What started as simple activism and a push for life’s basic essentials, has blossomed into a project that is empowering those at the bottom of Indian society, reports Krati Garg.
‘We Dalits, Adivasis go 4 km to fetch water,” reads a report posted on the web page of a citizen journalism portal in India. “Please help with a hand pump. Drinking water is not available in the village for a long time. 500 Dalit and Adivasi people live here, and they go four km to fetch water. Wells in the village gives dirty water, which causes diseases in the village.”
‘Dalits’, segregated as untouchables in the ancient caste system of India, and ‘Adivasis’, the original landowners, have long been oppressed and disenfranchised from a labyrinthine system of governance in a nation that prides itself as the world's largest democracy.
The report has been filed by Janmawati Saket, a social activist and one of the many citizen reporters who form an integral part of the problem-solving platform CGNet Swara (derived from Central Gondwana region and coupled with ‘Swara’ meaning voice in Sanskrit), an emerging online portal for citizen journalism “Indian style” that is making a significant difference in the lives of people throughout the region.
The platform grew out of an online discussion forum founded by former BBC journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary in 2004 that brought to a chat room the problems faced by the people of Chattisgarh, one of a handful of states that form the Central Gondwana region.
“The current model of communication and journalism is a cold model of aristocracy, in India and all over the world. It is top down,” says Choudhary, speaking via Skype from New Delhi airport, on his way to collect yet another accolade for his innovative venture.
“When a small number of people take and make the decision for a larger group of people, the voices of the minorities are not heard.
“My idea is to make this model democratic and bottom-up. When the last person in the village feels empowered … then we will feel we have achieved something.”
Besides problem solving, which is the main purpose of the portal, CGNet group hosts a range of community activities that alert mainstream media and governments to long-neglected issues such as farmer suicide, migration and displacement and lack of school facilities.
The team conducts “Yatras” (road shows) that spread awareness of local news and promote tribal songs and poems, providing a platform for artistic and cultural expression. Various groups gravitate towards such events, including women, who for the first time are feeling empowered to voice their concerns.
These interactions were the means by which Choudhary sought to convert the ‘monologue’ that existed between the tribal people and government into a ‘dialogue’. At its core is the portal, launched in 2009 using a technology known as Interactive Voice Response (IVR), a two-way communication system that enabled “citizen reporters” to record a message in their own language outlining a grievance or an issue.
The working is simple. First, the villager “pranks” CGNet Swara. The server detects the ‘missed call” and then calls the villager back offering three options – record a problem in the next three minutes, listen to other recorded grievances, or listen to the solved grievances (known as impact statements) and other news information.
Recorded messages are assessed by a group of moderators who are trained to work as journalistic filters. They sieve each complaint for its content, sound quality and authenticity, and triage it based on the urgency of the issues raised. Once approved, a message is then forwarded to the editor, who either vetoes it or finalises it for posting on the site.
On average, CGNet gets 150 recorded messages a day. From these, four or five are selected to be available on the portal for other callers to hear, while some are shared on the group’s website or via social media in a bid to attract the attention of Internet-savvy urban activists.
Up to 1200 additional calls a day are from people who listen in to the messages or other information recorded the form of songs, or news updates, and are invited to help in problem solving by contacting listed government or municipal officials responsible for the issue reported — the broken hand pump in Ms Saket’s case, for example.
Soon, an officer in charge of the water supply in Ms Saket’s village may start receiving multiple notifications about the broken pump, in the form of phone calls, emails or visits from the ‘listeners’. Contacts can also be from ‘moderators’, of which there are eight, or ‘field champions’, a group of around 25 people who are employed by CGNet to monitor the progress of grievances. Sometimes, international welfare groups get alerted via social media and add their weight to a complaint. CGNet’s editor might also champion a grievance personally.
The portal often represents a last attempt by villagers to solve a problem, says Choudhary, having already tried to alert the officials unsuccessfully.
CGNet’s modus operandi might be seen as “ganging up” on government, but in a country with a population of 1.25 billion and inherent problems of red tape, corruption and bureaucracy, this method of citizen activism appears to be hitting its mark.
Since its launch in 2010, CGNet Swara has helped solve hundreds of grievances, with more than 200 documented in the form of impact statements published on the website. Choudhary says that this success sets CGNet apart from other ICTD (Information and communication technologies and development) projects that often fail to get off the ground because of time constraints, lack of funds and academic deadlines.
However, not all the messages recorded lead to happy endings. Problems that are only partially resolved or seemingly left in limbo, can lead to disillusionment among CGNet’s legion of citizen reporters.
Nidheesh Tyagi, the Editor of BBC Hindi (India), acknowledges that there is an increasing niche for citizen journalism.
