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It Takes A Village

Forget national, think rural. Gaon Connection and Swara - redefining the concept of rural media and journalism.

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Neelesh Misra gets a little irritated if you think of his newspaper, Gaon Connection as just a rural newspaper. He wants you to focus not just on the “Gaon” in the name, but on the “Connection” too.

Misra – former journalist and Bollywood lyricist and scriptwriter – and his little team of journalists, on December 2, 2012 launched Gaon Connection with the blessings of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in Kannaura village which is 50 kilometres south-west of Lucknow.

According to Misra, the newspaper is “India’s first professionally run rural newspaper”. And will be run in a corporate, professional manner with rural journalists using programs like Quark Express to set the pages themselves, and will use the best technology available in newsrooms.

However, he also underlines the social consciousness of this project. The profit from the newspaper will not go to the directors, but will be ploughed back into the paper. The unstated mantra of the paper is “rural cool”. They’ve even come up with a promotional song to exemplify the spirit they are trying to project.

The newspaper will be peopled by a small group of urban journalists just out of journalism schools, and educated village students with a flair for writing who have become the paper’s first rural journalists. This team is headed by Manish Misra, who was the chief copy editor in Amar Ujala. Neelesh Misra has been mentoring the young journalists who have come up with the first edition of the newspaper, which features articles on the increase in the number of women going to beauty parlours in the village and a mandi or market of doctors that is witnessed in their village.

We spoke to Misra about the newspaper and this is what he had to say: “Mainstream media has believed that rural India is this wasteland where either floods or ghastly things happen and people are only interested in agriculture. It’s true, but a lot else is also happening. Lovers have a new way of communicating. There are young people who are using mobile phones, downloading songs, wearing more jeans, watching IPL, buying more motorcycles.

On the other hand, there are a lot of things that government and urban India wants to say to rural India. The UP govt has hundreds of policies (for rural areas) that rural India has never heard of. We did a survey of 3000 homes and found that 99% of people surveyed do not do soil testing. This at a time when government is allocating huge sums of money for soil to get better, when farmers have the facility to go and get soil testing done. They don’t know it’s important, don’t know about it”.

It’s not just the rural-urban divide that the newspaper seeks to overcome. The project’s co-founder, Karan Dalal, a law graduate and an IT expert from Mumbai, says that it is also the rural-rural divide which they seek to conquer.

“We want to share information between villages too and share best practices”, he says.

This desire to not only share stories from the sidelines with the “mainstream media”, but also among themselves finds expression in another project coming from an otherwise ignored area – Chhattisgarh. Chattisgarh’s Shubhranshu Choudhary, is a former BBC journalist with 20 years experience. In 2010, he began a project called CGnet Swara, especially for speakers of the Gondi language. The language, spoken by tribals, has no written script and has an oral tradition.

He says that there are virtually no tribal journalists in the media. Even now that Chhattisgarh has received attention because of the Maoist threat, journalists who go into those areas have to ask for translators who know Hindi. So, the tribals have no outlet to be heard.

Choudhary has made good use of the increasing cell phone penetration in India. He and others decided to make use of cell phones combined with the web to make tribal voices heard. The format that is followed is that someone with a mobile phone in the village calls up the Swara number. They get two options, either to record their story or to hear three other stories that were recorded by others.

At the Swara end, there are moderators who listen to every call, get it verified by people on the ground, and then put it up on the website www.cgnetswara.org. The project is an extension of a 2004 Yahoogroup called CGnet, now an internet community – which enables them to have the kind of resources required to get a news report verified.

However, Choudhary agrees that they haven’t been able to reach as many Gondi speakers as they would have liked to. Most of the calls on the site and on the phone line are from Hindi speakers. Efforts are on to have more workshops on the ground where people in the tribal areas with limited resources can publicise this system and teach people how to make and record these calls.

The impact is already being felt. Many of the stories of unpaid NREGA wages or of some other official corruption were picked up by mainstream media. Sometimes, even concerned citizens who heard the stories on the audio clips on the Swara website called up the officials in the affected areas and pressed them to take action. Here’s an example.

http://cgnetswara.org/index.php?id=14809

As Choudhary told us, “Our focus is to throw light on the media dark zones. We’re not here to compete with the mainstream media. We don’t take stories that would be covered by the mainstream anyway”.

However, the service is not just a complaint centre for unheard voices. Often someone from a tribal area calls in to record a tribal song, either traditional or one calling attention to their plight. A small clip of a song can be heard at the link below:

http://cgnetswara.org/index.php?id=15155

The project was supported by the International Center For Journalists, under the Knight International Journalism Fellowship, of which Choudhary is a fellow. Now the team is slated to receive a grant from the UN Democracy Fund through which they are thinking of expanding to other areas of central India, from where they are already receiving calls.

Funding is something that the founders of Gaon Connection are not very concerned about either. Although the initial money is coming from the founders’ pockets, they are confident of getting advertisements in the times to come as the response from companies with advertising budgets has been good. However, they are certain that like so many smaller publications, they are not going to let their reporters also become marketing agents and editorial integrity will remain supreme.

When asked about competition from other Hindi language newspapers in the area, Manish Misra had said that they go only as far as the pakki sadak (proper road) goes. But Gaon Connection will go into the kacchi sadak (dirt road) and into the hands of the farmers.

It is good to see that it is in these kacchi sadaks and “dark zones” where most of India resides, that people have decided they don’t need insurgency or floods for the media to raise their issues. They will do it themselves, thank you very much.

Image Source – http://www.flickr.com/photos/vinothchandar/4386685356/

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