Mobiles deliver news in Chhattisgarh

by Ashwani Mishra    Aug 30, 2011

Afzal Khan from Bhopalpatnam block of Bijapur district in Chhattisgarh says that in his area people are forced to drink contaminated water from ponds and streams. This is because the local public health department has found excessive fluoride in the water and declared it unfit for human consumption. This was not told to the villagers and many of them are suffering from fluoride related ailments.Training camp at CGNetSwara

In Jashpur, 700 kilometres away is Malti Tirkey from Adivasi Mahila Mahasangh. She reveals that a new hospital building was built in Bada Golanda village but it never opened. Many people in the village are suffering from malaria and there is no medicine available.

Khan and Tirkey are citizen reporters for CGNet Swara (Chhattisgarh Net Voice).

CGNet was founded by Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist-turned-activist in an attempt to cater to the tribal people who faced a huge communication gap in the Maoist-held areas of Chhattisgarh. The initiative was supported in technology by Microsoft, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the US-based Knight Foundation.

According to a report by World Bank, ‘access to a voice’ has been identified as the number one obstacle for the advancement of the poor.

“Around 80 to 90 million tribal people in this part of the country lack access to any mainstream media outlets. They cannot talk about issues that affect their daily lives,” says Arjun Venkatraman, a solutions architect and entrepreneur who has been associated with CGNet Swara since 2010 as a volunteer and technical advisor.

A report released some years back by Delhi-based Charkha, a media research agency, revealed that only two percent of space in the mainstream media was used to cover issues related to the livelihoods of India’s backward and poor people in Chhattisgarh.

The people’s voice

A few years ago, Choudhary launched a community radio scheme. It did not take off due to government regulations in licensing, high cost involved in the technology set up and irregular power supply.

He then started a CGNet discussion group on Yahoo. Around 2000 people joined the group and posted their views and ideas on the site. However, the members of the group comprised of educated people who made only one percent of the entire population in that area. Internet penetration in Chhattisgarh is 0.7 percent.

“We found that even a tribal earning less than a dollar a day carried a mobile phone,” says Venkatraman.

They came up with an idea of news on mobile phones, to see if they could be used as a platform for information-sharing in these areas.

The technology was developed by Microsoft Research India and MIT.

The software underlying CGNet Swara is simple. It uses Audiowiki software developed and customized for tribal journalists or listeners with minimum navigation involved on the mobile device.

To use it, the reporters call a phone number using any mobile (or fixed line) phone. Callers are prompted to press “1″ to record a new message, and “2″ to listen to messages that have already been recorded.

Once a message has been recorded from the field; moderators who involve trained journalists access the system using a Web-based interface, review and verify the report. Approved reports are then made available for playback over the phone. The reports also can be accessed on the CGNet Swara website. It is also disseminated to other platforms that include a Google SMS channel, mailing list, Twitter, Facebook and online discussion forum.

While the technology for building interactive voice services (IVR) has been around for a long time, what distinguishes CGNet Swara is the ability for callers to contribute information to the system.

“We get around 300 calls each day,” says Venkatraman.

Around May last year, the number of calls was around 50 per day.

The villagers found a new voice, their own voice, and the government started listening.

Creating an impact

Messages that have been recorded are sent to activists, environmentalists and government officials. They are also are provided with the names and numbers of the people who have reported the story.

For example, a villager from Ranchi district of Jharkhand in May reported that in his area all the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) job cards of villagers were taken away by middlemen who pinched the money from post offices on behalf of the villagers. No one had a job for 100 days but the card showed that people worked for these days.

“News like this is made accessible to NREGA officials who then call the aggrieved parties and sort their issues,” says Venkatraman.

CGNet wants to start broadcasting weather reports for farmers, public health messages on hygiene and sanitation as well as on malaria prevention.

“We want to expand our services and take it to other states as well. We are trying to find sustainability models for the project and seeking inputs from business units in the country,” says Venkatraman.

((Some figures have been changed as our reporter verified later.)