“The mainstream newsrooms practice a very metropolitan, urban-centric middle-class journalism today,” he says. “Newsrooms often do not have positions for Dalits or tribals. There is a clear absence of people who are on the fringe, who can relate and see things at their eye level.”
Tyagi adds: “Citizen journalism projects such a CGNet Swara are a great enabler for people living in remote, inaccessible areas. For the first time, these ‘last mile’ people can speak their minds.”
Still nascent, citizen journalism in India has its roots in the lack of effective mechanisms for redressing the grievances of ordinary citizens, according to Parul Agrawal , A former fellow at Reuter’s Oxford-based Institute for the Study of Journalism.
“While web-based, technology-driven media have been the main forces behind the phenomenon in the rest of the world, citizen journalism in India has been fuelled by the investigative vacuum left by the mainstream media,” she wrote in her research paper.
Gram Vaani (voice of the village) is another successful citizen journalism project that operates across 15 states in India, drawing more than 2 million users, as well as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Namibia and South Africa.
Projects such as CGNet Swara AND Gram Vaani turn traditional journalism on its head by infusing activism in their formula. Getting problems fixed might be the starting point for anxious villagers, but around that simple mission is built news, information and engagement that connects communities.
So far, CGNet Swara has established its platform across 12 states of India. But as news of its success spreads, so does its appeal. Callers from 22 states have accessed the service with the number rising.
The kernel for CGNet came when Choudhary, born to refugee parents from Bangladesh, found himself back in Chattisgarh where he grew up, reporting on the Maoist insurgency that led to the deaths of 76 Indian soldiers in 2000.
Some of the foot soldiers fighting for the Maoists were his former classmates, who made him aware of the problems faced by the marginalised community that had long been neglected by the white-collared ‘babus’ (slang for government officials) and the mainstream media.
The community’s poor access to education, sanitation and potable water, lie in stark contrast to Chattisgarh’s rich mineral resources. The Adivasi tribes live in conditions comparable to some of Australia’s remote Indigenous communities.
It seems little coincidence that Chattisgarh is one of the many states in India that has been a breeding ground for Naxalism. Cited in 2009 as India’s largest internal threat to security by then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the far-left radical communism guerillas have made inroads in at least 170 of India’s 260 districts.
But Choudhary says that Adivasis supported the Naxalites simply because neither the government nor the media heard their pleas. Maoists not only spoke their language but also gave them a sense of leadership.
Choudhary was unnerved by what he saw and felt compelled to quit his job as a BBC journalist, launching the online discussion forum in 2004 that was the precursor to CGNet Swara. Its impact was immediate, with CGNet’s exposure of human rights violations during the period 2005 and 2009 prompting national media to start dispatching their reporters to Chattisgarh.
An accidental meeting with tech whiz Bill Thies at a conference in Bangalore helped Choudhary take his vision to the next level. Thies wanted to explore the role of mobile technology in making a meaningful difference to people’s lives.
The use of mobiles to disseminate stories is an easier option for countries such as India, according to both Thies and Choudhary. The 2011 census reported that more people own mobile phones than have inside toilets. The Internet, however, has a very low penetration: 7 per cent across whole of India and less than 0 .7 per cent across Chattisgarh.
Thies, who graduated from MIT in the US and was working as a researcher with Microsoft Research India in 2009, envisioned using mobile phones for local content production and sharing.
“Content dissemination via IVR (Interactive voice Response) is just like the use of the Internet,” he says. “Initially, the Internet was used to consume content, check the weather and sports. But when it took off, it became user-generated content with Facebook and other social media, owning and contributing to the content.
“Billions of people still lack basic services and need better education [and] health sanitation and this could be changed by use of meaningful technology. We married the infrastructure application domain with the social domain, making it a perfect marriage.”
Despite technical glitches and the wariness of local government officials and journalists working in traditional media, CGNet managed to establish a stable server in Bhopal that could process multiple calls simultaneously. Thies and Microsoft during this process developed a Windows platform, IVR Junction, which is an open source also fueling citizen journalism projects in India and other countries, including Somaliland and Indonesia.
This new style of citizen reporting is propagated purely by word of mouth, says Thies. “Our advertising costs are zero. We did not use social media. We perform ‘Nukkad Natak’ [street plays], storytelling, dances and songs, and conduct training sessions amongst the people to tell them about CG Net.”
Last year, the team conducted a two-month ‘yatra’ traveling over three states of India. “The calls have rapidly increased since then,” says Verma, a 21-year-old technical team leader at the office in Bhopal, who is studying computer science.
Thies says these cultural activities ensure that CGNet is at the doorstep of local communities.
