By Karanjeet Kaur May. 03, 2016
In the media-dark zones of rural India, life and death issues go unreported. Shubhranshu Choudhary, who bagged the Google digital activism award in 2014, brings light to that dark.
On a pristine morning in Chhattisgarh’s Kabirdham district, a confident forest official strode into Bhangitola, a village comprising 33 indigenous Baiga families. The primitive tribe, concentrated in the ancient, fragrant woodlands of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, is considered one of the most isolated in the world. Their lives, their economy, their culture, their religion have all evolved from, and continue to depend on, the sacred sal forests where they live – a fact that the Indian government formally recognised only in 2006, when the landmark Forest Rights Act was passed.
The act accords the adivasis, a right to the land they were cultivating before 2005. The forest officer knew that even though seven years had gone by since the act had been passed, none of the families in Bhangitola had received their land deeds. He went to each of their thatch-roofed houses, talking to the men who told him that they had already filled out dozens of forms. But as befits Indian bureaucracy, nothing had moved. The officer promised to help them out – but there would be a price.
Each of the families would have to pay him ₹3,000, a total of ₹99,000. For a forest-dwelling tribal family that had never been a part of the cash economy, and that subsisted on the produce of the jungle, ₹3,000 was a lot of money. Yet, the villagers somehow collected the cash and handed it over to the official.
And then, in the manner of tricksters everywhere, the officer walked off, never to look in the direction of the village again.
Three years passed. The villagers pursued the official, first with patience and then with desperation, to get the land deeds that they were entitled to. They’d nearly lost all hope until one of the young men in the village came to know about CGNet Swara, a web and telephony-based platform to report and discuss community issues in Central India. As a last resort, he called the number of the organisation, recorded his message, mentioning the names and numbers of the officers who were not cooperating with the tribals, and prayed.
Nobody knows what happened in the intervening period, but a few days later, the same official reached the village with the ₹99,000 that he had swindled them of. This time, his confidence was gone; he was contrite and begged the families for forgiveness.
The surprised villagers, who had given up hope of recovering their painstakingly earned savings, didn’t know what hit them. The report had snowballed – it had reached the CGNet website, their social media pages and email lists – and someone somewhere had decided to bring the official to book. The villagers were in a forgiving mood, but this time, the officer would have to pay a price. They called CGNet Swara again, and made him apologise over the phone. He all but sobbed, pleading for the restitution of his job.
But the officer was dismissed. His career over.
It’s a story that CGNet Swara’s founder, Shubhranshu Choudhary, is fond of retelling. Published last year on CGNet Swara, it marks a huge win for citizen journalism as well as the platform. Not that the network needed any more proof of the power it has come to wield in the decade since it took off. This kind of impact is par for the course for the website which is full of reports thanking them for expediting someone’s disability pension, or helping a school acquire electricity, or accelerating a village’s road repairs. Like similar journalism initiatives such as the nearly all-female crew of Khabar Lahariya, and the Goa-based Video Volunteers, CGNet Swara is helping rural India script a narrative of change.
Shubhranshu, who served as a BBC South Asia producer for more than 10 years and reported for The Guardian’s South Asia bureau for another two, had hoped to create a “non-aristocratic” communication platform in his “media-dark” homeland. Born and raised in Chhattisgarh, Shubhranshu left his motherland to pursue his passion in journalism covering strife in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, even as a war continued to ravage his home. It was only when he was leading a BBC crew into the Maoist heartland in 2003, Shubhranshu realised that the real stories were the ones back home.
He quit the BBC, determined to bring his passion of reporting to the people most affected by lack of it. Starting as a modest Yahoo group, CGNet Swara revolutionised the use of the mobile phone by getting citizen journalists to broadcast villagers’ voices – in Hindi and Gondi, two of the languages spoken in the region – in three-minute clips.
Now, he and his team of six volunteer journalists and editors stationed in Naya Raipur, review and verify close to 150 calls that they receive every day. The approved reports are made available for playback over the phone and can be accessed on the CGNet Swara website. Every few days, Shubhranshu and his team get on their cycles and head to a village. There, they set up a short, simple play to explain the power of the mobile phone to their often unlettered audience. After the play, Shubhranshu holds a short masterclass with the participants, often choosing young enthusiasts from the pool to train them further in Naya Raipur.
It took them five years to get the attention of the international media but it finally happened. CGNet got picked up by The New York Times, Washington Post, and the BBC and then, expectedly, mainline national newspapers followed. They stationed their correspondents in Chhattisgarh, to report on the many human rights violations and the armed conflict in the region. “It took us the first five to bring the national media here,” said Shubhranshu, “and the following five to bring mainstream local language media.”
“Communication engenders community. If your communication is feudal, your society will be feudal. If your communication is democratic, your society will be democratic,” says Sudhrashu over the chatter in his office. It sounds like simple arithmetic, although it was more on the lines of a revolution: phones turned into mics, the internet into an amplifier.
Going forward, the team is working on a sustainable revenue model that involves Bluetooth radio, but for now, it’s back to effecting small rearrangements in the lives of the people.
One phone call at a time.
With inputs from Aparna Joshi