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CGNet Swara: Village voices in India's media black zone

Development for all, or just a few?

India’s newly elected prime minister Narendra Modi won the support of the nation by promising “development for all”, summed up in his party’s 2014 election slogan “achhe din aane-waale hain” (good days are coming). However, the reality of such optimistic statements is called into question when, in the name of national interest or “development”, a startling number of people are dispossessed of the land that sustains them and their families, and they are left without access to basic necessities such as clean drinking water. Such systematic exploitation is only possible because the vast majority of India’s rural population is essentially voiceless, their problems heard by nobody. Mainstream media is dominated by the mainstream – Bollywood stars and politicians claim to speak for all. But what about the 80 million members of India’s tribal communities who inhabit India’s “media dark zone”, where journalists, politicians and international NGOs rarely, if ever, venture?

CGNet Swara: listening to the unheard voices

CGNet is an organisation operating in the Central Gondwana region, including areas of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha: states that hold the largest rural, agricultural and tribal populations. It also happens to be one of the regions in India most rife with corruption, exploitation and violation of the legislation that is supposed to protect the most vulnerable. Infrastructure and facilities such as access to clean drinking water (which can very easily and cheaply be provided by a hand pump), basic healthcare, electricity, are next to non-existent. Villagers are routinely and inhumanely evicted from their land in violation of numerous laws, including the new Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act) 2006 and even the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, not to mention international human rights laws.

Once dispossessed of their land and the resources that support them, people suffer endemic poverty as the government provides them with little, if any, of the financial compensation or resettlement packages they are promised. The MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), which is supposed to enhance “‘livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of employment” to the poorest of the poor, in reality often leaves villagers unpaid for their long hours of manual labour in incredibly harsh conditions.

Shubranshu Choudhary worked as the South Asia producer for BBC TV and Radio for eight years, covering wars and natural disasters, interviewing politicians and local leaders. A life far removed from his upbringing in the rural backwater of Chhattisgarh, he later became disillusioned with what he describes as “aristocratic journalism” and set about trying to find a way to give a voice to those who have no access to mainstream media outlets. Only 0.7% of homes in Chhattisgarh have access to the internet, community radio is strictly controlled and high illiteracy rates prevent the use of newspapers or magazines.

Choudhary realised there was a very simple solution to this problem - in every village there is at least one mobile phone; there must be a way to utilise this technology in a way which empowers these people and enables them to get their voices heard.

Thus he came up with CGNet Swara, which he describes as “village level activism mobile media”. CGNet gives villagers the opportunity to speak out about the injustices they face, through the simple means of a telephone call.

How CGNet works:

1) Villagers give a missed call to the CGNet phone number.

2) They receive a call with an automated message which asks if they want to record a message or listen to other recorded messages. They press 1 to record a message and have 3 minutes after the beep.

3) These recordings go to a team of journalists and activists based in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, who use their local contacts to verify that the stories are true.

4) They are then available for playback on the CGNet website and over the phone, accompanied by the phone number of the relevant person who is responsible for dealing with the issue. For example, in a recent post tribal villagers in Chhattisgarh revealed that the electricity lines in their village had been taken away, leaving only the poles, after being installed only a year ago. This message is posted along with the phone number of the District Collector for activists to directly pressurise him into fulfilling his responsibility.

CGNet activists came up with an ingenious way of engaging the villagers, who are wary and have little understanding of things like technology, politics, the world beyond their immediate surroundings.

As a concept it sounds relatively straightforward. But how to reach the darkest depths of a “media dark zone”? Logistically, it is problematic. Communication is difficult and transport is limited to a few bus services between the larger villages - of course, the condition of the roads is despicable. But once you’ve reached these remote villages the real difficulties start.

Very remote villagers have a tendency to flee into their houses when people from the outside world arrive: such is their apprehension and suspicion of those from the outside world who, in their experience, invariably mean them harm. In addition, the hierarchical nature of Indian society means villagers cannot conceive that their problems have any significance to “city people”. They are resigned to suffer in silence the injustices that they are served. But CGNet activists came up with an ingenious way of engaging these villagers, who are wary and have little understanding of things like technology, politics, the world beyond their immediate surroundings.

A travelling circus

They travel rural areas of the poorest states in India promoting CGNet and teaching villagers how to use it, through the medium of a puppet show, folk music, street theatre and dance. The show lures people out of their houses, gets their attention and explains complex issues such as political corruption, ineffective development projects and mainstream media on a level that they can understand.

For example, a street theatre sketch in which a pair of the activists pretend to be two politicians arguing about who will best carry out the development of the village, while the rest of the team call out from the background and prove them both completely ineffective: “I have opened a school for the children of your village!” “But no teacher comes!” “I have installed four hand pumps for fresh drinking water!” “But no water comes!” This is the reality of the ineffectual development that these people experience.

This is then followed by a criticism of the media; all the team hold up newspapers and somebody cries out, “where are the problems that we face in this? Indigenous people are being evicted from their land, we are left without drinking water, the children have no school, and in this newspaper is only Bollywood stars and politicians lies! Who is listening to our problems?”

All the members of the team are local, most of them villagers themselves; they speak local languages and understand the intricate complexities of local village culture. This is an incredibly important factor; one of the problems with international or urban-based domestic NGOs is their inherent superiority as they, often unconsciously, display symbols of wealth and prosperity (such as branded jeans, sunglasses, a watch), stay in guest-houses, eat in restaurants and drink bottled mineral water.

CGNet activists live like those they are trying to support, eating and drinking village food and water, sleeping on the floor of villagers’ houses and bathing in the nearby rivers. They make it very clear that what is good enough for the villagers is also good enough for them. In doing so, they eradicate this hierarchy, which makes the downtrodden members of society feel so worthless that they do not even open up about the problems they face in their day-to-day lives.

Only once these voices are heard by the mainstream can India claim to have a truly democratic media, and only once the shocking inequality between India’s urban rich and rural poor is eradicated will Modi’s promises of “development for all” and achhe-din (good days) hold true.

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