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By the tribal, for the tribal

Bhan Sahu has a question for Bill Gates. She has heard about the Microsoft co-founder’s philanthropic activities and wants to know if mobile communication, like email, can be free. The question has been forwarded to Gates. Meanwhile, the 38-year-old social activist in Chhattisgarh is busy touring and reporting on issues that affect people in the state — using her mobile phone.

“My mobile phone is my only reporting weapon,” says Sahu. She has reported on issues ranging from the inadequate supply of mid-day meals in schools to non-payment of dues to workers in rural development schemes and the absence of doctors in local hospitals. Sahu only needs to call a number from her cellphone and voice a report. Her latest audio bulletins can be accessed by anybody from any part of India with just a phone call.

Like Sahu, hundreds of citizen journalists, mostly Chhattisgarh tribals, are using their phones to file reports on issues ranging from the administration to Maoism. People record their messages in Hindi and Chhattisgarhi, and some in Kuduk and Gondi dialects. Sahu files her reports in Chhattisgarhi.

The system — called CGnet Swara — is fairly simple. Anybody wanting to record or listen to the latest news has to dial a number (080-66932500) and follow the instructions.

“It’s the voice of the tribals in an area where issues related to them are hardly mentioned in the mainstream media,” says Shubhranshu Choudhary, the founder of CGnet Swara and the administrator of the Chhattisgarh Network website www.cgnet.in, who conceived of this transmission system with the help of Microsoft Research, a wing of Microsoft Corporation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

Choudhary operates from his office in Ghaziabad and uses a fellowship that he’s won to fund the project. He has the software required for collating news. The expenses are minimal, and right now the reporters pay for their calls to get their news across. And they are happy to do so, for they finally have a forum.

Activists rue that the government has failed to address tribal communities’ lack of media access. For instance, there isn’t a single publication in the Gondi script or a radio news bulletin for the 2.5 million Gondi speakers in Chhattisgarh and neighbouring states, says Choudhary. Community radio has also not taken off for security issues.

“The mainstream media in Chhattisgarh cater to the educated middle classes and quite obviously issues related to people living in far-flung areas don’t matter that much. CGnet Swara provides news by the tribal for the tribal,” says Choudhary.

Although those who record their messages are asked to keep the basic rules of journalism in mind, an experienced editor is at hand to crosscheck messages posted by the people. “Whenever we get a report from a citizen journalist, we check the veracity of the report and only then is the message uploaded,” he says.

Ever since it started in February 2010, thousands of people, mostly from Chhattisgarh, have called to record and listen to the news reports. Some citizen journalists were trained by CGnet with the help of Unicef in Chhattisgarh’s Jashpur district. Around 50 people call in every day.

“It’s an innovative programme and a very promising technique too. The enthusiasm among the tribals is very high. I hope this develops into a mass movement and there is real impact on the ground,” says Shaheen Nilofer, Unicef’s Chhattisgarh chief.

Samir Xalco, a Kuduk-speaking tribal from Ambikapur in Surguja district, says the forum also acts as an outlet for people who want to vent their anger at the lack of development in their areas. “Through Swara we are able to at least talk about issues, hoping that somebody will listen to them and come to our help,” he says. School-dropout Xalco and many of his tribal friends not only file reports but also listen to stories filed by others.

And as for the impact on the ground, there are signs that efforts of the citizens, most of them illiterate, are bearing fruit. “I had complained about non-attendance of doctors for months together in a local hospital, but after my report on Swara, I saw that they were back. I feel that it was because of my report,” says Sahu.

There is another kind of impact — and that’s the confidence that the service gives its voluntary reporters. “The very fact that these people can now file their own news reports and also listen to them gives them a feeling of empowerment,” says Nilofer.

Although many tribals report on matters related to Maoism and alleged atrocities by security forces in the interiors, Swara encourages people to file reports on issues affecting the community as a whole.

Local media have also started following up news reports filed by tribal reporters. For instance, it was on Swara that one of the first reports on the Dantewada killing was filed by a resident of the area. A report on a polluting sponge iron factory in Bastar was filed by a tribal and later highlighted by the mainstream media.

The reporters are learning on the job. Some, in fact, file a report every day. Adiyog, a tribal activist working in the interiors of Chhattisgarh, says the success of the system is due to its simplicity. “Mobile phones are everywhere, even in the poorest areas of the state. If the people in these areas are aware that a system exists where they can talk about any issue, they will definitely call,” he says.

The organisers hope that the trend will catch on all over the state. “Most of the people who are filing their reports now are from central Chhattisgarh, and hence the reports are generally in Hindi and Chhattisgarhi. We also want people from the north and the south to access our system and file their reports in Kuduk and Gondi dialects,” says Choudhary.

There are other challenges too, the biggest being the cost. Currently, anybody calling the system is charged an STD rate, which many find prohibitive. And that’s why Sahu wants to find out if phone calls will ever be free.

“We are looking at the option of a toll free number, or a system that calls users back after they register a missed call with the system,” says Bill Thies of Microsoft Research, who was instrumental in developing the system. But that might take some time.

In the meanwhile, Choudhary is trying to ramp up the system to cater to the increasing number of calls. He is also planning to employ experts of Kuduk and Gondi to edit the news reports filed in these dialects. Sahu, on the other hand, is gathering news — and waiting for Bill Gates’s reply.

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