The Telegraph
| Sunday, October 27, 2013 |


Tuning into the rural chatterati

Forget Facebook and Twitter. Social media are finding novel platforms to reach out to India's Internet-starved rural masses, says Shuma Raha

  • VOX POPULI: Women in a Jharkhand village have their say on Mobile Vaani

Meet Naresh Kumar Bunkar, a resident of Pandaria block in Chhattisgarh's Kabirdham district. On September 30 he posted a message on a social media platform, saying that a government primary school in the district's Pipartola village was yet to get a building. What's more, its 35 students were not being given midday meals.

"Within a few days the school teacher was suspended by the assistant district magistrate for misappropriation of funds," says Bunkar, who works at the Adivasi Samta Manch, a welfare association for tribals in the area. He also got a call from an officer of the district's education department, who promised that construction of the school building would begin soon. Happily, the midday meals have resumed already.

A text book case of social media being used to ensure accountability and drive change? Absolutely. But Bunkar didn't post his message on his Facebook wall. Nor did he put it up on Twitterverse to have it balloon into a frenetic virtual campaign and jolt the authorities into action.

Instead, he posted his message on CGNet Swara, a voice-based social media simulacrum active in the rural outback of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. It's a forum where people can discuss issues of local interest. All they have to do is call a number and leave a message in their local language — Hindi or Gondi. They can also call up to listen to others' messages. The enthusiasm for the platform is clear, given that in its three years of existence, CGNet Swara has logged nearly 2,50,000 calls. On an average, 500 people call in to listen and 50 to record messages each day.

It's not just CGNet Swara. Mobile Vaani is yet another mobile phone-based social media platform that's giving voice to the voiceless. Set up last year by Aaditeshwar Seth, a professor at IIT, Delhi, Mobile Vaani is being used by 60,000 families in Jharkhand. Between 2,500 and 3,500 calls are made each day on its Hindi and Maithili services.

Platforms such as CGNet Swara and Mobile Vaani are rural India's answer to Facebook and Twitter. If the latter are a worldwide mesh, a staggering global melting pot of information, opinion and ideas, the former are hyperlocal and more often than not, problem and solution-oriented. But they play a similar role — opening up the conversation in a digital universe, connecting people through the sharing of information and thereby empowering them.

"Facebook or Twitter may be 'social' media in developed countries. But in India, you can't really call them 'social' — because they are not being used by 90 per cent of the population, thanks to the abysmally low levels of Internet penetration in the country," says Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist and co-founder of CGNet Swara.

Choudhary has a point. Latest data from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) peg Internet penetration in India at nearly 14 per cent, dominated by mobile access. Though the urban-rural split is not known, experts estimate rural Internet penetration to be around 2 per cent. The use of mobile telephony, on the other hand, cuts a much more handsome figure. Of the total number of mobile subscribers in the country (870 million), a healthy 40 per cent is in rural areas.

It's this proliferation of mobile phones in rural India that prompted people like Choudhary and Seth to come up with social media models that are mobile-based. "These are people in remote communities who may not be literate, who do not have access to the Internet or Internet-enabled devices. What many of them do have, however, is a mobile phone. And they can use this to share information on our platform," says Ashish Tandon, vice-president, business development, Gram Vaani, the parent company of Mobile Vaani.

Experts feel that initiatives such as Mobile Vaani and CGNet Swara are, in fact, making a difference to the information-starved rural masses. "The mobile phone is the highest common factor between urban and rural India," says technology and social media expert Prasanto K. Roy. "It bridges the digital divide between the two. And with near zero rural broadband penetration, mobile-based solutions are the only option there."

Some are looking beyond the mobile and using a mix of technologies to bring rural India into the loop of socialised information. Take DigitalGreen, an NGO that trains farmers to produce and exhibit short videos where they share their farming problems and solutions. In five years, over 1,50,000 farmers have watched 2,600 videos in 20 languages in 2,000 villages in states such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand and so on.

Says DigitalGreen CEO and co-founder Rikin Gandhi, 32, who was born and raised in the US, has degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and came to work in India in 2006, "The videos are by the farmers, for the farmers. That's important because the information we trust the most is that which we get from our friends and family. We are using technology to make this sharing of information possible."

