Chhattisgarh’s tribal population is beginning to get a taste of free press. They have a news service that informs them about events that concern them but rarely find mention in the mainstream media because of the state’s Special Public Security Act of 2005. The law operates as a gag order on journalists.
CGNet Swara, the news service accessible on mobile phones, turns one this February. In the past one year, activists and affected tribals have been regularly feeding the news service, covering a range of topics, from employment schemes to land acquisition. The news can be accessed as recorded messages by dialling the CGNet Swara number— 080-41137280.
The news service is helping people find their voice. For instance, Pitbasu, a resident of Pampapur village in Sarguja district was not paid a single rupee even though he completed 100 days of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme.
|| CGNet Swara provides tribal people first-hand news reports without editing or filtering
While he was running from pillar to post to get his dues, his 20-year-old son died battling fever in the district hospital on January 14. Rakesh Rai, a member of Gramadhikar Manch, a non-profit in Sarguja, relayed the news on CGNet Swara the same day. It was picked up by journalists in Raipur, the state capital. The authorities, under pressure, assured help to Pitbasu.
The news service is the brainchild of Shubranshu Choudhary, a journalist in Chhattisgarh. He set up CGNet Swara with technical help from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “This was an initiative to make news democratic and make it available to those affected by it in the language they understand,” said Choudhary.
He organised workshops across the state and trained people to become citizen journalists who now feed news in their language, which can be Gondi, Kuduk, Chhattisgarhi or Hindi.
To post or listen to the news, a missed call is given on the CGNet Swara number. The call is returned by a server which offers options to receive or record messages. Over a hundred calls are received daily. These are verified by moderators and then relayed through SMSes and the website www.cgnetswara. org. Only a third of the reports clears the moderators.
At present, there are two moderators including Choudhary. More are being trained; Samir Xalxo is one of them. The 25-year-old from the Oraon community, studying journalism in Delhi, often helps Choudhary moderate news in Kuduk dialect.
Initially all callers had to pay for the calls, and since the server is in Bengaluru, people had to pay STD rates. But that was not a deterrent for the callers, mostly poor tribals. “News circulation in these regions is poor. CGNet Swara provided first-hand reporting without any editing or filtering. This was the platform tribal communities wanted and they got it,” said Xalxo.
The news service doubles as a platform to share songs and stories. “These people have a very rich oral tradition. We want to build on it and integrate it with mainstream languages,” said Choudhary. In the past two months, Choudhary has managed to make the calls free with some scholarship funds. It will tide him over another six months.
“We are trying to persuade Telecom companies to make the calls free under their corporate social responsibility,” said Choudhary. Currently, monthly phone bills cost Rs 4,500. He added that the government should chip in as the news service is the perfect tool to reach out to tribals. With no access to media or government, the tribals often turn to Maoists who understand their language. But the authorities are harassing the news service providers.
Their server was shut twice; Bhan Sahu, a citizen journalist in Rajnandgaon district, was asked to vacate her rented home for no reason. A senior police officer of the state was quoted by a news agency saying, “we cannot allow this loose cannon service in the state in the middle of war with insurgents”.
But Choudhary is undeterred. “My aim is to replicate this effort in other tribal areas and extend the service to make it a search engine for all tribals in central India,” he said.