Voices in the wilderness

Sevanti Ninan
Will they be heard? Tribals in Chhattisgarh.
Will they be heard? Tribals in Chhattisgarh.
Swara, an initiative of former journalist Shubranshu Choudhury, enables the tribals of Chhattisgarh to tell their version of stories, in their language and through a medium accessible to them…
Would things have been different in Chattisgarh today if local journalists had been able to speak to tribals living beyond the main roads? And if they had had the will to represent their problems? “When journalists don't reach them they go to the Maoists. The bridging that a journalist is supposed to do between citizens and the state does not happen because of language and distance.”
Shubranshu Choudhury, who is saying this, is a former BBC journalist with a clear belief that language is a huge issue in this state. “The Hindi speaking tribal is like an English speaker in our society: he is part of the power structure. There are two sides to this war. If a tribal knows Hindi he may be on the other side of the fight. The Hindi speaking tribal is more likely to go to Salwa Judum. The one who speaks only Gondi or Kuruk goes to the Maoists.”
Choudhury chucked up his job a few years ago to figure out how to be more relevant to people in his home state of Chhattisgarh, particularly the 33 per cent tribal population. He set up a mailing list called Chhattisgarh-net, but that goes only so far in a state where 0.7 per cent of the population has internet access. He tried to reconnect with the tribal classmates he had once had in his home state. Among the things they told him was, “your media only writes about you guys.” Some of them, he discovered, had gone over to the Maoists.
Language divide
There are no tribal journalists in the mainstream media in Chhattisgarh. The number of journalists who speak any of the tribal languages are very few. The major media in the state are owned by people with interests in coal, power and steel. That shapes how they report the public hearings that are frequently held on locating projects in a particular area. “The owner, writer, reader — they are all on the same side of this war.” Radio is the ideal medium for a state with a population scattered across a forested interior, but All India Radio has no news service in a tribal language. The Maoists, on the contrary, bring out their books and leaflets in Gondi.
So how does the government of the day get to hear from a forested belt where the language spoken is not that of the newspapers or TV channels or their reporters? Where no newspapers reach, and people have no way to draw attention to the fact that precious little development is reaching either? How do you bring them into a news net when they are many, many walking miles away from any stringer or reporter?
With not just appropriate technology but an appropriate medium. And the only medium with 50 per cent reach in this state is the mobile phone. Even poor tribals are now buying them with plans that offer a lifetime of free incoming calls.
How do you democratise journalism? By getting people to give their own news, even if the only language they speak is Gondi or Kuruk. By designing a telephone news service with moderators who will both vet incoming stories, and translate them into Hindi. So in February this year C G Swara went into operation, Choudhury's pet project evolved with help from Microsoft and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Swara is essentially a citizen journalism platform using voice xml technology which links a website to many phone lines.
Jittery government
Today the moderator, after listening and translating, decides whether the message is worth releasing or not. At the moment, on an average, they release one in three messages. The state in Chhattisgarh, given its current state of emergency, is not in a mood for new fangled communication innovations. Swara simply feeds into the paranoia of the police officials here. But a government willing to listen will have found a way of knowing the truth about what really goes on in the name of schools, a public distribution system, public hearings of intended projects, NREGA wages, the quality of village water, and much else.
Here is a sampling of small news items on the Chhattisgarh-net CG Swara website: Kushal on no results for class 5 and 8. Irregularity in PDS in Toynar Bijapur. Kamlesh on 40 haija deaths in Basaguda. Live report from public hearing in Dharmajaigarh. NREGA workers not paid from 6 months. Only teacher on census duty, children roam around. Mongra dam affected are paying bribes but yet to get compensation. Live report from public hearing for SKS power plant in Kharsia, Raigarh. Village head says 2 killed were innocent villagers, police says they were naxals. Children employed and underpaid in Tendu leaf collection. Report on SKS public hearing in Raigarh and arrest of activist Jayant Bohidar. Bijapur: Rice for poor captured by middlemen.(item in Gondi.) 236 schools closed in Bijapur district from 4 years. Interview with a person beaten up by drunk policemen.
An utterly vivid chronicle of governance in tribal regions.
All narrated in artless, barely a few sentences long narratives. The audio reports are archived on the CG Swara website where anybody can listen in. Increasingly, journalists in Chhattisgarh do. Swara's reports often give contact numbers of the officials and departments concerned, and when people tracking the website call them (as when salaries at a school were not aid for a year) a Swara report is increasingly followed by action.
When journalists in India and abroad began writing about Swara, the Chattisgarh police heard of it too, and soon the location on a Microsoft server was history. Now Swara has bounced back again with a single phone line. You dial in and it asks you whether you want to record a story or listen to one. Dial 1 or 2. That is about as complicated as it gets. The service began on February 8, and had logged 3,500 calls by the middle of May when it was discontinued briefly.
Swara has trained 33 tribals in how to give brief reports (the recording ends in two minutes) but as the phone number became known many more began to call on their own to give their urgent bit of local news. Says Choudhury “If I speak only Gondi, and if I possess only a mobile phone — no computer or internet — I can still get my news out.” In a state where those covering the war don't know the language of the other side, this service is one way to stop more disgruntled men and women from listening to the Maoists.