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Information in the hinterlands
By Ashirbad S Raha

Committed and collective efforts at the grassroots have kept the villagers informed of the issues which matter the most to them. Such initiatives are trying to fill the gaps created by the metro-obsessed mainstream media.


Khabar Lahariya, a local newspaper is brought out by rural women

“For national media, it’s just the metropolitans where the news is. Who cares about villages?” questions 68 year old Suresh Chandra Diwan sitting in his village home near Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh. A part of his face is illuminated by a kerosene lamp, as he waits for the clock to strike 9 pm and electricity supply to resume.

According to Indian Newspaper Society, India has 62,000 newspapers, a figure good enough to boast about free press and democracy. Yet villages in India fail to find voices, their issues mostly under addressed and often unaddressed.

But Diwan being a no ordinary man found his little answer to this challenging question of “voiceless village issues” in a fortnightly village level news bulletin. And that’s how ‘Disha Samvad’ was born. That was way back in 1994. Says Diwan, who is also member of the editorial team of Disha Samvad, “In our initial days, there were no printing facilities available so the publication was photocopied and circulated. Apart from local issues, we also focussed on problems of forest, land and water. Then gradually we also started conducting programs for writing skills development in nearby areas along with other NGOs and slowly built a team of dedicated reporters.”

For the first eight years, the publication was supported by an international development agency but after that things started turning the tougher way. Since last four years the fortnightly news bulletin has become monthly because of lack of support. Funds slowly dried up but not the desire to create local level awareness for the members of Gram Sewa Samiti, under whose umbrella Disha Samvad prospered. Informs Diwan, “We are also publishing Gram Sewa Samiti Ki Chitthi, a monthly newspaper for local farmers and wallpaper called Binna which is pasted in angawadi, gram panchayats and other relevant places and thus the mission to reach out and highlight the forgotten issues are still on.”

Many such similar efforts in isolated pockets of India are creating their own space and doing justice to rural and developmental news. These grassroots papers written and published by locals are doing what national media has failed to do over the years.

An extremely popular and recognised initiative is Khabar Lahariya a weekly newspaper based in Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest districts in central India. Written in Bundeli, the local language, the newspaper is entirely run by marginalized women from Dalit, Kol and Muslim communities. Started in 2002 by Nirantar, a New Delhi-based literacy education non-profit, the newspaper now boasts two editions, a 5,000-print run, and a readership of 25,000-35,000. The publication can put any mainstream media into thinking mode when it comes to doing journalistic justice to grassroot issues.

Speaking over the phone from Chitrakoot, Meera Yadav, Assistant Editor of the newspaper says, “We are into ninth year of publication and we are proud to have sustained Khabar Lahariya for all these years. She adds in the same breath, “Because we come from a neglected section of the society, it was always a difficult task to challenge or question the authorities. Doing investigative stories was even tougher. Our reporters have been intimidated and threatened so many times that we have even lost a count of it but through each publication, the newspaper has only gained strength and credibility.”

The efforts have attracted many accolades, the most prestigious among them being King Sejong Literacy Prize from UNESCO two years back. The essence of this revolutionising newspaper lies in the brilliance that structures this movement. It conducts (in conjunction with Nirantar) journalist training and writing programs for locals which not just helps them in getting good reporters but also in increasing rural literacy. Realising that for the newspaper to sustain itself advertisements are also necessary, the weekly publication has also started taking in advertisements since 2009.

Through constant reporting on issues related to local governance, right to information, rural living, corruption in various government schemes etc among many other issues of significance, these initiatives are knowingly and unknowingly creating an information revolution in forgotten pockets of India.

The satisfying fact is that the newspaper is spreading like a movement. Meera Yadav informs proudly, “we have just started an edition of Khabar Lahariya from Samastipur in Bihar and we aim to start editions in ten districts of UP and Bihar in the next five years.”

Interestingly both Disha Samvad and Khabar Lahariya cater to regions where the literacy rates are alarmingly low, making the reporters and news agents in some cases not just distribute the publications in villages abut also read it out for the villagers. Explains Diwan, “it’s a two way process wherein our reporters not just get stories from the grassroots but they also help in making the villagers a more informed lot.”

Further east in Ranchi, Jharkhand, is an effort that is trying to mainstream developmental issues from villages and small towns. Named as Samvad Manthan, it’s a feature agency that disseminates features fortnightly on the issues such as food security, food for work, health, education, governance, environment, water, forest, land rights etc to 30 Hindi newspapers, most of them from Chattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand.

Sudhir Pal, editorial head of Samvad Manthan says, “Our aim is to let the stories of rural and developmental importance from remote pockets of Jharkhand get a channel and we are doing it with the help of our representatives in each district who report on both highlighted and neglected issues of the region.”

The feature agency that has constantly kept it focus on issues that are not identified or highlighted by mainstream media has over the years prepared a cadre of more than 100 journalists and on a periodical basis it conducts media training for grass root activists and journalists to upgrade their journalistic writing and communication skills.

A story of inspiration also comes in from Pratibadh, a 14-year-old development newspaper targeting rural population and low literates. A journey that started with 1,000 copies in Bihar in 1996 is now reaching 41,000 villages of India in states of Bihar, West Bengal, Punjab, Haryana and Maharashtra. A figure that is phenomenal for a rural newspaper and in more than one way signifies the degree of empowerment that it has bestowed on lives touched by it.

This community newspaper since beginning has capitalised on the strong network of milk cooperatives to ensure that it reaches villages. It has been influencing the lives of over 600,000 milk cooperative farmers in a very simple yet intelligent model. Anupam Shrivastava, 44, editor and founder of Pratibadh says, “From day one, we were clear about few things. First that it was meant to give a voice to the neglected and that it would be a profitable venture. We worked it out in a way so as to capitalise on the existing network of milk cooperatives and in return we gave some printed space to the dairy issues. Gradually the newspaper arose more and more interest, followed by increased number of subscriptions and a team of rural reporters and that was enough to keep the wheel moving.”

The wall newspaper is usually put up on village council offices, offices of milk societies, agriculture offices and agriculture technology management agencies, and on the walls of the premises of influential non-governmental organizations and individuals. Shrivastava, however makes this tale of extraordinary achievement sound too simple. He says, “We did not do anything magical. We just found a simple solution to a complicated problem.”

Perhaps in Anupam Shrivastava’s comment lies the inspiration for all these rural publications that despite of their limitations and compulsions continue to give voices to the marginalised. Through constant reporting on issues related to local governance, right to information, rural living, corruption in various government schemes etc among many other issues of significance, these initiatives are knowingly and unknowingly creating an information revolution in forgotten pockets of India. Perhaps in hope that one day these efforts will reduce the gap between Bharat and India.

Ashirbad S Raha  |  ashirbad.raha@gmail.com

Ashirbad is a development writer who works for an international Non-Profit working on advancing clean technologies for a low carbon economy. When away from work, Ashirbad is happiest indulging in poetry, travelling through the mountains and freezing frames of rural lives and landscape.

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