found this to be true. We don’t pass judgements. If there’s a post in support of Gorkhaland, then there’s also another one questioning whether the people are civilised to demand a separate state. As long as it’s not degrading to another community, we don’t have a problem. I’m well aware that sensitive issues may come up in the future -- stories of corruption, perhaps -- which may anger powerful people. In such cases I will fight to protect the identity of the caller. 

You want to give importance to the voice of grassroot-level people. But isn’t it essential to bring these voices to the mainstream?
Absolutely. The idea is to spread these voices as much as possible. I am working on giving structure to the project and tying up with smaller blogs such as Youthkiavaaz, The Alternative in Bangalore and Grassroots India. We had a social media partnership with CNN IBN. Whether I like it or not, I have to work with the system. If I don’t, I’m not doing justice as the messenger.

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