Friday, 3 June 2011

Broadcasting Dantewada

(This was first published in the June 2011 edition of Himal Southasian magazine.)

Earlier, what went on in the jungle remained in the jungle. But no longer.


On 27 March, Anil Bamne gave a missed call to a Bangalore number from his mobile phone. Within ten seconds, he received a call back and, moments later, he had recorded a news report detailing how children less than five years old had been going hungry for the past five months in Bahaud, a village in Chhattisgarh. Bamne’s report described how the children were sitting throughout the day in their aanganwadi – a government-sponsored childcare centre – playing with mud, while the food packets meant for them had never arrived, beyond a few bags of puffed rice. Two weeks after Bamne’s report, food materials reached the aanganwadi. A government programme officer later told a journalist that, although he had been in his position for three years, he visited Bahaud for the first time, thanks to the news story.

This and similar reports have been made possible due to a mobile-phone-based ‘citizen journalism’ system called CGNet Swara. Here, CG stands for Central Gondwana, referring to the area that takes in parts of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh; swara means voice. Despite this geographical designation, since February 2010, CGNet Swara – a free service – has offered a journalistic platform to any caller anywhere in India.

This is how the system works. If a caller has a story to report, or simply wants to hear the news, he or she gives a missed call to a Bangalore-based server number – 08041137280 – and waits to receive a call back. The caller can then choose to listen to reports recorded by others, or record their own piece of news, or even a song or bit of poetry. After a few hours, the recorded news is aired for the world to listen, either over the phone or via the organisation’s website, The gap of a few hours allows CGNet Swara’s editor to check the credibility of the reports, a critical element when callers are leaving significant information about, for instance, violence or corruption. In the year-plus that it has been operating, CGNet Swara has become a potent source of news for journalists and a major tool for activists. It woke up the Chhattisgarh government to realise that there is indeed a malaria crisis in the state, for instance, when 47 malaria deaths were reported from just one of the state’s 18 districts.

The project is the brainchild of Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist who developed the service while he was on a Knight Journalism Fellowship that began in 2010. A native of Chhattisgarh, Choudhary says that he had watched the shift in Adivasi support from a negligent government to the Maoists. ‘Our system wants the tribals to give up their oral culture and be textbook educated,’ he said. ‘The tribal population in central India numbers nine crore, and we do not have a single AIR [All India Radio] bulletin in a tribal language. There is a major communication gap here.’ Choudhary continues: ‘In the end, the tribals have no one to talk to. Who will then listen to them? The Maoists, of course.’ Choudhary says that he sees journalism as one of the least democratic sectors in India.

News For Some
The burgeoning Adivasi allegiance to the Maoists surged when the government signed several new agreements with mining companies that would permanently disenfranchise communities of their land – some 300,000 people in nearly 650 villages, according to estimates. As Maoist activity rose, riding on the back of this growing public frustration, Choudhary says that he observed a simultaneous rise in important news stories going either unheard or, at best, wrongly reported and misinterpreted.

‘The Central Gondwana region is categorised as among the most backward regions of the country,’ he says. ‘The media reports emerging would mostly reflect only the official version. And we have missed the community radio bus. Today, news all over the Internet is legal, but news on the radio is illegal. I know of many men who can make a radio for just 100 rupees, but that has been made illegal. The government wants us to buy transmitters from only licensed vendors – who, of course, sell it at a high price. How then can news be for everyone?’ While Choudhary says that newspapers were a ‘revolutionary medium’ many years ago, ‘Today we need to go beyond the newspaper and make use of the mobile phone, short wave radio, the Internet and oral traditions. In that respect, Swara is a mere experiment in democratising the process of broadcasting news.’

In early 2010, he began training 33 people on how to use CGNet Swara. At that time, the participants were mostly working in Chhattisgarh on various community issues. ‘During the second day of the workshop,’ Choudhary recalls, ‘I realised that asking them to write the news and then speaking it aloud lacked in spontaneity. The tribal communities have an oral culture, which is their essence.’ So, he let the participants ‘speak on their own, asking them to narrate like they would have done it before their family and friends. The idea was to lower the entry barrier into journalism.’ The first batch would talk about Swara wherever they went, and that is how the news trickled in.

Today, the Swara website is overflowing with reports of various stripe, in the primary area of Central Gondwana and beyond. The stories cover, for instance, non-payment of NREGA wages, illegal stone quarrying in Rajasthan, women digging their own bore well in Andhra Pradesh, the push against unfurling of the Indian flag in Assam for Republic Day, Santhali men and women dancing in sub-zero temperature, public anger against new coalmines, anti-liquor campaigns, children’s hopes for their schools, and more.

Given his journalistic background, Choudhary says, he understands the importance of credibility. As such, he has focused on building a wide network of sources who can vet and verify the news posted on Swara. In mid-March, for instance, he began receiving reports of arson, murder and rape taking place by Salwa Judum in Tadmetla, Timmapur and Morpalli; some 300 homes were gutted by fire, while three women had been raped and at least two men murdered. Choudhary says he sat on each of these stories for a week so they could be verified. But almost immediately after these reports were posted, journalists from prominent newspapers began to highlight the ongoing stories. Eventually, the incident led to the superintendent of Police of Dantewada, S R P Kalluri, and the collector, R Prasanna, to be transferred for neglecting to check the abuses; the state government has also ordered an enquiry into the matter.

New Voices
Prior to Swara, Choudhary had tried to connect Chhattisgarh through the Internet, by moderating a Yahoo! Group where people would send news about Chhattisgarh and discuss the issues. However, that still did not cater to Adivasi communities. After all, India does not have a single Adivasi journalist from central India. When Swara was born, the network of these people who had been connecting over the previous eight years began to help Choudhary to verify facts and vet the stories. ‘If there was a news item about a certain incident in a village in Bijapur,’ Choudhary says, ‘I would call up the most reliable person there to check for such an incident.’

Clearly, Swara’s verification process leans on the robust wall of goodwill and the keen outlook of all concerned citizens, however, not necessarily Adivasis – a fact with which Choudhary is clearly uncomfortable. Eventually, the idea is for Swara to become system with many more ‘citizen journalists’, and with Adivasi youths themselves acting as moderators. For now, for instance, Choudhary has to rely on just one person, Himanshu Kumar, for translations into Gondi. (Kumar is an activist who had lived and worked in Dantewada for 17 years before he was thrown out of the state for raising questions about the Salwa Judum.) Choudhary says he now intends to conduct workshops with Adivasis from different parts of the country, who would be given basic training on reporting with an eye to becoming moderators for multiple language channels on Swara.

Still, for now Swara’s numbers are impressive, if nascent. Since its inception, more than 31,000 calls are reported to have been received (both to report and to listen), about 17,000 of which have come in since the beginning of this year. About 800 news reports have been published during that time. Choudhary says that he has received some opposition to Swara’s work, as well, though he brushes this off by saying that the project is fuelled by the possibility of shaking up callous government institutions. ‘Waking up the authorities and getting them to do their job right,’ he says ‘that’s what gives the people the hope that their basic needs can be fulfilled.’

~Priyanka Borpujari is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

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