  • VOX POPULI: Shubhranshu Choudhary of CGNet Swara

Apart from physically screening the videos — which also evokes questions from viewers and quite often, a vigorous, live exchange of ideas — DigitalGreen uses technology to track usage and benefit too. Moreover, it has an interactive, mobile-based service. If farmers subscribe to it and call in with specific problems ("My brinjal crop is being damaged by insects — what do I do?") a relevant video is played back if the caller has a smartphone or as an audio track if he has a simple feature phone. "All this together creates an online- offline virtual community for rural areas where information and ideas are shared — which is what makes a social media platform," says Roy.

But can such platforms really be termed "social media" as we in urbania know it? Some don't think so. "I'm not sure if they can be classified as social media. These platforms are interactive voice response (IVR)-based, which is challenging. It's not several people talking to each other in real time — the dynamism of the Internet is missing," says Osama Manzar, founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), an NGO dedicated to bringing Internet connectivity to India's villages.

Indeed, both Mobile Vaani and CGNet Swara use forms of IVR technologies to bring rural people together. Once you call the number, the system disconnects the call and rings you back — to spare you the cost of a long mobile call. Then a pre-recorded voice takes you through the menu — press 1 to listen, press 2 to comment or post and so on. The messages, curated and edited by a dedicated team, are niche and of intense community interest — about roads, schools, MNREGA, labour rights, corruption and so on. But while Mobile Vaani provides some content of social relevance on its own, CGNet is powered entirely by content generated by its callers.

It's not exactly Facebook, but it does allow rural folk to interact on matters of common interest. Manzar too admits that in a scenario where vast swathes of the country are Internet, and hence information-deprived, such oral platforms are "better than not having anything."

However, mobile-based social media solutions would be far more effective if they were linked to radio, say experts. That's because radio is cheap for both sender and receiver. Then you could use mobile for interactivity — to record messages — and radio for listening in. Choudhary agrees that marrying mobile platforms to radio would have made listening cheaper. (At the moment, both CGNet and Mobile Vaani ring back the caller, and have to foot those callback bills.) "It would have made us self- sustaining," he says, "rather than having to depend on foundation grants."

But getting a radio licence from the information and broadcasting ministry is mired in reams of red tape and restrictions. Besides, Indian laws do not allow "news" in community radio or indeed, any other private radio station.

This is what makes mobile-based social media platforms something of a workaround, says Roy. "It requires someone to actively dial a number, rather than just turn on a radio switch. Hence, there is much lower use and penetration than could have happened with radio plus mobile."

Still, both Mobile Vaani and CGNet Swara are looking to expand their scope. The former is mulling business plans to turn itself into a financially viable social enterprise. The latter will soon have services in Bhili and Santhali tribal languages. It also launched a separate channel called CGNet Swasthya earlier this month where callers can access and share information on traditional herbal cures.

Clearly, Internet or not, social media are adapting to the needs of India's rural communities. And that deserves a thumping big "like".

Think local

Hyperlocal social media platforms are not unique to India's rural hinterland. Urban India too seems to be taking to conversations that are localised and community-oriented., started in March this year, is an online platform where people come together to exchange information that is of local relevance. Looking for a good doctor in your area? Want to find out if there's a reliable place nearby that can fix your microwave? Wondering if you can do a property registration without paying a bribe? Or desperately looking for blood in a medical emergency? LocalCircles' communities help each other with that kind of information.

It's not a tepid listing of products and services, though. "The information comes from real people who share their experience of having used them. So you know you can trust it," says Sachin Taparia (in picture), a Boeing executive who quit his job to co-found LocalCircles. At present the platform spans only Delhi and the National Capital Region and membership is by invitation only.

"The idea behind LocalCircles is that if neighbours watch out for each other, the city will get better. Besides, if I have an emergency at 12 in the night, I'm not going to broadcast it on Facebook, because 80 per cent of my friends are miles away. I need something more localised to be of help," says Taparia, who plans to take his platform to other metros in the next two years.

LocalCircles seems to be tapping into an emerging trend. "Social media will become more community-oriented in future," asserts Osama Manzar of DEF. Agrees social media expert Prasanto K. Roy, "The larger global interaction on platforms like Twitter remains, but here too there's a tendency towards localisation of interests, communities, geographies..."

Time to think local again?