New Delhi: On a windy August afternoon, Rajesh Tripathi walked along the Kelo river in Chhattisgarh’s power hub of Raigad district, pausing briefly in the shade of a tree to gather his thoughts.
Then, he pulled out his mobile phone from his shirt pocket and dialled a number: 080-41137280.
As a storm loomed in an overcast sky, he cleared his throat to speak: The Kelo river has turned black, he said. Its shoreline is littered with dead fish, the result of excessive presence of coal waste. Then, Tripathi went on to name three power utilities—JSPL Ltd, Monnet Ispat and Energy Ltd and Jayaswal Neco Industries Ltd— for the mess. To record public distress, he even pulled in local residents of Tannar village to talk about their plight. The river water had become too filthy to use.
An environment activist, Tripathi has been battling industrial pollution for years. But recently, he added another role to his career: He became a voluntary reporter for CGnet Swara, a news service that allows people to record and broadcast news over a phone.
Since its launch in February last year, CGnet Swara has recorded more than 900 reports as people from the grass roots —activists, stringers, students and farmers—called in.
There are poems and songs. Live interviews from parade grounds and public hearings. Then, there are yet many stories mirroring deep troubles of governance: health clinics that run without medicines, banks that never open, trucks that spirit away illegally mined minerals, a steel company caught distributing free umbrellas ahead of acquiring village land.
Shubhranshu Choudhary, the founder of CGnet Swara and a former BBC journalist, says the idea was to provide the tribal people of central India, who continue to remain under the radar of the market-driven media, a platform to exchange ideas and issues.
“News today is more capital-intensive than people-intensive,” Choudhary insists. “There’s a structural problem when news is presented with a top-down approach.”
One of the big gainers of India’s reforms has been the estimated $550 billion news industry, as ad revenues ascended with business expansion. The proliferation of bottomline-driven television channels and newspapers has, however, created a deep wedge in how news is produced and consumed for target audiences, leaving an insignificantly small space for development news.
Click here to listen to CGnet founder Shubhranshu Choudhary talk about idea behind the venture
Nearly 80 million of India’s tribal people, which is Choudhury’s main constituents, live without any means to access information, which he describes as a “communication breakdown” spawning insurgent-led violence in those parts.
So, the objective of Choudhury’s experimental project has been to bridge this gap and operate much like a community radio, where news can be relayed through mobile phones and used by people in remote villages that are otherwise without electricity, television or news.
But, as he started out, Choudhary discovered that the hurdles proved to be India’s community radio laws itself, which ban news broadcast and offer coverage limit of not more than 15km.
On the other hand, mobile phones offer messaging services—weather and commodity forecasts to fishermen and farmers—but the challenge was to reach out to the vast unlettered population that cannot read printed texts.
Choudhary, a Knight International fellow funded by the Washington-based International Centre for Journalists, a non-profit organization that supports media innovations, says the answer lay in technology.
With development assistance from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Microsoft Research India, CGnet Swara went on to build an interface on an open-source platform to combine telephony and the Internet to call, record and listen.
Armed with mobile phones, these news volunteers are, well, mobile. And they go about excavating underground news on the spot: from a highway, a moving train and even in the dead of night.
“Now it is 11.30 in the night, the mining work is going on,” reported Rajesh Satna in April. “The ranger is not picking up my phone after picking it up once. I want to ask the forest officials. Is the forest law only meant for the poor?”
Bhan Sahu, who recorded an eviction drive at a Raipur slum on 28 July, was in turn posed a question by a woman whose house was getting ripped down. “Are cities meant only for the rich?” the woman asked her.
These audio recordings and English translation of these news are available at www.cgnetswara.org. To save on calling costs, reporters make a missed call to the Bangalore landline phone, where its server is located, and wait for a return call to record their news.
A few have attended media workshops. Most rely on their noses for news. And in a system where anyone can call in to record news, the reporters are expected to tag their contact numbers with reports, if anyone chooses to cross check.
(Responding to the Kelo river report, Raigad collector Amit Kataria confirmed to Mint that Jayaswal Neco had been issued notice for improperly storing coal waste, causing it to flow into the river. A case has been filed against JSPL for a breach in an ash dyke it built; Monnet’s plant faced closure in May for erecting infirm safeguards, causing coal waste to seep into a public irrigation pond. Recent violations by the latter two, however, did not contribute to the current river pollution, he said. Jayaswal and Monnet did not respond to Mint queries over email or phone. JSPL spokesperson denied about “pendency of any case” in an email reply.)
Driven by the spirit of doing good rather than expectation of a paycheque every month, mostly activists, rather than ordinary people, currently make up the bulk of reporters, for which CGnet has drawn some criticism.
It’s a positive venture when there are no alternatives. But the critical thing to ask is who is the mediator, says N. Ramakrishnan, founder of Ideosync Media Combine, an organization involved in community media, and part of the 100-member National Community Radio Forum. “Is it the community who participates, or is it managed by people whose selection of information is coloured by what they see as news?”
William Thies, a young researcher at Microsoft Research India involved with CGnet, however, believes that end-users invariably need intermediaries—whether when using a computer kiosk, or when a person walks into a photo studio to take a picture.
“It’s unreasonable to expect unrepresented communities to interact with technology in isolation,” Thies reasons.
And these volunteers remind about the risks of reporting from remote outposts, where the administration shares a tenuous link with the average citizen.
“The local press is scared to speak the truth,” says Mangal Gunjam, a 20-year-old Adivasi farmer who completed his studies up to class X by reading under a kerosene lamp.
Gunjam, who lives in Chhattisgarh’s volatile Dantewada district, has been putting records straight when Maoist-police wars erupt. In doing so, he has also learnt to live with threats; the police arrested his family after one of his recordings went on air. “When a policeman gets killed, he’s a martyr,” Gunjam says. “When an innocent gets killed, he’s a Naxalite.”
About 10 days ago, Lingaram Kodopi, one of the first two Adivasi boys assisted by CGnet to attend a formal journalism course, was arrested on suspicions of Maoist links, leading to widescale public protests.
As effective journalism should, some news are spurring action: malaria drugs became available in a clinic, deprived anganwadi children get their meals, often posted on the CGNet News website as “impact” news.
On rare occasions, there are calls from officials, who step in to challenge the news.
Yashwant Ramteke had reported about laying of a pipeline by NMDC Ltd in a Dantewada forest, causing destruction of a rare tree fern.
In response, forest officer Vivek Acharya clarified that the destroyed ferns weren’t the same species, but confirmed that the mining company, which did not respond to Mint queries, carried out the work illegally.
At least 48,000 listeners have called in, including journalists in search of untold stories, according to Choudhary, whose core team includes a dozen like-minded people.
CGnet is about communication, to air voices of people living in adversity, according to K. Painkra, a reporter in Dantewada. And he has chosen to become a medium to transmit that “voice”, he says.
As conscience-keepers in an unequal world, they now have a chance to look inwards at their own poverty with an unprejudiced eye, and tell stories —of river pollution, land exploits and human rights abuse —that have local as much as national resonance.
“If a handpump isn’t working, it’s not a big news for many people. But it’s important to us,” says Painkra. “And, we now have mobile phones to send it out to the world.”