In their voice

Print edition : August 12, 2011

The Swara team, with the help of many volunteers, has been conducting media workshops where citizen journalists are trained in recording voice, reporting and editing. - PHOTOGRAPHS: PURUSHOTTAM THAKUR

CGNet Swara in Chhattisgarh is a mobile radio platform that has helped bring tribal issues to national attention.

MAHADEV SINGH, a Baiga tribal person, hails from a village situated atop a forested hill near Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh. While most of the neighbouring villages are electrified and welfare schemes from the government reach them to an extent, Mahadev's village has lost out in this regard owing to its inaccessibility. Mahadev and his Baiga brotherhood do small-time farming to sustain themselves. His village, where more than 80 per cent of families belong to the below poverty line (BPL) category, hardly receives work and benefits from welfare schemes that regional political representatives proudly speak of at every election campaign. Early this year, the people of the village began trekking the 15 kilometres to the regional block headquarters every week to ask the circle officer to grant the village some work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). The circle officer did not pay heed and even shouted at them for coming so often. The officer also refused to pay them for work they had done a year before under the MGNREGS.

There was, however, an unintended benefit that the villagers enjoyed. A hillock on one side of the village helped them to gain access to mobile phone networks. So, Mahadev Singh, one among the only four people in the village to own a mobile phone, did something extraordinary. He recorded the circle officer's rebuke on one such visit and passed it on to India's first mobile community radio, CGNet Swara, which in turn published it on its bulletin. Soon, the mainstream media picked up the news and word spread. The State government ordered immediate action against the officer and appointed staff to ensure that the welfare schemes reached Mahadev's village.

Similar is the case of Ramesh, a Gondi from Bhopalpatnam in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh. The only graduate from his tribe, he earns a living by freelancing for local newspapers. Bijapur, in the south Bastar region, has a heavy Maoist presence, and clashes between the state forces and the Maoists are common. In one instance, the Central paramilitary forces, with the help of the Special Police Officers (SPOs) of the armed civilian militia Salwa Judum, allegedly burnt three villages of the area. The local press refused to publish the news fearing repression, and it was then that Ramesh telephoned CGNet Swara to report on the incident. Once the mobile radio beamed the news, national newspapers such as The Hindu and The Times of India picked it up, investigated it further, and published it. The incident was seen as a gross human rights violation, and the Chief Minister was forced to grant aid to the affected villages.

Had it not been for CGNet Swara, our concerns would have been left completely unattended, said Mahadev Singh. Ramesh seconded it: If I had not joined Swara, it would have been very difficult for me to stay on in Bastar as I was highlighting human rights issues of the tribal people. Swara gave me a sort of immunity.

The spoken word

Swara is one of those initiatives where the worldwide sanctity debate between the published word' and the spoken word' comes to rest. Here, the medium of voice has made a difference of a kind that the published word could never do.

Founded in early 2010, CGNet Swara was mooted by Shubhranshu Choudhary, a journalist formerly with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Choudhary, who was born and brought up in Chhattisgarh, realised while working at the BBC that journalists hardly ever probed the causes behind the wars, internal conflicts and disasters they covered.

Chhattisgarh had become a hotbed of Maoism. I started to spend more time with the tribal people and realised that they did not know anything about Maoism but were supporting the Maoists because they had a grouse against the Indian state for neglecting them since Independence, Choudhary said. We never get to hear the other side of the war. The mainstream media follow a top-down approach and are capital intensive. The Maoists have turned the war into a linguistic class war. Those who speak Hindi versus those who speak tribal languages such as Gondi and Bilali. The journalists who come to cover Maoism or tribal issues do their reports after speaking to the Hindi-speaking people. In such a state of affairs, the tribal people get completely neglected. So we decided to provide a platform where these people could talk about issues plaguing them in their own language so that their side of the picture is known, he added.

The tribal people living in the central Indian forests are mostly illiterate and have no access to television; radio is their only medium for communication. So an initiative was made to create a community radio station, which would air news coming from the various villages in the State. It was a small experiment to start with. However, the idea did not see the light of day because of bureaucratic hurdles.

India still does not permit news to be aired on radio. The only news bulletins that are aired on radio are from state-run channels. The private community radios in the country that have been permitted by the government have a very short range and cater to a very small number of people. Our idea was something different. We wondered why after 60 years of Independence there is not even one bulletin in Gondi. According to Census 2001, there are 80 million tribal people in the Dandakaranya region [the central Indian forests] who speak Gondi and its dialects. In contrast, there are a number of radio bulletins in Sanskrit when only 14,000 people in the whole of India can speak that language according to the 2001 Census. Since Independence, the ways of the media have been totally brahmanical. It has not just presented one side of the picture but has made the running costs of the various media artificially expensive, Choudhary told Frontline.

When it was clear that a community radio was impossible owing to legal and bureaucratic hurdles, a platform under the name of CGNet started various closed groups on the Internet which discussed news from the hinterland. The Internet groups were an instant success, which showed that there was a dearth of news from the State of Chhattisgarh, Choudhary said. Hence, CGNet came up with the idea of founding Swara, which was to be a mobile radio platform. A platform where citizens from all over the State could call one phone number, which was also the Internet server number, to give news that went unreported. A small team of technicians then verified the news item, translated it into Hindi and other languages depending upon its news value, and beamed it on its mobile bulletins. These bulletins could then be heard by anyone who called the Swara phone number. Mobile radio was a new concept and the government had no legal boundaries for it.

