Rural journalism Society

The reporters who cover the remotest parts of rural India have now reached the Oscars

Smartphone in hand, Sunita, a reporter with Khabar Lahariya, makes her way through muddy waters in Chitrakoot district, Uttar Pradesh

Smartphone in hand, Sunita, a reporter with Khabar Lahariya, makes her way through muddy waters in Chitrakoot district, Uttar Pradesh

Winter is setting in, and the pilgrimage centre on the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh border is yet to shake off its slumber when Sunita and I set out for Gadhchapa village in Uttar Pradesh. Sunita, a reporter with Khabar Lahariya, a multi-lingual news network run by rural women journalists , has travelled an hour by bus from her house in Kol Majra village to reach Karwi town. She seems comfortable in her sari, a thin dupatta on her shoulders, and a pair of flat slippers. Her hair is oiled, parted in the middle, and plaited on both sides. She wears a bright vermilion bindi on her forehead.

After an hour on muddy roads, we reach Manikpur block and the vehicle grinds to a halt as the kaccha path ends and the jungle begins. “There’s no way to reach Badehar Majra [part of Gadhchapa village] other than to walk through the jungle,” says Sunita, smiling at me. She was here two months ago to cover the story of a pregnant woman whose child was stillborn; she had been carried up the hill by four men in a hand-made carriage because no ambulance could reach the village.

All around us are tall trees and rocky slopes. As Sunita and I walk, we encounter a couple carrying a bicycle. The man is wearing torn blue pyjamas, a blue T-shirt, and a pair of sandals at least two sizes too big. His left foot is bruised and bloodied. His wife is barefoot, the end of her sari covers her face.

Mangal and Meera, they introduce themselves. Sunita asks if they are from Badehar Majra. Yes, they say. Sunita takes her smartphone out, plugs a small mike piece into it, then fastens a mouth piece on Mangal’s T-shirt. She begins her interview.

Khabar Lahariya’s reporters at work in villages across U.P. and M.P

Khabar Lahariya’s reporters at work in villages across U.P. and M.P

No school, no roads

In Uttar Pradesh, whose Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has been extremely vocal about the multifarious development that has taken place under his leadership, stands a village without basic amenities: no school, no public healthcare centre, no roads. And Sunita is here to report about it.

Padhai kiye hain (Have you studied?),” asks Sunita. “ Jab yahan school hi nahin hai to kya padhai karenge (When there is no school here, how can I study?),” Mangal responds.

Khabar Lahariya’s reporters at work in villages across U.P. and M.P

Khabar Lahariya’s reporters at work in villages across U.P. and M.P

For the next 45 minutes, we all walk together, till we reach Majra. Sunita is a known face in the village. As soon as she arrives, the women greet her and Sunita begins her video interviews one by one, speaking in Bundeli Hindi.

When it’s all done and we reach town, Sunita gets ready to board her bus, but before that she must open the chatbox of her office group and send across her video interviews. These will then be edited by a team in Delhi, and finally be uploaded to the Khabar Lahariya website. There are about 20 women like Sunita: from Dalit, tribal, Muslim communities and other backward castes, who are a part of Khabar Lahariya ’s reporting team in 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The news organisation is the subject of a documentary Writing with Fire, which has just entered the Oscars 2022 shortlist.

Khabar Lahariya, once print and now digital, is a rural news network that publishes ‘everyday stories of everyday people in areas that are completely out of the spotlight of media attention’. Says Kavita Devi, its co-founder, “The main objective was to set up an all-women news platform, especially employing women from marginalised backgrounds. In the beginning, people did not take us seriously. They couldn’t process the idea of Dalit women working as journalists. But when we came out with our first edition of printed newspapers, people were happy to read reports from their villages printed in their dialect.”

When rural communities do get their voices and struggles heard, they are able to receive the right kind of help, thanks to social media.

When rural communities do get their voices and struggles heard, they are able to receive the right kind of help, thanks to social media.