“These rural communities do not engage with the media in a way that urban societies do in the form of billboards,” he says. “It is a deeper conversation, resource-intensive process to bring these communities on board.”
Initially supported by the Knight Foundation, the group has since received grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is now backed by the United Nations Democracy Fund. The McArthur Foundation supports the cultural ‘Yatra’ during which villagers are taught how to use a mobile phone and report happenings around them.
Tyagi, of BBC Hindi, sees projects such as CGNet Swara eventually being funded through crowd sourcing.
“The moment government or any private company gets involved in the funding, they will have their own agenda around it,” he says, adding that syndicating stories to media outlets could be another way for sustaining citizen journalism.
“Citizen journalism is a brilliant source bed for journalists, bringing compelling stories with amazing narratives,” he enthuses. “It is time to reconfigure methods of storytelling. When we at BBC become convinced of the story from a citizen journalism forum, we use our journalistic expertise to make it snowball and impact-worthy. We can bubble up story ideas from these reports.”
Both the founders envision CGNet to be a community-funded, self-sustainable platform ultimately. Choudhary draws inspiration from “Durga Puja”, a major religious festival in eastern parts of India in which people from the entire community, rich and poor, chip in to fund events celebrating the worship of Hindu Goddess Durga.
“I want to reach the lowest denominator and empower him,” says Choudhary. “When people realise that the flow of information is independent then they will contribute, and the model will become self-sustainable through public funding.”
Adds Thies, in reference to the network’s growth potential: “A way to reduce the long-term costs and tackle the connectivity issues is the newly devised Smartphone App.
“With the help of the App, a villager will be able to record the grievance even in a low reception area and the data will be transferred to the CGNet portal automatically, via the App, once the phone reaches a zone of better connectivity.
“A picture speaks a thousand words. The App will allow retro uploading of pictures, preserving the human element in the story. It is really a bet on the future.”
Although still in its infancy, the App has enabled submission of 700 posts since its launch in September.
Radio, the most common mode of delivering news and information in rural India, remains an ultimate goal for CGNet to disseminate its stories. Radio has a 99 per cent reach across India compared to a mobile phone reach of around 30 per cent in remote rural areas.
For Choudhary, adding radio to CGNet’s publishing armory would complete a circle of influence, though it is not yet assured.
“Reporting will be by phone, moderation/editing will be on the computer/Internet and listening on the radio: this way a circle of a democratic media will get completed,” he says.
With all three technologies combined, Choudhary foresees an equitable homogenised media with access for all.
The key to tapping the airwaves is Choudhary’s proposal to bundle CGNet reports into a regular program that would be broadcast throughout the region by All India Radio, India’s sole public broadcaster. After long negotiations, AIR has finally given the nod for a dedicated timeslot, according to Chouhdhary, with the program to be transmitted in “Gond”, the language most commonly spoken across Gondwana.
Tyagi agrees that the dissemination of citizen reports would be best achieved through a combination of radio and mobile phones, but would still need a journalistic presence to ensure that those stories are impartial and objective.
“Journalism doesn’t change, whether its mainstream or citizen journalism. Journalistic filters are still needed to make the stories balanced and to separate the real story from noise.”
Choudhary says that his citizen reporters will practice journalism of concern, raising issues that demand attention, as opposed to journalism compromised by vested interests.
He hopes for a journalistic model for CGNet where the people of the community have a say in selecting its moderators. His idea is that the buzz around CGNet’s activities will enrich mainstream journalism. “For example, if the word malaria is repeatedly used in all the recorded messages in a given week, the journalists will get alerted to the news lead instantly, ” he says.
Launched in 2010, CGNet Swara has logged more than 430,000 phone calls, published more than 5800 stories and documented 200-plus reports of problems that have been solved via the system.
CGNet’s success has also been recognised globally. Choudhary in 2013 won the Google Digital Activism Award for his efforts and last year was recognised by Foreign Policy magazine as among the top 100 global thinkers in the world.
His vision is to democratise journalism, transforming it into a medium like ‘air’ – freely available to everyone.
Citizen reporter Janmawati Saket, meanwhile, is thanking her CGNet audience, who responded to her news alert: the hand pumps have been fixed, and the villagers can access drinking water without having to trek four kilometers to fetch it.
Ms Saket, who also runs a women’s welfare organisation called ‘Bahini Darbar’ (Court for Sisters), treasures her role as a citizen reporter for CGNet Swara, a role she would not part with for her life.
Once, after recording a grievance, she was threatened multiple times over the phone by someone whom she suspects was a government official. “But I lodged another complaint about that phone number on CGNet and the threats stopped.”