‘Namaskar, I am Raman Kumar from Kanker, Chhattisgarh. Last week, the local administration held a public hearing on land acquisition in our village. The meeting was a farce.” I have never met Kumar — I heard the ‘news bite’ by just dialling 080-66932500 from my workstation in New Delhi, 1,300 kilometres from Kanker.
In urban mediaspeak, Kumar is a ‘citizen journalist’. But unlike his urban counterparts, who are encouraged to tweet or blog on issues that are important to them, Kumar, a digital have-not, never had any dedicated space to discuss issues that were crucial to him. Interestingly, it’s technology, which created the divide in the first place, has come to his aid by lowering the barrier for sharing information. All he now needs is a mobile phone.
Raipur-based communication professional Shubhranshu Choudhary has been working for sometime on alternative media and how to bridge the gap that exists between mainstream media and people like Kumar. He started a website, www.cgnet.in — a platform for news and information about Chhattisgarh some time ago. But since internet penetration in India is low, Choudhary wanted a more popular and broadbased technology to increase the scope of information exchange.
Around the same time, S. Amarasinghe of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his team were scouting for an opportunity to deploy their newly-developed AudioWiki platform, a repository of spoken content that could be “accessed and modified via a low-cost telephone”. His former student, Bill Thies, who now works with Microsoft Research in Bangalore, identified www.cgnet.in as a candidate for the platform.
And CGnet swara was born in February, 2010.
This is how it works: if a citizen journalist like Kumar wants to share some ‘news’ or listen to ‘news’ from other parts of the state, all he has to do is dial 080-66932500. Once he connects, an IVR system (the same technology that guides you when you call bank or airline helplines) takes over and prompts him to choose his options: record or listen to news. Microsoft’s Bangalore office hosts the IVR technology in its server. A ‘citizen journalist’ can then record the news in any language/dialect. The information is then verified/translated by moderators and disseminated via SMSes and www.cgnet.in. Or you could dial 080-66932500 to hear it.
There’s a growing feeling in many parts of the country that the urban media, especially the English media, is focusing less and less on the views/issues of marginalised communities. Initiatives like these provide a platform for those voices.
Recently in Goa, Video Volunteers launched IndiaUnheard, a nation-wide community-based news agency ‘dedicated’ to help the most-marginalised communities tell their own news. It is a network of more than 30 Community Correspondents representing 24 states of India.
It’s too early to foresee how all this will pan out, whether we will get a new tribe of rural citizen journalists or urban journalists will pick up the untold stories. But for now, it has given a voice and platform to people who feel that they have been “left out” of the media boom or have access to only the sanitised news coverage of the government-run All India Radio.
But more importantly, as one of the users said, there’s happiness in just ‘being heard’.
In 2002, the World Bank asked 60,000 people living on less than a dollar a day to identify the single greatest hurdle to their advancement. Above even food, shelter or education, the number one need identified was to have a ‘voice’ of their own.
Eight years later and with a million mutinies brewing, that need has not diminished one bit. In fact, it is growing.