Among the Kol adivasis of Manikpur village, about 32 kms from the district of Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh, 45-year-old Shanti is a dreaded, yet revered figure. Not for her imposing frame and demeanour, nor for her gruff voice. It's her reputation as a feisty investigative reporter that has made all the difference. “I had never thought I would be a journalist. Now, even my five-year-old granddaughter wants to become one,” beams Shanti, one of the eight gutsy women journalists who write for, edit, produce and distribute Khabar Lahariya, Chitrakoot's local fortnightly newspaper. Currently, the five-year-old Bundeli newspaper has a print run of about 2,800 in the 250 villages of Chitrakoot and Banda.
“The idea is to give space to local issues in our own language. Even villagers are interested in news,” says Khabar Lahariya editor Mira. For Mira and her neo-literate, predominantly Dalit team, a typical day starts as early as 4 am, when they wrap up their household chores and set out into the hinterland in search of news. “I travel around 100-150 kms from home to the office in Chitrakoot, and even more when I have to go for reporting,” says Mira, 35, who stays with her husband and five daughters in Mau village.
Sitting in the office of Nirantar — the Delhi-based NGO that has been instrumental in setting-up the newspaper project — the scribes recall how their newspaper has made a huge impact in the lives of the local population. “Two years back, we wrote about the rape of a woman in a neighbouring village. The police was bribed and refused to register a complaint. Due to our reports, the authorities have now been pressurised into hearing her case,” says Mira.
As the Khabar Lahariya team shares their experiences with Sunday HT, more such stories surface. From the corrupt officials who had been siphoning off funds under the Indira Awaas Yojna in Ranipur, to the Grameen bank in Markundi village, the paper has been instrumental in bringing forth grievances and taking the officials to task, especially those involving women and oppressed classes. Aided by simple illustrations by 42-year-old Mithilesh, the paper is also popular among those who can’t read, but understand visuals.
Now, villagers have started coming to them with news, sending letters and calling up to relate their problems. “We take care that all sides are represented and the reports are balanced. Even mainstream newspapers like Amar Ujala have been picking up our stories,” says Shanti. In 2003, the team was awarded the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media persons.
But the fame hasn’t come easy. Threats and intimidation, besides social pressures and gender discrimination, Khabar Lahariya has seen it all. “Officials would send us back, even ask us to come to their homes and try to take advantage. Even the bigger reporters refused to help us,” says Kavita, who now runs the edition from Banda district. The 28-year-old senior correspondent, who’s now pursuing her Masters in Political Science says, “I always wanted to study, but my family was against it. As for journalism, I was told that patrakar bahut khatarnaak hote hain.” 22-year-old Meera Devi, the youngest reporter, has a similar story. “My husband doesn’t like that I go out, and stay overnight for field work,” she says. Five years down the line, they have learnt to overcome their adversaries, including the likes of dreaded local dacoits. In fact, Shanti is a regular reporter to areas where “many are scared to even set foot.”
But running the paper is still an uphill task. “The greatest challenge is understanding political events and analysing news,” says Mira. “We want to turn it into a daily. But village women still can't handle field work. Somehow it's eight of us who have kept it going.”