The decade-old multi-lingual Khabar Lahariya is serving hinterland news to its readers and championing women empowerment at the same time

For a newspaper that’s ten-years-old, Khabar Lahariya (News Waves) has certainly made waves, as its name suggests. It won the Laadli Media Award in December 2012 for gender sensitivity, and before that the Chameli Devi Jain and UNESCO awards. The 40 women who run the newspaper in six districts are from backward communities and mostly live in remote areas of the country. They walk sometimes over 10 kilometers to gather news, have to put up with sustained taunts and opposition and face the challenge of establishing themselves in a male-dominated profession.

Yet they wouldn’t give this up for the world. Young Shalu from Lucknow says, “I got to see Bambai [Mumbai] and for me that alone is worth it. I want nothing more.

The Lucknow edition comes out in Hindustani and for Rizwana Tabassum, it was her desire to become a journalist just “so I can ask other people lots of questions”, she says. Rizwana is from Varanasi and her parents often insist she come back home before dark. More than her parents, it’s her neighbours and busybodies who are more worried. “Others have big problems due to my work and timings,” she laughs.

Guddi started working for the Sitamarhi edition of the paper in 2010 which comes out in Bajjika, the local language. She had to take her daughter, whom she has named Leher after the paper, along with her after the neighbours complained that she was leaving the child behind. Her husband, too, ticked her off but Guddi was firm. She told her husband he had a role to play in the child’s upbringing.

One day, when she had to go far away to meet labourers who hadn’t been paid for three years, Leher fell ill and she was faced with a tough call. She insisted her husband accompany her and her daughter and she made them wait while she did her story. On her way back she took the child to hospital. “Five days after my story appeared, the labourers were paid their salaries,” she grins.

Some of the women like Meera from Chitrakoot, is a post graduate and others are still studying, points out Shalini Joshi from the NGO Nirantar which has been instrumental in getting this project off the ground.

Government programme Mahila Samakhya had a newspaper called Mahila Dakya which closed in 2000. Meera says people were disappointed when it shut down. They said they missed reading about government schemes and local news. There was a discussion on reviving it and in 2002, the new paper was launched. “We drew lots to decide on the name and Khabar Lahariya was chosen,” says Kavita.

The first edition was printed in 2002 in Chitrakoot in Bundeli language and in 2012 the sixth edition in Varanasi in Bhojpuri was launched. The eight-page paper has special editions which can go into 12 pages on some days. The weekly launched its website in Mumbai recently and already has a huge following on Twitter and Facebook.

The women not only gather news, they also do the layout and search for international and national news on in the Internet for which there is a section. Initially, some of them were scared to even touch a computer but now they are all net savvy. The paper comes out in Bundeli, Awadhi, Bajjika, Bhojpuri and Hindustani and has a readership of 80,000 with a circulation of 6,000 copies. The readership is high because one paper is often read by more than 15 to 20 people.

The newspaper is running due to support from the Dorabji Trust and the United Nations Democracy and Equity Fund. Shalini says the money from the awards goes to bring out the paper but they are formulating a business plan. The cost of the paper is Rs. two while production cost is Rs. six. So it is difficult to sustain the paper on sales alone and other options are being examined. The journalists are being trained in using Internet and information and communication technology, says Bishakha Datta from Point of View.

The women are acquiring a formidable reputation with the government as well. “Aa gayi Lahariya wali (the Lahariya woman has come) — they say when I go to offices. Once I had gone to a hospital where a hand pump was damaged and took pictures. Even before my story appeared, it was repaired,” says Savita.

“At first it was difficult but we made contacts and we also gave them the paper. They were very happy to read their stories,” Sunita says, adding that sometimes people couldn’t pay Rs. two but she still gave it to them.

The women also pointed out that in their milieu even wearing a salwar kameez was not an option and talking to men was taboo. Especially after the Delhi gang rape incident, Arshi from Lucknow says that her parents were warned by her relatives not to let her go out. “My mother supports me and we don’t even wear a naqab as is customary,” she adds.

While there are the usual cynics, the women said that most people valued their work and it had brought change, for instance, some villages had lights because of reports, people got their salaries and in one instance, a Dalit woman who cooked mid-day meals could stay back despite opposition from the upper castes in Sitamarhi. For these women to break into a “man’s domain” has been exhilarating.

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