Khabar Lahariya is one among a clutch of news outlets and organisations — including the Gaon Connection , People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), and Lantern Marathi — that are reporting from the most abjectly neglected parts of rural India where most journalists don’t tread. Moreover, these outlets also empower the reporters themselves, many of them from poor, backward families. Sunita lives in a mud-and-wattle house, like the villagers she interviewed in Badehar. But her living conditions are far better than what they were before she joined Khabar Lahariya .

Stories to be told

Married in her teens, she used to be a daily wage labourer until she joined a women’s self-help group and eventually Khabar Lahariya in 2011. After her first husband died, she married again in 2019, and now her husband often drops her to work. Until then, she recalls how she would walk 8 km each day to reach the bus stop. For her reporting work, she says, “to reach some villages, I have to first take a bus, then an auto, then another bus, then walk. But these stories need to be told.”

In 2015, Khabar Lahariya moved away from print and turned fully digital because print proved unsustainable. Housed by Chambal Media, it runs on the funds generated by projects, including documentaries, social media campaigns, and content collaborations that they have with different NGOs and news organisations.

Kavita Devi, co-founder of all-women news platform Khabar Lahariya

Kavita Devi, co-founder of all-women news platform Khabar Lahariya

Parth M.N., 29, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai, and has been reporting from rural Maharashtra since 2017 after he received a fellowship from PARI. He realised that not many people were doing this — unless there was an event like the migrant exodus or the Hathras rape case. “It’s unfortunate that something needs to happen for us to take notice of the hinterland. The migrant crisis was an example of how the media covers an event and forgets about it the moment the story became old,” he says.

Parth believes it’s important to report on how Adivasis and Dalits live — there are places where even access to water is a task. Freelancing and reporting on these stories is not easy because there aren’t many takers, he says, except for a handful of organisations. “And those who are willing to publish don’t have enough funds.” But the work clearly makes up for it. “I find it easier to report from rural India because the stories are so stark and compelling,” he says.

When rural communities do get their voices and struggles heard, they are able to receive the right kind of help, thanks to social media. Parth reported on a journalist, whose monthly earning was ₹4,000, who died of COVID-19 in Osmanabad; the hospital bill was ₹4 lakh. The journalist’s wife was deep in debt; but after the story was reported and shared on social media, scores of people came forward to help her clear the bill.

Dedicated coverage

Ravindra Keskar, 49, who worked as a journalist in Osmanabad for 13 years, recently quit to start a digital platform called Lantern Marathi. He believes that while almost every village in the country may have a smartphone, they don’t have access to news in a language they understand. Keskar’s videos are an attempt to bring international and national news to people in rural Maharashtra.

Says veteran journalist P. Sainath, founding editor of PARI, “The average Indian national daily gives 0.67% of its front page to news of rural origin, which means 69% of the population gets 0.67% of the front page of national dailies.” According to Sainath, all the stories from rural India, including those on environment and agriculture, put together “don’t get the space that crime and entertainment does. Several dailies don’t have a dedicated labour or rural reporter.”

PARI has a core team of 10, which includes reporters on monthly retainers and PARI fellows. They also use a huge network of freelance journalists besides a team of translators. Managing editor Namita Waikar says the platform translates stories into 13 languages and plans to increase this soon.

A team of PARI journalists

A team of PARI journalists

For Sunita and the other reporters in Khabar Lahariya, it has been a long and hard learning curve. First, they mastered the print medium, and then they had to learn digital reporting. Initially, Sunita recalls, she used to fumble while giving a piece to camera. When she was given a smartphone in 2015, when Khabar Lahariya went digital, she had no idea how to use it. The organisation trained its staff and workshops were held over the years on how to report live for social media.

According to Kavita Devi, the platform this year will begin to report from Bihar and nine new districts in U.P. and M.P. “We are also working on Chhattisgarh,” she says. Besides this, Chambal Media launched Chambal Academy last year to train young rural women in mobile journalism, audio and video production, and other digital reporting tools.

“I remember three years ago, I didn’t know how to stop recording,” recalls Sunita. “The camera would stay on even after the interview was done! Now, I am fine,” she says, oozing confidence.


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Printable version | May 20, 2022 7:47:14 am | https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-reporters-who-cover-the-remotest-parts-of-rural-india-have-now-reached-the-oscars/article38165834.ece