Swara initiative

What started as a small experiment last year has become a huge success if one measures it in terms of its impact. Many stories of police repression, delay in MGNREGS payments, human rights violations, caste abuses, and torching of villages by paramilitary forces, which came to Swara's notice, were picked up by mainstream newspapers. At present, Swara gets approximately 300 calls a day. Apart from Chhattisgarh, it has spread its influence to Orissa, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh.

The media workshop, "Democratisation of Media", held in June in Delhi. Tribal and non-tribal villagers from central India learnt to use electronic mail at the workshop to aid the Swara initiative.-

The idea is to beam the story in three different ways. First, we publish it on our website. Second, we convert a bunch of news items into mobile bulletins in different languages. To listen to a bulletin in a local dialect, one needs only to press a button. The third, and the most important, task before the Swara team is to beam the news in short wave radio format, which remains illegal as of now. Once the news begins on short wave radio, it can be heard everywhere in Dandakaranya, said Choudhary.

Today, the Swara radio is getting popularity by word of mouth and through deliberate campaigning. This means that the citizen journalists and forum managers have to reach rural and tribal areas in person to inform people there about the Swara initiative. Once the short wave radio permits beaming news, the campaign will get the much-needed boost.

Reaching people is more difficult than it sounds. Today, we hardly get any news in Gondi despite the mobile networks available in many villages. Only those who are into social activism are coming forward to report. Even that has made a huge difference. Our ultimate aim is to bring the indigenous people into the Swara fold so that they report in their own language. There is much more to do, but at least the initiative and its success among the rural poor indicate that mobile community radio has great untapped potential, Choudhary said.

Swara is led by a group of technicians who manage the server in Bangalore and a team of translators who translate the local news into Hindi and other languages. But however convenient it may sound, achieving perfection is a challenging task. Though mobile networks have penetrated the region, not many can afford the mobile device. So the mobile radio network is banking on a few individuals who have mobile phones and on public telephone booths. Moreover, training the core team in computers and in editing has been a challenging task. It is for this reason that the Swara team, with the help of many volunteers, has been conducting media workshops where citizen journalists are trained in recording voice, reporting and editing.

Media workshops

One such media workshop, aptly named Democratisation of Media, was held in June on the sprawling campus of the Gandhi Smriti building, adjacent to Rajghat in Delhi. In the conference hall, 30 villagers from central India tribal and non-tribal huddled together in groups, introducing themselves to something that has become normal for urban India e-mail. For them, learning to mail electronically is not just novel but also revolutionary. Sending e-mails is a part of the expansion of the Swara network; citizen journalists are taught to attach voice files. In these workshops, we plan to decentralise our bureaus and empower some citizens with technical skills so that they can train other villagers. Of course, this can happen only in places where there is Internet connectivity. These people are also being trained to use mobile phones to their maximum potential, said Choudhary.

Such openness can also lead to misuse as much as it could lead to repression from those who benefitted from the silence of the tribal community. It is for this reason that the Swara team maintains a long-drawn-out verification process. Once the news comes from one village, it is verified through many sources, already in the loop of Swara, in the region. If the news is sensitive, the team sits on it until it gets the same news from different journalists. If more than three people report about the same incident, the news is likely to be true; only then do we publish it. For instance, the news of the torching of three villages in Dantewada in April was actually broken by these citizen journalists. We published the news only after we heard it from three different sources. The Hindu took it from there to expose the government's excesses, said Choudhary.

CGNET SWARA HAS helped address tribal concerns that had hitherto remained unattended.-

Many citizens who had come for training complained that they faced threats from the government after they joined Swara. A few complained that their mobile phones were confiscated after they made some exposes. But they also said that they had been much more vulnerable to repression before they joined Swara.

Challenges

The Chhattisgarh government has been vocal about pulling the initiative down. However, Choudhary felt that the government should actually use the platform to bridge the communication gap, which had led to such huge problems. He believes that the mobile radio has proved to be a peace-building exercise; unlike other news groups, Swara follows a bottom-up approach and has been democratising the media, a much-needed phenomenon in India. He said the growth had been slow because they had to change the servers thrice in a year. We don't own a server. We take them on rent. A change of server means a change in the universal number each time and we have to start from scratch each time. We did not have an archive of phone numbers of people who called because we gave them the option of anonymity. But after the frequent change of servers, we had to disable the anonymity principle so that we did not have much trouble the next time we changed it. Our growth has been a little slow because some individuals want to maintain anonymity while reporting.

The challenges to this revolutionary initiative have been many. But the success of this radio in such a short span of time is definitely encouraging and can influence policy changes in communications. The radio, most importantly, has managed to form a linkage between rural and urban activists. Rural activists report about incidents in the hinterland, which are then picked up by urban activists who use their contacts in power circles to create an impact. According to Choudhary, it was a communication gap that had made tribal people inclined towards the Maoists.

The government has had many plans and theories for tribal development since Independence. And yet, their condition only worsened. Now it is the time to listen to them. The tribal people have a great oral tradition. They are natural storytellers. We have to acknowledge their form of communication through their voices and their languages. We don't have to teach them how to report, we only need to see how their voice goes out to those in power. And that is where Swara comes in, Choudhary said.

(Names of citizen journalists in the article have been changed to protect their identities.)

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