April 26, 2013


CGNet Swara is a voice based portal, where stories reported  by citizen journalists are available for playback, both online on their website and through a regular mobile phone. By dialing the CGNet number, you can either record a message or listen to the previous four messages recorded on the server. This is primarily operating in the Central Gondwana region, a tribal belt in central India known to be economically and socially disadvantaged.

The idea behind this, as explained by its founder, Shubhranshu Choudhury in this TEDx talk is to democratise the use of media. It is an attempt to combat the neglect and skewed approach of mainstream media towards this entire region and its people. Firstly, mainstream media outlets are in a language different from that of the local communities. Internet, television and newspapers still remain largely inaccessible. Secondly, medias' role as a watchdog is severely compromised given the controlling interests of various powerful and moneyed entities in media houses. This is complicated by the presence of Maoist groups working within the state and there is communication breakdown between people themselves, between people and the state, and with outsiders. Herein comes the self described plugin of CGNet with its usage of the ubiquitous cell phone and the accessible medium of audio. As Anoop Saha of the CGNet team explains, "if cellphones are the ideal medium for participatory citizen media, audio has to be the medium that can break the literacy, language and technology barrier." Thus CGNet hopes to give a platform for people to be able to talk to each other, and in a sense reclaim their authority to represent themselves and highlight issues which are meaningful for them.

I had a chance to visit Dhabuar (Rewa District in Madhya Pradesh) in April 2013, where citizen journalists are using this portal extensively. Along with Jagdish Yadav (of Panchsheel Sansthan, a local activist and CGNet citizen journalist) we visited Durkash village.Over here people have to travel 13 k.m. to their ration shop (under the public distribution system), 5 k.m. to the local bank (Dhabura) and 7 k.m. to the nearest post office (for their pensions). These punishing distances impose large transaction costs in accessing their already meager entitlements. He urged the people of Dhurkash to call in to the CGNet portal and record their message over and over again in the hope that it will be taken cognizance of and have some impact. While there, he narrated encouraging recent stories where calls have had a positive impact.

For example, in January,  in Lohgarh village, people were forced to sign for 3 months of ration but were given the food grains for just one month (in Madhya Pradesh, rations are delivered on a three monthly basis). This recording on CGNet was brought to the notice of the District Collector, who ordered an inquiry and allegedly came himself of distribute the grains of the remaining two months to the people of Lohgarh.

In another instance, a CGNet report pointed out that there have been no Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards made for anyone in the adivasi village of Mahsawan in Ghuman Gram Panchayat in the last fifteen years. This too was emailed to the District Collector in January 2013, who subsequently passed orders for a survey to be conducted. However, during this identification exercise, the names of 15 dalit families was left off the list. We were present at the Ambedkar Day celebrations on 14th April in Dhabura where a public meeting was being held by Panchsheel Sansthan. The tehsildar, Mr. Prem Narayan, responsible for these omissions and "naam parivar ka gad-bad" on the build up of pressure by the initial CGNet post and people calling and tracking this process, came to the meeting and asked for "maafi" (forgiveness). He promised to redo the process the next day and the Sansthan vowed to send its saathis to be present during this process to ensure it is done correctly.

These instances reflect to some extent the enormous potential of a platform like CGNet. If people (not just one person, but several people) are forced to take one months ration while signing off for three, one can only imagine the power dynamics and intimidation they must have to face. In such cases, this information itself and broadcasting off it is important. An acknowledgement of a violation is the first step, as the withholding of entitlements itself are vehemently denied. Similarly, if people have been trying to  rightfully get their names on the BPL list for several years, the immense apathy and  multiple attempts they must have made is not difficult to imagine. Secondly, a portal like this could also play a preventive role - if people begin to use it extensively and broadcasting of irregularities is inevitable, then perhaps at least some irregularities will be pre-empted through this.

These are not easy issues, and as the incident at the public meeting demonstrated, there is need for strong local groups and individuals to follow up on these cases. Additionally, there is no guarantee of any response - from either national news channels of from local administration. If the Collector so happens to take congnizance, then there is some impact, but there is no compulsion.

In the paper, "Emergent Practices Around CGNet Swara, A Voice Forum for Citizen Journalism in Rural India", the diversity of the content of the posts is analysed; "..apart from news, the most common type of post was grievances, which related to a variety of livelihood and civic issues. Grievances constituted 34% of all posts and ranged from disparity in insurance rates received by farmers to a demand for better wages for laborers. Of this, nonpayment of wages under a National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) formed the bulk of grievances." The other categories are opinion, performance, interview, information and appeal.

From my understanding, as I see it - there is putting information in the public domain and people connecting with each other (which CGNet  attempts to do) and for this information and connection to be a means to an end (which it hopes will catch on as institutionalised grievance redress systems and follow up by local active groups occurs).

CGNet provides the bare structure of a two way communication - you can speak and you can listen. It aims to make citizen journalists out of people who will connect with each other. The role of such mediums connecting people has in recent times been feted, decried and hotly debated - the use of twitter in the "Green Revolution" during the Iranian elections in 2009, facebook during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, Blackberry messenger during the London Riots of 2011 and even the use of social media to organise and inform people of the anti-rape protests in Delhi in December 2012. While these have been seminal in connecting individuals and sharing information, the activism aspect remains removed from this technology.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his delightful piece, Small Change - Why the revolution will not be tweeted, explains;   "[connecting through social media..] this model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger...It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo." This point is well taken. What becomes apparent with modes such as CGNet is that the impact of it depends on the moderator and the potential for people to follow up on these cases - whether it is national news, local administration or people with the power to redress these issues. It is an incredibly important first step, but the next logical step (which is perhaps not the domain of a portal like CGNet) is an institutionalised  redressal system.

At this point it's useful to examine the Right to Information campaign in India which did challenge the existing power structures and status quo in two fundamental ways - of the Indian State moving from a culture of secrecy to one of transparency and for citizens to be able to question the State. The quantum with which RTI requests are being filed by citizens and information is being placed in the public domain is a reflection of this. In fact it makes activists out of our citizens who use it to a means to access their other entitlements. The National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information continues to campaign for an effective grievance redress legislation which would provide a framework for time bound service delivery and penalties for non-compliance of these norms; an RTI 2.0 to bring accountability into the working of these systems. 

Thus - there seems to be a complete circle here. The RTI campaign challenged a power structure and it is now moving to a norm where suo motu disclosure from public authorities is mandatory. Technology connecting different people through different media, with suo motu disclosure by citizens making user generated content an important agent. Thus while information in the public domain and connections over it are largely liberating and substantial shifts, the buck is clearly resting with redressal of highlighted issues.  

Apart from grievances though, the use of even bare boned media like CGNet will have other aspects to it. Even with their backs against the wall, people instinctively look towards the lighter side of things. In the same talk, Shubhranshu explains that they are trying to develop the concept of 'search' so that in some ways CGNet can become "the audiobook" or "the facebook of the poor". In the midst of no cooks in schools and no ration in food shops, there were four calls on CGNet during Holi.  Brijesh Singh is playing Holi with bidi workers, Ramkailash Kol is sings a Holi song in Baghelkhandi language and visits Khadu village to record a competition of faag songs and Jagdishji records a song from Premvan village. So if the mandate of CGNet is "citizen journalism" and people are genuinely reporting on what is important to them - then sharing information for survival comes along with the desire to share moments of joy, interest and commune. For those of us who primarily use social media for the latter - this helps yet again to put things in perspective.

As published here

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