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Vox Populi Chhattisgarh – What an Idea, Sirji!

Men and women from the Gond or Oraon tribes, beyond the pale of any media attention, are now use mobile media to get their stories out to other tribals and to the world at large. GEETA SESHU on how C G Swara has gifted communication to those living beyond the digital divide.   A Free Speech Hub review.  

Posted Saturday, May 15, 2010


Volunteers train a woman to use mobile phones to communicate her message-CG Net Swara

Volunteers train a woman to use mobile phones to communicate her message-CG Net Swara

In a powerful assertion of the right to freedom of speech, as well as the right to be heard, CG Net Swara " CG for Chhattisgarh and Swara or voice - is a unique initiative to use mobile media to both reach out to tribals in remote villages of Chhattisgarh and, in turn, get them to reach out to the world at large.

The move has considerably helped breach the wall of silence that lies between the people of this trouble-torn state and their neighbours. Hitherto rendered completely invisible " either because of the ongoing Operation Green Hunt and the clamp down on free media movement or because of poverty and underdevelopment - the residents of this ancient region of India, predominantly from the Gond or Oraon tribes, are beyond the pale of any media attention.

Accomplished through the innovative use of the mobile phone, cg swara has already got more than 200 audio messages on a variety of topics" from an interview with a young adivasi girl who excels in arm-wrestling, a poem on homework, the water shortage in some areas, pollution from a sponge iron factory in Bastar, the need to shift out a liquor shop, denial of salaries to school workers and, in a measure of the desire for creative self-expression despite the strife, even poetry and songs!

In this instance, hearing is truly believing and even a cursory listen-in demonstrates the power of the message.

The technology that drives these messages is simple: users, or citizen journalists as they are called, dial a number in Bangalore " 080 66932500" and a recorded message directs them to press ‘one’ if they wish to give some news or record a message and ‘two’ if they wish to hear messages posted by others.  The messages are delivered in different languages and dialects"Gondi, Hindi, Kudukh and Chhattisgarhi. Once messages are recorded, the information relayed is checked by a moderator and a team familiar with the language and the region given and then the message is posted back on the service" to be relayed to other listeners.

This pioneering effort is the brainchild of former BBC journalist Shubhranshu Chaudhary, originally from Chhattisgarh but now based in Delhi. Chaudhary felt that mainstream media was ‘completely cut off’ from the locals of Chhattisgarh. He set up CG Net " a people’s website for Chhattisgarh. But this was clearly not enough.

“I wanted technology to bridge the digital divide. This is an area with low literacy and poor traditional print and TV media presence. But there is a healthy mobile phone penetration here,” Choudhary explains in an interview with Open Magazine. The point was to reach the people of Chhattisgarh through this platform. Choudhary took his plan to the International Center for Journalists, Washington, DC. Then, with the involvement of  Bill Thies, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate now working at Microsoft in Bangalore , Chaudhary developed the internet-radio-cum-website system, funded by MIT, Microsoft and the U.S.- based Knight International Journalism, of which Choudhary is a Fellow.

The Chhattisgarh project is similar to an initiative in South Africa (Iindaba Ziyafika, meaning “the news is coming) but the former is designed as people to people audio communication. What sets it truly apart is the context of conflict and strife it operates in. For the last few years, the people of Chhattisgarh have been struggling to survive the rapid erosion of their natural wealth by mining companies, an agressive Maoist movement pitted against the Salwa Judum or the violent vigilante squads aided and abetted by the state since 2005 and now, Operation Green Hunt. The struggle has taken its toll: more than 1000 villages have been emptied out, brutally displacing at least two lakh people.

What is life like really for the people of this area? For the rest of India, the arrest of well-known activists or journalists, the campaign to secure the release of Dr Binayak Sen, taken into custody for allegedly aiding members of the banned Maoist organisation or the killing of CRPF security forces in Dantewada , makes headlines. But the day-to-day issues of the people, their struggle for simple everyday necessities ??" water, food, education, medical attention ??" none of this scratches the surface.

Local journalists of Chhattisgarh as well as those parachuting in from bigger metros like Mumbai and Delhi have all written about the travails of reporting from this area ??" police and security forces label any journalist who writes about the problems of the people as ‘Maoist’, their movements are monitored and often, curtailed. Chaudhary wrote earlier too, of other insidious ways in which journalists get monetary incentives from big mining companies to keep ‘real’ news off the presses.

So what happens when tribal activist Prakash Korram is picked up by the police and there is no information of his whereabouts?

In the ordinary course, Ekta Parishad, the non-governmental organisation he worked for would have sent petitions, press releases and the like, without any guarantee of a response.

However, with CGnet Swara, things changed. The Ekta Parishad co-ordinator Agnu Ram Sahu called up the Bangalore CG Swara mobile number and Sahu reported the incident but the police still denied Khurram was in their custody. But after police began receiving several phone calls enquiring about Khurram and the pressure of scrutiny got too much, the latter was released on bail.

In north Chhatisgarh at Jashpur, Mamta Kajur of Adivasi Mahila Mahasangh, a tribal women’s empowerment group, was trained by CG Swara in February 2010. Mamta and others used CG Net Sawara to mobilise a rally of around 5000 villagers on awareness of local issues at Kunkuri village in Jashpur.

The CG net website lists other impacts: school teachers of an ashram shala in Dantewada who get their salaries, government officials took note of complaints on pollution of a sponge iron factory in Bastar, Gainsingh Bhaiya who reports, through Mornaam Bhansa from the Ambagarh area about the water situation, a liquor shop is shifted out of Bijapur town after a swara report or Prakash, who reports on a Shiv Sena campaign against Valentine’s Day!

 'This has now become ‘appropriate technology’ for the region,' says Choudhary, explaining why, in spite of an expensive (10-20 Indian rupees or 22-44 U.S. cents) long-distance mobile phone call, the number of calls to the Bangalore number has risen exponentially in the last two months (IPS feature).

The majority of tribals are Gondi, numbering at least four million. Yet, they don’t have a single radio news bulletin in their local language. Gondi also has no written script and the oral tradition is strong, perhaps one of the reasons why the tribals have taken to such a simple audio media where they can narrate their lives and listen to the narratives of others.

Chaudhary, in an interview, expressed surprise at the ease with which the tribals picked up this technology. He had planned extensive training and orientation sessions. but the word of mouth publicity was enough to see the service get at least 50 calls a day, with one in three messages being posted on the service after being checked and verified.

The challenge to make communication truly democratic and universal got a boost, thanks to the innovative use of mobile technology in Chhattisgarh. How far it is allowed to further free speech and expression remains to be seen.

As the political conflict in the region becomes more intense, it is anyone’s guess how long this communication system will be allowed to go on unhindered. But till then, residents of Chhattisgarh are asserting the right to be heard, loud and clear!

 

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