Keeping It In The Community

A new initiative trains correspondents from villages to capture untold stories from the Hindi heartland.

WrittenBy:Somi Das
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Water-logging in villages, absentee teachers in a school in tiny corner of Madhya Pradesh, discrepancies in MNREGA wages – these are some of the issues which rarely find mention in newspapers or news bulletins. These community problems of rural India are not even looked at, forget mentioned by the media. No longer, though. A unique initiative by Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS), an NGO funded by UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) and famous video platform Video Volunteers (VV) that has collaborations with CNN-IBN, 9X and BBC World, is making sure these issues are given the importance they deserve. PACS and VV launched a programme called Community Correspondent Network (CCN) on June 29, 2013 in the national capital.

As part of CCN, a network of 10 people have been selected from villages in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. These people were then trained on how to report stories and were equipped with video cameras.Since they are from the communities they are reporting on, they understand the issues better than ordinary journalists.

Within a span of three months, the group of correspondents has produced a bunch of six videos on rural problems such as old age pensions, mid-day meals in schools and civic problems of these communities. The videos are displayed on the PACS website. Currently, one of the community correspondents in Madhya Pradesh is working on a story of an anganwadi(child care centre) which is located under a tree in Jhabua.

At a modest payment of just Rs 1500, these community correspondents are redefining the definition of journalism. And they are also rediscovering their sense of self in the process.

One of the correspondents, Ramakshi,says in her introductory video, “Earlier, I was scared to put forth issues in front of the local administration. Now that I am trained, the fear has vanished. I have earned a sense of courage and equality”. The PAC website introduces the 32-year-old video campaigner from Khamaria village, Madhya Pradesh as someone who used to roll 2,500 bidis a day to feed her family. Similarly, Anita speaks about a list of things she would like to highlight as a Community Correspondent.“I would like to highlight challenges faced by pregnant women in my community as Janani express (a service to take pregnant women from village to hospitals) is unable to reach to remote places. There is also rampant malnutrition and lack of safe drinking water. These are some of the stories I will be making videos on in the coming days.”

These are everyday challenges faced by rural communities but they are rarely highlighted in our national newspapers or on our new channels.At the launch event of CCN, one of the panelists, Vipul Mudgal, Director of Inclusive Media for Change said, “As part of a research on the mainstream media’s efficacy on reporting on rural issues, the Centre for the Study of Developing Society has found that only 2% of the three main Hindi and three main English dailies constitute rural issues of which a major chunk of the reportage is on policy matters like MNREGA, agriculture and transport. What remains untold are the daily problems of the rural populace i.e.three fourth of the population.”

During the inauguration, Sam Sharpe, Country Head-DFID made three pertinent points on what the main aims of the CCN programme are.  According to him,CCN has the potential of changing how mainstream media projects and covers the concerns of unheard India. He believes the programme would lead to greater transparency in government services and affect policy matters. Finally, it would expose the subtle forms of discrimination that rural India continues to face.

In fact, these Community Correspondents not only report on the major issues faced by villagers across the three states but also act as an interface between the villagers and government authorities.After uploading their reports on the PACS website, each correspondent travels across their specific assigned villages and screens their video report. They also screen their stories before relevant authorities such as the Panchayat or the Block Development Officer. Once the issue is addressed and corrected, the correspondents make an impact video.

However, getting the story isn’t a cakewalk for the CCs. There are some serious hurdles in their path – the first of which is the lack of education. Not all the CCs are educated. Speaking to Newslaundry, Knowledge and Communication Manager of PACS, Priyanka said, “Some of them are completely illiterate and are already facing discrimination because of this in getting stories”.

So, how do they articulate their story ideas without a basic understanding of journalism? She says, “When we induct a Community Correspondent we do not see whether they are educated or not. What we see is if they have the ability to grasp and understand the problems in a given situation. Since they are part of the community they are aware of the problems and there is no dearth of story ideas. However, what we train them in apart from handling the camera is how to structure their stories.” Initially, they are given three day training and then after a span of eight months they are put under another session of training to hone their journalistic skills.

Another drawback of the stories produced by CCs is that they are only confined to a community and do not make a larger impact at the national level. Priyanka, however is hopeful that soon they would be able to produce enough content to make a national impact. She says, “We have just rolled out the first set of videos. Now as we keep getting more content,we can find a pattern on rural issues across different states. For example,we could do a national story on how MNREGA wages differ in each state. These are the stories which we can then pitch  to the mainstream media”.

Speaking at the CNN launch, Vinod Mehta, Advisor – Outlook said that it’s time new media stopped bashing traditional media and instead found ways of collaborating with it. This would ensure these stories can reach national newspapers and television channels, and ultimately a wider audience. One must note, though, that very few in the mainstream media have even reported on this initiative. As of now, CCs have already embarked on their journey of making a change at the community level giving voice to the problems of their region. All thanks to a camera and their perseverance. May their tribe increase!

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