Tech tonic for the heart of India

CGNet Swara is a voice-based online portal that allows people in the Central Gondwana region to report local news by making a phone call. Photo: CGNETSWARA.ORG  

One winter morning, in Barwani district of Madhya Pradesh, I was watching a group of Adivasi kids peering into their mobile phones. The early morning sun was mellow, and they were so engrossed that they did not notice me drawing near.

Shubhranshu Choudhary

“We are doing Bultoo sir,” one of them told me when I asked what they were doing.

It took me some time to understand that they were transferring audio and video files using Bluetooth technology in their mobile phones.

I was in Barwani to take a class on citizen journalism with Adivasi children.

Later, I discovered that more than 80 per cent of the students had Bluetooth in their mobile phones and actively use it to share audio and video files with each other. I had no idea that even my mobile phone is Bluetooth-enabled. I had never used it. On the other end of Central India, in Balrampur district, on the border of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, I found a similar phenomenon. It is a Maoist insurgency-affected district with a large proportion of Oraon tribals, who speak a language called Kuduk. An experiment here has thrown up a model for how to solve the problem.

Eighty per cent of Balrampur’s gram panchayats are connected by optical fibre cables thanks to the Digital India push by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The problem is, there is broadband but there isn’t much content in Kuduk on the Internet.

Experimenting with possibilities
The mobile phone is common in every household even in this remote Adivasi district. People earlier used it only to make calls. Now, they also use it to report on the happenings around them and to listen to the “Bultoo radio”. If wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) haven’t been paid, if forest right deeds have not been distributed, they report about it in Kuduk. Once the messages get recorded on a central computer connected via the Internet, they also get translated into Hindi and English. Then it reaches officers such as Collector Alex Paul Menon, who was once abducted by the Maoists, and also reaches each gram panchayat. One person from each village comes to the gram panchayat office every day and downloads the daily programme of “Bultoo radio” on his mobile phone and shares it with all villagers upon return.

“Bultoo radio” is a small experiment being carried out over a small area but its problem-solving potential and its use of the local idiom can bring people’s faith back in the system. Some thing similar can also be done with short-wave radio, which people here tune into to listen to programmes broadcast by evangelical Christian groups based in places such as the Philippines. Balrampur has Internet in most of its gram panchayats but Dantewada doesn’t in even 1 per cent of its panchayats — “Bultoo radio” will not work there, but short wave will.

The Maoist problem is basically a problem of communication breakdown: while Maoists, missionaries, mining companies reach out to the Adivasis, mainstream India remains blissfully cocooned. There are no officers, no journalists who understand Adivasi languages such as Kuduk, Gondi. The Maoists did not come to the Dandakaranya forests to effect a revolution, they came here to hide. Despite the Maoists interacting and working with Adivasis for 40 years in the region, there are hardly any Adivasi Maoist leaders. At any rate, less than 1 per cent of the Maoists in Central India use violence as a tool to change politics; 99 per cent of them have been sold an illusion that once their “Raj” comes, all their problems will be solved, the problems of forest, land, water, health and education.

Connecting with the Adivasis
India needs to have two strategies to solve the Maoist problem, one for Maoists and one for Maoist supporters who make it “India’s biggest internal security threat”.

There are more Maoist sympathisers in our cities but not many go on to join them; Adivasis become Maoist supporters because we do not talk to them, because we do not help them solve their problems. Mainstream India only talks to the ‘creamy layer’ of Adivasis, those who have learnt our languages. Many a time, this small but powerful section has let down fellow Adivasi brethren more than any outsider.

Reaching out to the Adivasis living in remote areas is admittedly difficult since many of these areas are controlled by Maoists, but we can talk to them through the airwaves. We need to reinvent the radio to solve the Maoist problem. We need to democratise short-wave radio. We need to be creative like “Bultoo radio”.

With many Adivasis now having access to mobile phones, we need to train and encourage them to record their songs and report their problems in their language on platforms such as CGNet Swara, a voice-based online portal that allows people in the Central Gondwana region to report local news by making a phone call. Their messages, when recorded, need to be relayed to the authorities who can then proactively take up their issues. The fact that their problems have been solved should be relayed back to the Adivasis on shortwave radio in their own languages. Never mind the connectivity issues, even if they do not receive mobile phone network signals in their village, they can at least receive signals in most of their weekly markets that they visit every week. “Radio does not speak in our languages and talks about [Barack] Obama, Osama [bin Laden], which we do not understand,” the locals tell me.

A bottom-up approach
Gondi is the lingua franca of the Maoist movement today, but All India Radio does not broadcast even a single new bulletin in the language. A top-down All India Radio will anyway be of little use; we should strive to create a bottom-up media which is more participatory. We need Adivasi broadcasting cooperatives. We need democratic and real social media.

India is the world’s largest democracy but it has not allowed radio for public use yet. One can launch a newspaper and a television channel but not a radio station. This needs to change. Radio must be regulated as any other media but a free radio, including medium wave and short wave, linked with mobile phone and Internet, can solve the Maoist problem. FM is an urban phenomenon; the battle to allow private FM stations to broadcast news is not going to help Adivasis in Central India. Experiments like Free Basics of Facebook, linked with Internet via satellite and Google’s Loons, should be tried in Central India.

All of these are possible. Maoist insurgency is a 19th century problem which has a 21st century solution. However, an Internet-centric approach is not enough. This is still an oral country. We need to connect Internet with voice to reach the last mile, as is being done with “Bultoo radio” in Balrampur. We also need to use the 19th century technology of short-wave radio, which may be an obsolete technology for urban India but is still the only communication technology for many Adivasis in remote forests.

With appropriate technologies we also need to use ministries appropriately. A combination of Digital India with a more autonomous Information and Broadcasting Ministry can do the trick. We need Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad more, not Manohar Parrikar or Rajnath Singh to solve the Maoist problem.

( Shubhranshu Choudhary is the author of Let’s call him Vasu : With the Maoists in Chhattisgarh.)

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 8:02:39 AM |

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