These rural projects want urban India to sit up and take note
A handful of projects aim to bring rural India to the fore
We collect a lot of jamun (black plum) and give them to our parents to sell.It’s a lot of fun climbing the trees and shaking the fruits down,” says a young tribal boy in Mayurbhanj, Odisha.
Another young girl, waiting at the Chamalagondi bus stop in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, says, “The bus is our only mode of transport to school. But it never stops here. We are forced to block the road in order to get the bus to stop.” Stories like these and many more are now the focus of a handful of projects that aim to bring rural India to the fore. With his photography project ‘Native Picture’, Bengaluru-based developmental photographer Arjun Swaminathan wants people in urban and peri-urban towns and cities to slow down, stop and take note of the other India. His images are powerful, with the subjects often staring straight into the camera, and are accompanied by long captions that tell their story, and bring them to life.
“Today, most media outlets concentrate on urban issues. Here, we talk about rural India which too comprises a significant number of people and resources like forests and wetlands. It is not a political discourse; it is about issues,” says Swaminathan, who is using a website and social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to bring these stories into thousands of homes.
Native Picture operates with the help of a three-member team in Bengaluru. “Today, journalism need not be about big companies. The mobile phone is a very strong tool. You can broadcast from right there,” Swaminathan says. Native Picture will set up a subscription model in a year’s time.
An earlier enterprise, Gaon Connection, pitched as “India’s biggest rural media platform”, has a wide presence in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, with several verticals, including digital, video, print and audio. “We have India’s biggest rural media survey team,” says Neelesh Misra, founder. “Our priorities are extremely clear. We want people to look at rural India with empathy and respect. If the foreign media is interested in rural India and can make it palatable to an international audience, why can’t we do it?” he asks. According to Misra, the focus of Gaon Connection is on getting things done. “I believe in impact — getting transformers fixed, getting pensions to those who are not getting it, and so on.”
Gaon Connection prints a weekly newspaper in U.P., on a bulk subscription basis. The “epicentre” of all operations, however, is the digital news desk. The staff strength has fallen from 107 till about a year ago to 20 now. “We are rebuilding the team,”Misra tells me. This has been made possible with a shift in the business model, wherein revenue flows in from the audio and video verticals. “This way, we are not dependent on advertisements for survival,” he says.
There are also initiatives where the “staff” comes from the communities in focus. Gram Vaani, incubated in IIT-Delhi, engages with community volunteers, and has also developed a social media vertical, Mobile Vaani, for its rural users.
Vijay Sai Pratap, CEO and co-founder of Gram Vaani, says Mobile Vaani works like an interactive voice response (IVR) system.“People give us a missed call and we call them back. It is like interactive radio, where they can choose what they want to listen to (by punching in a number on the phone. There are various channels for agriculture, hyper local issues and grievance redress,” he says.
Gram Vaani engages with community volunteers, and has developed a social media vertical, Mobile Vaani, for its rural users. | Photo Credit: Gram Vaani
At the back end of these channels are villagers themselves. “Volunteers from the community, around 10 or 15, are identified and trained to not just popularise Mobile Vaani in their district clubs, but also engage with the local authorities to act on problems identified through the grievance channel. This is like the ‘share’ option on social media, except that we forward the complaint to the authorities concerned. These volunteers also contribute content and become the voice of their community,” says Pratap.
Tejnarayan Bramharshi from Madhubani district in Bihar, a journalist for almost two decades, has been with Mobile Vaani for the past seven years. “There are few houses that have access to news via newspapers or TV channels. But almost every person has a mobile phone. This is why Mobile Vaani works. It becomes the voice of the village,” he says. Mobile Vaani covers Bihar, Jharkand and Madhya Pradesh (about 20 districts in all) as well as the National Capital Region.
Another player in this area is the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). Founder P. Sainath says rural reporting is not about “us going there to report on them, but about collaborating with them to make the journalism come from there.”
“Who better to tell these stories than those people themselves,” he asks. An example is the Book of Bandipur, a series of photo essays by farmers, labourers, wildlife experts, and Adivasis that documents their lives in the Karnataka national park.
And as with the others, PARI content too is presented on multimedia to bypass literacy levels, and is available in 13 languages. Its content is thus far free, although Sainath admits that funding is a challenge. Public donations, personal money and free volunteer labour is keeping the project going.