Dial D for Dantewada

In CGnet Swara, a phone-based news platform, the tribals of Chhattisgarh have found a way to voice their grievances in their own language. But will they be heard?
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi

The police recently claimed to have killed two Maoists in an encounter in Goomiapal village in Dantewada. They reportedly recovered a pistol and tiffin bombs. Gujjobai, the village sarpanch, used a cell phone to refute the claim and said that the two men were killed in cold blood. The police had also burned down their houses, she added. Indeed, the world outside would never have doubted the police story, but for an innovative service called CGnet Swara, a phone-based news platform that allows the tribals to directly record their messages (www.cgnet.in).

Without even a single Gondi-speaking journalist on the beat, the impoverished Gond tribals were rendered voiceless, with issues related to their livelihood and welfare conspicuous by their absence in the mainstream media. A 2004-05 study by Charkha, a media research organisation, showed that tribal issues found just 2 per cent space in newspapers and television. 

Faced with this 'media darkness', former BCC journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary came up with the idea of launching CGnet Swara. "I was born and brought up in Chhattisgarh and hence understood the local needs," says Choudhary. An encounter with Bill Thies, a young man from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, was all it took to suggest this confluence of local needs and modern technology. Microsoft Research India readily agreed to provide the technical logistics. 

The technology is quite simple. "It is an interactive voice response system in which a computer answers telephone calls and guides users through prompts. Unlike most of the services available earlier, here the callers can get their calls recorded," Thies told Hardnews. The users of CGnet Swara can record their messages in four different languages: Hindi, Gondi, Chhattisgarhi and Kurukh.
This service does not require the users to have access to electricity or TV sets. Nearly 50 per cent households in Chhattisgarh have no electricity. The situation is worse in the forest areas. "As most of the villages have at least one phone, a phone-based service is the only viable option as the radio stations too are not allowed to air news," says Choudhary. 

Choudhary says tribals see reality through the lens of 'us' versus 'them': 'us', as the tribals refer to themselves, and 'them', outsiders who have usurped their lands. Most news about the Maoist insurgency is sourced by journalists from the police or Salwa Judum, the State-sponsored armed militia, he adds. The Maoists gain immensely from this situation as they take up issues related to tribal welfare and also speak in the native tongue, says Choudhary. The State has never understood the close relationship of tribals with nature, nor has the administration cared for their grievances. 

Now, the tribals have to just call a number - 08066932500 - to get their reports recorded or listen to news. To get them accustomed to the process, a group of 33 people was trained with financial support from UNICEF. All the snippets are translated and moderated by a group of volunteers to check their authenticity before being sent to people through e-mails and uploaded on the website (http://audiowiki.no-ip.org/admin/playback.php). Choudhary says that the process is time-consuming and only 25 per cent of the snippets make it to the website. This service has acquired a wide and growing audience, and has consequently unnerved the administration, the police, and even sections of media. 

Besides, the government and civil society groups can utilise the network to air public service messages, for instance, information about fatal diseases. Choudhary says two Hindi newspapers have contacted him for collaboration. The UNDP has shown interest in replicating the experiment in Africa and Afghanistan. The Washington-based International Centre for Journalists has promised financial assistance, which, Choudhary says, will enable the number to be made toll-free.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2010