Tribal areas of Chhattisgarh now get their news through mobile phone..

Manasi Mehendale Mathkar

The fourth estate might be advocating freedom of speech. But it is rather ironical that a considerable chunk of our population is denied a voice in the mainstream media. Thankfully for the four million Gondi and Kurukh language speakers in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh, it is CGnet Swara that has now opened doors for them to literally speak out and get heard.

Infested with naxal insurgency, Chhattisgarh also grapples with issues such as illiteracy. For the people living in tribal areas, with no major political representation, it is a really tough world with city-based journalists not understanding the local languages and hence failing to highlight their problems. It is conditions such as these that prompted Shubhranshu Choudhary, former BBC producer and administrator of www.cgnet.in (Chhattisgarh Network), to conceptualise a Radio on a Mobile — the first of its kind — for disseminating news. Chowdhary is currently a Knight International Journalism Fellow, and has worked in collaboration with Microsoft India and MIT to develop this system.

How it works

Based on the citizen-journalist model, villagers in these tribal areas can now directly call up a number (080-66932500) in Bangalore from their mobile phones to access news in their local language. A pre-recorded message guides the caller on how to record a message or access previously recorded messages. Callers can spell out issues such as incidents of police brutality, corruption, campaigns, or any other social issue that concerns them.

These recorded messages are stored on a server located in Bangalore. The messages are then verified for authenticity by a team of senior journalist volunteers from CGnet.in, who are fluent in those native languages. Once verified, the reports are sent back on the server and callers can access these by dialling the same telephone number. Thus, with this system, practically anyone from across the country can file an audio report, or listen to one posted by other citizen journalists.

“At present, callers need to pay STD charges for the calls. However, with the help of a grant from the International Center for Journalists, we are hoping to make the number toll free soon. We are also looking at aspects such as advertising, caller tunes, etc. for cost coverage,” says Chowdhary. To further promote the citizens' cause, the audio reports are also posted on CGnet.in, duly translated.

“Once you become a member of our Web site, we can call you on your mobile number and you can listen to the messages without calling us. But we are yet to start this service, as unlike e-mails, calling out on phones is not yet free,” he adds.

The new idea is a hit!

But the efficiency of CGnet Swara depends on its citizen journalists. Hence, a two-day training programme was conducted in a village before introducing this service. Participants were taught the basics of journalism and the role of CGnet Swara. This was followed by extensive practice in recording stories. Since then, the tribals have been teaching each other and extending the network of CGnet Swara.

The response has been heartening. Just within two months of its launch in February this year, it has logged around 1,600 calls and 80 comments. Though Hindi still predominates as the caller language at 50 per cent, the number of calls in Chhattisgarhi, Gondi and Kurukh is also rising steadily.

One of the citizen journalists, Mamta Kujur, from the Adivasi Mahila Mahasangh in Jashpur, shares her experience: “This was a completely new idea for us. Here, even the local newspapers show complete apathy towards reporting issues that concern us. Our government too is not dependable. Now with the help of this system, news from neighbouring villages can be heard. Mobile connectivity is a problem though, especially during the monsoons.”

Persistent problems such as electricity supply are being overcome with the use of solar lamps. Though mobile phone penetration is slowly on the rise among youngsters, the numbers continue to be dismal.

Says another citizen journalist, Rajesh Tripathi, from Dharanjagad: “We can now make use of the ‘right to information' (RTI) and directly appeal to the authorities concerned. For instance, we raised our voice against non-payment of labourers under the Rashtriya Rojgar Yojana. We also report rallies, incidents of theft, corruption, witch hunting, alcohol abuse, and also try to create health awareness.

"This system has helped reduce the gap between villages and cities. These days, I access the news every night between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. and get to know what is happening in Raipur, Bilaspur and other neighbouring places. At times, I even go to the areas in news for follow-up of issues.”

Though a major factor, the cost is not a deterrent. This is the only way they can reach out to the rest of the country with their concerns.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated May 28, 2010)
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