Raipur: When Samir Xalxo has a story to tell, he makes a phone call and within hours people across one of India’s least developed and most violent states will be able to catch up on the news.
The system, developed by Microsoft Research India, allows trained amateur journalists in Chhattisgarh state to call their reports in to a central number where they are recorded and checked by moderators. A text message then goes out to everyone on the service’s contacts list and they can phone in to hear the story at normal phone charge costs—less than Rs5.
Such simple and cheap technology is a boon in Chhattisgarh, which is beset by an increasingly violent Maoist insurgency. State television and radio are the only sources of news and not widely trusted, literacy is low and many people are cut off from all communication, except by mobile telephones or landlines.
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“We report on whatever affects ordinary people,” said Xalxo, one of 33 trained volunteers working unpaid for CGNet Swara (Chhattisgarh Net Voice). “We do not target the state government nor are we supporting the Maoists. We are interested in issues which are ignored by Chhattisgarh’s regular media,” the 32-year-old said.
One of the most active Swara journalists is Bhan Sahu, who specializes in the subject of the plight of families rendered homeless by a dam in her home district of Rajnandgaon.
“I am reporting on the dam on CGNet Swara and I will go from village to village to tell people the benefits of this service. People are listening. The word is spreading,” she said.
Swara reporters are now teaching others because the technology is easy to use, said Bill Thies, one of the project designers working for Microsoft Research in Bangalore. “We are trying to be creative,” said the 31-year-old Pennsylvanian. “People have the option to either listen to a news report or record one. Next we want the service to be free, which will widen participation.”
Thies and freelance journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary set up the service after training the reporters in February in Chhattisgarh, where most regions are affected by fighting between government troops and Maoist rebels.
Indian laws do not permit private FM radio stations to broadcast news, and in many insurgency-riven states national broadcasters All India Radio and Doordarshan are seen as government propaganda tools.
Since the new phone news project was launched just a few months ago, 250 stories have been uploaded, and nearly 3,000 calls to hear them have been made. The languages used are Hindi and Gondi, an ancient tribal tongue that does not have a written script.
Chhattisgarh’s bureaucracy appears wary of CGNet Swara and its use in the worst insurgency-hit areas such as Dantewada district, where 76 policemen were massacred by the Left-wing rebels last month.
“We cannot afford a loose cannon like this service in a state which is at war with insurgents,” a police officer in Raipur said on condition of anonymity.
CGNet Swara’s “citizen journalists”, however, insist they are not part of the conflict in Chhattisgarh, where about 1,300 well-equipped insurgents are fighting Indian security forces.
“Whatever is happening in Dantewada is because of a huge communication gap in the Maoist-held areas. If we had representatives there on the ground then we would know their problems, and solutions might come,” Xalxo said.
Elisa Tinsley, a programme director with the International Center for Journalists who helped train the Swara reporters, said the Washington-based organization wanted to help the service expand.
“That means finding ways to overcome any financial and technical barriers that may exist (but) despite these barriers, the number of people using the new system continues to grow,” she said in an email.