Coronavirus lockdown | A ‘voicebook’ aids central India’s migrants

Government, NGOs heed appeals for help in 60% of cases, says founder of voice portal

Stuck in Surat without work or food after the lockdown kicked in, Vijay Bahadur Yadav from Madhya Pradesh’s Rewa district pinned all his hopes on a basic 2G mobile feature phone to return home. A semi-literate, who can barely read or write, he made several phone calls — to his village sarpanch, work contractor, the COVID helpline and CGNet Swara, a voice-based portal.

Over the next two months, as he left behind the shuttered dyeing and printing unit in Gujarat, managed to reach home, and scrambled to settle in, Mr. Yadav unknowingly became a storyteller. Hoping for a resolution, he recorded messages on the portal pointing to improper food at a quarantine centre, lack of jobs at his village and denial of BPL ration card benefits to families, chronicling the kind of predicament that lakhs of migrant workers are likely to be encountering today.

“After recording a message about the food crisis, we even received rations from a local NGO,” said Mr. Yadav, 32, who owns less than a bigha of land and made ₹250-300 a day in Gujarat. “Operators on the portal listen, and communicate back. But the government helpline is only one-way.”

A bunch of journalists in Raipur, aided by operators in villages and student volunteers from across the country, handled about 150 such calls a day from workers stranded in 11 States during the lockdown at CGNet Swara (Voice of Central Gondwana). They forwarded these desperate calls for help to authorities and activists in the field. “Based on the preliminary estimates, we have registered a success rate in close to 60% of the situations, wherein help reached callers,” said Shubhranshu Choudhary, who set up CGNet Swara in 2010.

Coronavirus lockdown | A ‘voicebook’ aids central India’s migrants

“I got their number from another worker stuck in Surat,” said Mr. Yadav. Callers can record their audio messages round-the-clock by calling on any of the three numbers (for speakers of Gondi, Madia and Hindi and its dialects), and narrate their stories as citizen journalists by pressing ‘1’ on the keypad. Journalists and editors moderate messages before releasing messages on the website, social media and phone, or forwarding them. And callers can even listen to playback of their own recordings. The portal has taken 704 COVID-19 stories on air.

“Earlier poverty and a bicycle had a connection, now poverty and a mobile phone does; everyone carries them,” said Mr. Choudhary. “Most poor are on the wrong side of the digital divide, so India needs a voicebook more than a Facebook that can function without an Internet. We need to create more of such appropriate, responsible and democratic platforms which require government’s initiative, technological interventions, financial backing and legal reforms.”

The platform, which generally hosts just 30% ‘problem stories’ besides local songs and educational programmes on its website and community radio ‘Radio Bultoo’, found that during the lockdown it received almost entirely COVID-19 related content. “The platform is inclusive as it accommodates different dialects, and editors are from the community itself. If it’s a migrant worker narrating his story, you need a migrant worker on the receiving end too, right?” asked Mr. Choudhary.

Coronavirus lockdown | A ‘voicebook’ aids central India’s migrants

The operators check back with callers about their issue’s resolution. But mostly, they themselves record stories of resolution like Mr. Yadav did. “The platform makes individual stories public, which may push others facing similar problems to report. The floating population of migrants will continue facing issues, only their nature will change. While the government’s call centres can provide scale, we can give empathy,” said Mr. Choudhary.

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Printable version | Jul 16, 2020 6:25:28 PM |

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