08 / 2010
Every citizen in this country has a right to be heard. But what happens when you live in an area where no mainstream media organisation bothers to penetrate, and when you speak a language no media organisation knows or understands? CGNet Swara uses mobile telephony to break through the wall of silence in tribal areas of Chhattisgarh
The trendy young may see the mobile phone as a fashion accessory and use it as a means to yammer endlessly with friends, but in the tribal belt of Chhattisgarh, the technology is being put to a very different and infinitely more meaningful use.
One of the main problems with getting news from or to the many remote areas of the country is that mainstream media has little interest in these areas and, as in the case of tribal areas of Chhattisgarh, there is no publication, TV channel or radio in the local language (All India Radio does not broadcast in any tribal language including Gondi which is spoken by 2.7 million inhabitants of the area). All of this makes it difficult to get news from, about, or to the local population.
CGNet Swara came up with an obvious but novel way around this problem. Get local people – citizen-journalists basically – to speak about their problems and issues, and to listen to what others have to say, via the mobile phone, which has a 50-60% penetration in the country.
Started in February 2010, CGNet Swara could be described as community radio on mobile phone. “It works on the principle that journalism is everybody’s business and every citizen should also be a citizen journalist. Though we trained 33 tribals in a three-day training session in February to use Swara, we do not know who the reporters are now (most of them are not trained by us),” says Shubhranshu Choudahry who set up CGNet Swara with technical help from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as part of a fellowship project supported by Knight International.
As a reporter himself and a native of Chhattisgarh, Choudahry was familiar with–and concerned about– the lack of news in and out of the region. “A majority of the people in this area are illiterate and very poor so they cannot buy a newspaper (there is no newspaper in their language anyway) and a majority do not have electricity at home so they cannot have TV. All India Radio talks about Obama and Manmohan Singh in Hindi whereas people want to hear what is happening around them in their own language, which CGnet Swara is doing.”
The modus operandi is quite simple. A citizen journalist – which basically means anyone who has a story to share – gives a missed call to the mobile number 080-41137280 and the server will call back for the caller to listen to or record her message or story in any language/dialect. The information is verified and translated by moderators to check for authenticity and disseminated via SMSes and CGNet Swara.
The CGNet website shows that when the voice of the people is heard, there is an impact. Teachers of a school in Dantewada got their salaries after a report was circulated about tardiness in payment of salaries; government officials took note of complaints on pollution of a sponge iron factory in Bastar; a liquor shop that opened in front of a school in Bijapur town was shifted out on the orders of the Collector who heard the complaint over Swara. Earlier attempts to shift the shop had ended with the school being ordered to move.
In fact, a sampling of small news items on the website looks pretty much like the city page of any mainstream newspaper, highlighting the acts of omission and commission of the authorities: Irregularity in the PDS in Toynar Bijapur, NREGA workers not paid for six months, the only teacher in a village being used for census duty, rice meant for the poor being captured by middlemen, 236 schools closed in Bijapur district for four years, an interview with a person beaten up by drunken policemen.
Bhan Sahu, one of the most active women reporters, reported on children employed and underpaid in tendu leaf collection (Unicef has that report), and a live report from a public hearing for SKS power plant in Kharsia, Raigarh, noted pertinently that 1,500 policemen were present at what was supposed to be a jan sunwai or people’s hearing.
“The reason authorities have reacted positively in some cases is because after the stories are sent out on CGnet Swara we put a link of the story on our CGnet discussion forum with the number and other details of the concerned authorities and people start calling those officers from all over India. But at the same time we have got reactions like ‘We cannot afford a loose cannon like this service in a state which is at war with insurgents,’ coming from a senior police officer in the state capital, Raipur,” says Choudahry.
The war zone is CGNet Swara’s backyard but it is largely off-limits to most news media that has, perforce, to accept government sources of information. CGNet is an alternative source (even though Choudahry says only 5% of the reporting has anything to do with the insurgency), and as grassroots as you can get as it is the people themselves who tell their stories. Journalists who dare not venture into the Red Corridor might benefit by putting CGNet Swara on speed dial.
Prakash Korram, an activist with Ekta Parishad, was picked up by the police and charged for possessing a gun and being a Maoist, and severely beaten up several times while in police custody. The police denied to his wife and colleagues that he had been arrested and charged. His version of what happened to him only became public when his colleague Agnu Sahu and others persisted with their search for him and finally met him in Kanker jail and put his story up on CGNet Swara. If there’s scepticism of his side of the story, at least it has been told.
In the same way, Gujjo Bai, sarpanch of Gumiapal, informed anyone who wanted to listen, through a reporter from CGNet Swara, that the two Maoists police claimed to have killed in an ‘encounter’ in her village were actually innocent villagers who were taken from their homes which were later burnt. The police officers who did the killing were later among those ambushed by Maoists while travelling in a bus and 31 people were killed in the incident including 15 civilians. Maoists issued a statement saying the killing was in revenge for the killing of two innocents. Because it became a big story, journalists visited the village and met the sarpanch to hear her side of the story.
Knowledge is power and a well-informed tribal population is not exactly what the police or government want to see in a population it has long exploited. Many mainstream publications carried the story of Lingamram Kodopi who police claim was behind the “July 6 Maoist attack on Congress leader Avdesh Singh Gautam’s house and the Kuakonda Police Station in Bastar and had undergone militant training in Gujarat and New Delhi, and is currently doing a media-related course in the Capital” (Indiaexpress.com, July 12, 2010).
“Linga is one of the tribal boys we helped get admission in a media school in Noida. He could be the first trained tribal journalist from that part of the world who could have written stories about his own home/community which could have helped us understand the problem and maybe even solve it,” says Shubhranshu Choudahry. The police have backed down a little and Linga has resumed his studies, but the content of the FIR against him is still unknown.
Songs and poems, too, are broadcast, something rare for indigenous people whose language and culture is generally ignored. CGNet has broadcast traditional Bastar music, Adivasi songs, a Gondi song by an anti-displacement activist in Kanha national park, a song by a child, Sudip Kumar, on the anti-liquor campaign, and Budhan Mehsram, a dalit Pandvani singer, who is changing Pandvani from its traditional form of singing about the Mahabharat to singing songs on local contemporary issues.
The CGNet Swara method is not expensive so can it be easily replicated? “It can be replicated in any part of the world where the situation is similar,” says Choudahry. “The software was developed in open source which is already on the internet. So anybody who wants to use it can do so. We have got many requests to duplicate it. The State Department in the US wants to use it in Afghanistan. UNDP is looking at it to see if they can use it to monitor the Millennium Development Goals (as this technology is two-way unlike radio which is just one way). We have got many requests from India and Africa. We ourselves want to take this experiment all over central India soon. Then the service will be called Central Gondwana Network Swara (instead of Chhattisgarh NetSwara).”
This article is also available in French: La voix du peuple
Articles and files
Sherna GANDHY, « The people’s voice », in InfoChange, August 2010