Bangalore: His parents were refugees from Bangladesh; he grew up with the Adivasis (an umbrella term used for tribal groups) in a small town in Koriya district, Chhattisgarh. He did not like going to school, leave alone aspire to scoring high marks.
Despite that kind of background, Shubhranshu Choudhary hasn’t done too badly for himself.
After graduating from the only school around him—one run by the tribal welfare department—in Koriya district, Choudhary went on to pursue a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in science and philosophy, respectively, from Pt. Ravishankar Shukla University in Raipur.
Most of his Adivasi classmates went on to become Maoist rebels. Along the way, he stumbled onto journalism.
Choudhary, 45, has spent over 15 years as a producer and journalist for news organizations such as BBC, The Guardian and Deshbandhu, a local newspaper in Raipur, where he covered wars across South Asia, natural calamities and internal Maoist uprisings.
“They (Adivasis) told me, ‘You should democratize your media communication platform’, and I asked them what it meant. Their reply was, ‘When we sit in a panchayat or in a small room, air is the medium and nobody owns it, so we all have the equal right to speak and be heard. But when people sit far away and want to hear about us, they need tools.’”
“These mass communication tools are available only to some people and this causes the imbalance in media coverage. They don’t like to communicate other people’s issues that are not palatable to them,” said Choudhary, whose surname was originally spelt as Choudhury; it was misspelled by the person who enrolled him in school.
He played devil’s advocate when he published the book Let’s Call Him Vasu, in which he talks about the time spent with some Maoists in Chhattisgarh. He realized that most problems arose due to gaps in communication between mainstream India and the Adivasis of central India. This led him to think that he “had always been on the wrong side of news coverage”.
According to the latest (2011) Indian census data, 53% of households in India possess mobile phones. In the combination of rising penetration of mobile phones and the vocal nature of the millions in rural areas, Choudhary saw an opportunity to shift the power of journalism to the mobile phone and “give a little power to more people rather than a lot of power to some people”.
After a couple of experiments in public discussion forums and the community radio space, Choudhary founded CGNet Swara (CGNet stands for Central Gondwana Net, and swara means “voice” in Sanskrit) in 2008.
CGNet Swara, a Bhopal-based project, is a voice portal for citizen journalists to report or listen to audio news bytes about Chhattisgarh using their mobile phones in Hindi and Gondi (a language spoken in the central Gondwana region of India, which comprises the central tribal region stretching from the Adivasi areas of Gujarat to West Bengal).
In 2008, Choudhary met Bill Thies, then a doctorate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, at a mobile technology conference in Bangalore. Thies was working on a college project called Audio Wiki, a user-generated platform for audio content, which eventually evolved into CGNet Swara by February 2010.
The portal comprises four components: callers, who give missed calls to the portal phone number to either report or listen to news; a server that returns the call and collects and stores the audio bytes; moderators, who publish the byte on the website; and website visitors, who can be either journalists from the mainstream media who want to cover a certain story, non-governmental organizations that want to extend support, urban activists who follow reported stories, or local authorities who want to address grievances.
As the portal has not yet reached a revenue-generating phase, Choudhary, a former Knight International Journalism Fellow, currently manages the project with the help of grants from the United Nations Democracy Fund and will be receiving funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The project won the India eGov 2.0 Award and the mBillionth South Asia Award in 2010.
The company pays salaries of between Rs.5,000 and Rs.15,000 to its moderators and technical assistance staff.
“Though other costs are minimal, the biggest cost right now is the telephone bill, which sometimes runs up to Rs.30,000-40,000 per month,” said Thies, who is also a researcher at Microsoft Research India, where he leads a team that built a platform similar to the one used by CGNet Swara, called the IVR Junction, which can be used to replicate these kinds of voice portals in other countries.
CGNet Swara receives more than 400 calls per day that generate vernacular audio content, which is later filtered, fact-checked, translated and published on the website, along with a short write-up. Today, the website has more than 4,500 posts, which include news, stories, songs and grievances, obtained from more than 289,000 callers in the last four years.
Choudhary also trains trainers to move around and teach rural citizens basic reporting skills to achieve his goal—“to make tribal people the reporters of their respective areas”.