Empowering tribals, the mobile way

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By Paromita Pain on Monday, April 4, 2011 - 23:24

Harnessing the power of technology, CGNet Swara has created a network of news and information for the tribal community in Chhattisgarh. Paromita Pain speaks to the founder and some of the news reporters of this unique initiative.

“Due to police atrocities we shifted to the forests near Andhra Pradesh. But the police said we were naxalites and kept setting fire to our homes. Our children are ill. Most of the people in our village are already dead. One doctor used to come and treat us but now even he has stopped. The government doesn’t want us nor do the police. Where do we go?”

This story of a displaced Chhattisgarhi adivasi (tribal) woman talking about the life she is trying to build in Andhra Pradesh would have remained one of the many untold narratives of human angst that mainstream media cannot always highlight.

But today her story, thank to CGNet Swara (http://cgnetswara.org/), has an outlet and an audience that understands what being tribal, unwanted and displaced is like. As a news media outlet, it works on a simple premise: the people who listen to it produce most of its content. Working along the principles of being ‘media for and by the people’, the CGNet Swara news site has created and empowered a whole new generation of women journalists in Chhattisgarh who today are important members of the organisation.

Why there is a need for such a media 

Shubhranshu Choudhary, who set this up with technological assistance from Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of a Knight International fellowship project, says residents of Chhattisgarh need to have a credible news source manned by journalists who know the language and culture of the land. “Often mainstream media doesn’t quite get the local flavour simply because they don’t know the Gondi language and translation isn’t always adequate,” he says.


As a producer for BBC for South Asia region Choudhary’s life at one point was all about hopping from a war to a cyclone to another civil war. “There never was any revisiting a location, and I had a sense that my understanding of these events that I covered was limited. It was eating into the quality of my reporting. I decided to go back to my roots, expecting to be able to report about a limited region in depth and to my satisfaction,” he says.

Chhattisgarh is seen as the epicentre of Maoist movement today. “It was ostensibly created for its 'tribal nature'. There are 33 per cent tribals in the state,” says Choudhary. “I could not find any tribal journalists on the list published by Chhattisgarh Journalists Union which had more than 900 names. I tried to find out how many journalists spoke any of the tribal languages. I could find only a handful. That’s when an idea struck. Twitter has not reached Dantewada but mobile phone has. Using mobile technology to solve this problem of information seemed viable. After many experiments, which succeeded to different degrees, we ended up creating a media outlet on the mobile phone. It was called CGNet Swara.”

Tribal women take on journalists’ role

The women reporters have joined on their own initiative. “We do have some training sessions periodically but the majority of the reporters are self trained or are trained by each other,” says Choudhary. News is available in Hindi and Gondi.

Designed to take concepts of citizens journalism to the people of Chhattisgarh and enable them to have a say in the media scenario, the portal is accessed through mobile phones. Callers with a story to report call a number (08041137280) and record their story. Senior journalists then check the story 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.

“While creating the news magazine, we didn’t aim it especially at women. Nor did we actively promote it among them. That’s why we don’t have any specific components catering especially to women,” says Choudhary.

Launched in February 2010, it logs more than 100 calls per day. But what is more remarkable is how women have come forth as regular contributors, bringing in news and highlighting issues, at par with any seasoned journalist. 

For Bhan Sahu, CGNet’s most active and earliest women contributor, being a woman has certain undeniable advantages. “We see things that men don’t,” she says. Hailing from Ambagarh Chowki near Rajnandgaon, she has done many stories for the site but she is proudest of her expose on child labour employed in the tendu leaf collection that’s big industry in Chattisgarh. “Not only are children employed, they are overworked and underpaid as well,” she says, her anger at the blatant injustice still palpable.

Rajim from Saraipali block in Chhattisgarh enjoys being a part of CGNet. “We aren’t paid anything. So our motive is just the urge to bring news to people,” she says. She talks about a story she did on school children being charged about Rs 20 to travel by bus to school every day. “When the children whose parents are usually daily wage earners can’t pay, they simply have to miss school. When the government is doing so much to keep children in school, can’t they make bus companies give free rides to at least the girl children?” she asks.

For Aloka, reporting for CGNet is a way of life. Watching people and understanding their issues keeps her motivated. That’s why her stories focus on issues like the setting up of herbal medicine training centers and how the forest act influences the tribes living in the forests. “One of the best stories I worked on involved just talking to people and watching them go about their daily lives. We didn’t discuss their problems. We didn’t try to see how best we could articulate their wants. Instead a journalist and her audience just sat and exchanged stories about life and living. Finally my piece dwelt on the beauty of the land and its peace instead of my usual work about development related issues,” she says.

Gujjo Bai Sarpanch of Gumiapal had never imagined that she would ever go national with her reports. But when two Naxals were reported killed in an encounter in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district, she just had to investigate the issue. Her snooping around revealed that the dead were actually innocent people killed after being woken up during the night. Their houses too were set on fire. Gujjo Bai’s story was picked up by other media the day it was uploaded on the site.

Difficult journey

After this expose, the administration faced pressure from the National Commission on Child Rights to remove children from the Tendu leaf industry. Shortly afterwards, Bhan was called to the police station couple of times to explain her work and source of income. Then her landlord asked her to vacate her rented accommodation. He later admitted that he was doing so because of police pressure. 

“People who hosted our server were asked to not host us anymore. I cannot prove this as nothing is on paper. We were forced to change our number by shifting to new servers (unlike in Wikileaks where the address does not change after being kicked out from the servers) but in our case after every server change we had to have new numbers. Because of security reason we were not keeping a record of people who call us (the police can recover their number after raiding our office) so the person reporting has a choice of keeping their identity secret.

That’s why when we had to change our number we could not inform people
about the change of number as we had no record of the numbers. So every time we had to start from zero. We know many people who have stopped reporting for Swara after mild threats from the police. Bhan and people like her are exceptions who continue,” says Choudhary.

Bhan has two children and at 39, she 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. Also, I have a daughter. She is growing up seeing an assertive mother who is no one’s ‘yes-woman’. I want to make her a journalist as well when she is bit more grown up,” says Bhan. Her family isn’t always supportive, especially when she has to travel long distances to get her stories. But Bhan is determined to stay on in her new found role. 

Road ahead

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 Mahabharat to performing music on local contemporary issues often, features her work here.

CGNet Swara is not internet dependent. It works on mobile software for the uploading of news. Callers are guided through voice prompts. “Since literacy isn’t an issue more women can participate,” says Choudhary.

CGNet has various plans for revenue generation from advertising to public service broadcast for government/NGOs on issues like health, education, forest rights and NREGA. 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. We are also thinking of content syndication with mainstream newspapers that will use our content,"

Picture by Sketch by Louisa Anne (Wikimedia Commons)

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