Deepak Raj is 20 years old and has been through a horrific ordeal. Sold as bonded labour, he worked in a flour mill in Dahod, Gujarat, for almost six months before a police team from his village Lohgarh in Madhya Pradesh’s Rewa district rescued him in April.
Deepak belongs to the Kol tribe and had been sent to Gujarat by his father, who had no idea that his eldest son was actually being sold for Rs.1.3 lakh by the man who had promised to find work for him. “I had sent my son with Phool Chand from the village along with five-six other boys. But within two-three months most of the other boys ran away from that mill. My boy was stuck; he was not fed properly, nor was he given a chance to call us. His name was changed from Deepak to Rama. In the two-three phone calls he managed to make, he cried and begged us to rescue him. I went to the local police station but they wanted Rs.5,000 to file a complaint. That’s when I thought of asking Brijesh (Verma) for help,” says Deepak’s father Ram Raj as he pieces the story together with help from his wife Ram Lalli, who took the first call from Deepak.
Everyone in Lohgarh knows that, Brijesh Verma has been working as a citizen journalist for CGNet Swara. After Verma met “trainer” Jagdish Yadav, who runs a local NGO, Panchsheel Seva Sansthaan, in Dabhaura near Lohgarh, he too started to contribute to CGNet Swara, “a voice-based portal, freely accessible via mobile phone, that allows anyone to report and listen to stories of local interest”.
Verma helped Raj record his story and within six days of the voice report being published on CGNet Swara, the local government swung into action and brought Deepak home.
Ramkailash Kol is a citizen journalist and activist too. He works with small groups of Kol farmers living in Sabri Tola and the surrounding villages in Rewa. In May, about 100 farmers managed to get their ration cards, something they had been chasing for 15 years, after a voice report was published on the portal. “We had saved our old ration cards and kept going back to the tehsildar’s office, asking him to renew them. But he used to tell us we did not exist on the list, even though we are all registered voters. Then we got a survey done and Ramkailash made five-six of us tell our stories on CGNet Swara. Once these stories were heard by the collector of Rewa, some of us got our cards in May and have been getting ration regularly now,” says Vijay, one of the villagers in Sabri Tola.
Ramkailash is making sure that CGNet Swara’s phone number is painted in large letters on the mud walls of many of the huts in this area. There are still about 15 people in this village who have not been issued their cards, but he is hopeful that once the elections are over later this month, this work will be done.
Else, there is always CGNet Swara, where the story of the missing ration cards can be retold.
In both cases, when faced with apathy from the police and the tehsildar, Verma and Ramkailash did what they have been trained to do by CGNet Swara—use the power of the oral narrative to tell a story so that it reaches out in the fastest possible way to whoever can make a difference.
Sitting in his Patrakar Parishad office-cum-home in Ghaziabad, Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former journalist with BBC who founded CGNet in 2004 and CGNet Swara in 2010, is getting ready for the daily 9am phone meeting with trainers and staff based in HackerGram (a space from which CGNet Swara functions), Bhopal.
It is really a simple process, he explains. If you can access a phone, give a missed call to 91-8050068000. This number will flash at the CGNetSwara’s “call centre” at HackerGram. The Interactive Voice Response (IVR) will kick in and the call will be returned within a minute or so with options to either record a message or to listen to up to four messages. The service is free for callers currently. For a complaint recorded, a “trainer” from that area who works with CGNet Swara gets on the case to translate and transcribe it and then an editorial decision (usually by Choudhary) is taken on how best to verify a claim or a complaint. The person making the complaint (if it is not made through a local citizen journalist) is contacted and often asked to re-record the issue and include the numbers of local government officers who have not responded. This way, CGNet Swara’s staff and urban volunteers, as well as other people in that area, can contact the officials too and ask why there is no response. “We want to create maximum impact and that happens when many people talk about the issue,” says Choudhary adding that they are slowly recruiting local moderators who can take editorial calls for their areas in
Choudhary met a lot of young Adivasis in Chhattisgarh while researching for his book Let’s Call Him Vasu in early 2000s. The idea to start a service like CGNet Swara came after these conversations. “They always told me that I had to make my journalism democratic. This is not a Maoist problem here, they said, it is a communication problem. Initially I thought I am democratic, I tell everyone’s stories, but eventually I understood that what they were saying was that news can never be democratic till the medium of dissemination is owned by a few. All they wanted was a voice, a chance to tell their story in their own way, not bound by the needs of a print or an electronic medium which necessarily leads to editorializing,” he says.
In 2009, Choudhary met Bill Thies, a software specialist who works with Microsoft Research India in Bangalore. Both of them realized they wanted to set up a system through which a basic phone could be used by someone with minimal literacy to publish what they want to say on a social platform. “We both knew that voice was the only way to do this and it worked for us because Shubhranshu knew what people wanted to talk about on a social media platform from a low-income, backward area and I was a technologist who could make this happen,” says Thies over the phone. Thies, who was completing his PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, at the time, got work with the university and set up the current system that CGNet Swara uses.
Meanwhile, at HackerGram,the staff had sat down for their morning phone meeting with Choudhary, who questions them about pending messages, follow-ups, and also wants an update on how the low-cost receiver and transmitter set is coming along.
HackerGram, the once-upon-a-time mushroom farm, now houses about 12 people, some of whom are being trained to work as citizen journalists in their areas, like Raboy Murmu and Dalaresh Murmu, both of whom are Santhals and speak the dialects in which the single largest tribe of Adivasis, spread across West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, communicates. “Forget getting our stories out, most of our people don’t even know what is happening in the rest of the country. We hope that CGNet Swara will get their radio programme going soon and we can help our people get more jaankari (information),” says Raboy Murmu, who has been staying in Bhopal for a few weeks now and is learning how to use the computer and edit voice reports.
Of late CGNet Swara is looking to rework its model and try to include radio. “There is a citizen band at 26.9 MHz to 27.2 MHz that the law allows people to use without licences. The problem is that the receiver is much too expensive for people in tribal areas to be able to afford. We have brought the price down under Rs.1,000 for the receiver but it needs to be lower. Also, we are working with different models, including using the Raspberry Pi, to make low-cost servers, and using local coils in receivers and hope this will eventually allow us to run small, localized radio stations,” says Arjun Venkatraman, Choudhary’s stepson, who runs the Mojolab foundation, a not-for-profit which works on low-cost technology, out of HackerGram and provides technical support to CGNetSwara.
“We need to scale up the model, include many more local dialects and even introduce newer services like a special channel on Indian law, and one on local medicine. We need to spread the word to people who have no access to phone yet, but can listen to radio. The Adivasi needs to expand their focus from jal (water), jungle, jameen (land) to include jankaari too if they want to exist on their own terms,” adds Choudhary.
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Rs.10,000 can help them to
• Pay one month’s stipend or expenditure of trainers.
• Buy one Citizen Band Radio transmitter, which can receive 27 MHz signals.
• Train urban volunteers for follow-up/editing/translation, etc.
If you volunteer, you can
• Make follow-up calls to officers for impact on stories.
• Help transcribe/translate the messages.
• International Center for Journalists
• UN Democracy Fund