The latest Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) Report underlined that only 22% of journalists across print, radio and television news in India are women. But a slow transformation has started across the Indian sub-continent. This change isn’t happening in the glitzy newsrooms of the nation’s most influential English dailies or television networks but in deep rural pockets where schools and toilets are scarce. And this is where an initiative like CGNet Swara comes in to make a thumping difference.
Aloka doesn’t quite remember when she decided to be a journalist. “I always loved telling stories,” she says. Only her tales didn’t involve animals, children or morals but were those of people dealing with the rigours of daily life while living in some of India’s poorest districts. She had never imagined that one day her stories would be considered “news” and that they would bring about much required changes to lives.
But today, thanks to initiatives like the CGNET Swara, women like Aloka have a chance to report issues from and about areas like Chhattisgarh that don’t exist on India’s mainstream media map.
Set up by former BBC journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary, with technical assistance from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, CGNet Swara is powered by the belief that the residents of Chhattisgarh need to have a credible news source manned by journalists who know the language and culture of the land. Choudhary’s work at one point was covering civil wars and cyclones almost on a daily basis. “I hated it after a while simply because there was no looking back, no analyzing what made a certain situation what it was. It was time to go back to my roots and write about my people,” he says.
The Chhattisgarh Journalists Union had more than 900 names – journalists allocated to cover the area from various media organizations – but only a handful spoke the language.
That’s when an idea struck. Twitter had not reached Dantewada but the mobile phone certainly had. After many experiments which succeeded to different degrees, they ended up creating a media outlet based primarily on the mobile phone and named it CGNet Swara. “Swara” means voice. The news is available in in Hindi and Gondi. Launched in February 2010, it logs more than 100 calls per day.
“While creating the news magazine, we didn’t aim it especially at women. Nor did we actively promote it among them,” says Choudhary. “The majorities of our women reporters are self-trained,” says Choudhary.
CGNET Swara is designed to help every citizen in Chhattisgarh participate – people with a story call a number (080 41137280) and record (speak in their own voice) their story. Senior journalists then whet the copy for facts and upload it onto the site. A message is then sent to all registered members who can then call in to listen to the news bulletin.
For Bhan Sahu, CGNet’s earliest and most active woman contributor, being a woman has certain undeniable advantages . Hailing from Ambagarh Chowki, she is proudest of her expose on children employed in tendu leaf collection that’s a big industry in Chhattisgarh. Bhan Sahu’s story on the exploitation of child workers in the tendu leaves industry forced the administration and the National Commission on Child Rights to ensure the removal of children from this industry.
Rajim from Saraipali block in Chhattisgarh enjoys being a part of CGNet. “My motivation is to help improve lives,” she says. She talks about a story she did on the Saura adivasis in Sirghoda village in Saraipali block of Mahasamund district in Chhattisgarh whose land was bought from them by someone who pretended to be an adivasi but was a businessman in reality. “He cheated them to buy their land for stone mining,” she says. “He has cheated registration officers and has registered more property than he has paid for. He has also cut trees on land he did not buy.” Her report appeals that the authorities must look into this. Rajim reports on the environment as well. Her stories focus on how the poor suffer the worst of climate change issues.
Aloka ‘s stories focus on issues like the setting up of herbal medicine training centres and how the Forest Act affects the lives of those living near the forests. “One of the best stories I worked on involved just talking to people and watching them go about their daily lives. It’s not always about problems. We just spoke. We didn’t make looking for solutions an important aspect of the discussion,” she says.
Gujjo Bai, Sarpanch of Gumiapal never thought that her stories would one day be the toast of the national media world. Last year two Naxals were allegedly killed in an encounter in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district. Her investigations revealed that the dead were actually innocent people killed in a routine inquiry – they were woken up at night and their houses were set on fire. This created a furore and many other media outlets came to speak with her after it was uploaded on the site.
It isn’t a smooth ride though; the reporters face a bunch of issues. Bhan has to routinely go to the police station to explain her work and what her income sources are. Her landlord, who asked her to vacate her rented accommodation, later admitted to police pressure.
“Hosting our servers is often tough. I cannot prove anything as nothing is on paper. We were forced to change our phone number by shifting to new servers. Unlike in the case of Wikileaks where the address does not change even after servers change, we have to get a new number every change,” says Choudhary. “We know many people who have stopped reporting for Swara after mild threats from the police. Bhan and other women like her are the best exceptions who continue in spite of everything,” says Choudhary.
Bhan at 39 says balancing her reporting and housework isn’t always easy. She believes reporting has given her new courage to stand up and say ‘no’ when she sees things being done wrong. “I am more confident. People now listen to me,” says Bhan.
Apart from news, songs and poems, too find space on CGNet. Budhan Mehsram , a Dalit Pandvani singer, whose work is changing Pandvani from its traditional form of singing about the Mahabharata to creating “awareness music” on local contemporary issues, proudly features her work here. CGNet Swara is not net-dependent. It works on mobile software for the uploading of news. Callers are guided through voice prompts. “Literacy isn’t an issue and that ensures the participation of more women,” says Choudhary.
CGNet has various plans for revenue generation – from advertising to public service broadcast for government agencies and NGOs on issues like health, education, forest rights and NREGA. While newspapers pick up and highlight the issues raised by CGNET Swara journalists, they are yet to start paying for the information.
Choudhary says, “We are hopeful as these are the only platforms in tribal languages and better than radio since it is a two way platform where a tribal can also respond and we can get their feedback immediately. Content syndication with established newspapers that will use our content will also help bring in some revenue.”
Till then, for Bhan Sahu and her team, it’s another day of ensuring that Chhattisgarh makes news.
Pics Courtesy: Sakhi