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Asia

Telephone journalism connecting Indian tribes to the world

Tribal citizen journalists in India have been reporting news in their own language through a new experiment using mobile phones - a project which hopes to connect rural regions to the rest of the world.

Shubhranshu Choudhary, the brain behind CGNet Swara teaching a tribal girl how the service works in Chhattisgarh

Shubhranshu Choudhary, the brain behind CGNet Swara teaching a tribal girl how the service works in Chhattisgarh

Using principles of journalism, it is an attempt to cater to people who are on the wrong side of the digital divide and provide a new platform where villagers can talk to each other and the outside world about issues that are important to them.

Essentially an internet-radio-come-website system, Chhattisgarh Net Voice or CGNet Swara, as it is popularly called, has become a rage. Tribal residents, whose population has grown to over 4 million, relay news in their local language, Gondi.

In the central state of Chhattisgarh, vast swathes of the population live in the remote outback which newspapers do not cover on as literacy rates are terrible and there is no internet or private television.

Communicating with the outside world

The service, which began in February last year, is the brainchild of freelance journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary, who was earlier a producer for BBC. "What’s happening in the tribal areas," says Choudhary, "is that tribal aspirations, their news, news about them does not come into the mainstream media for a variety of reasons. So we hope that this platform will not only create a platform for tribals to talk in their own language but it will help them communicate with the outside world."

Tribal youth in Chhattisgarh being taught how to use mobile service for relaying news

Tribal youth in Chhattisgarh being taught how to use mobile service for relaying news

The technology, developed by Microsoft Research India and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is simple.

Tribal folk call a designated number to upload a news item and a text message goes out to all the phone numbers in the contact list. Anyone who wants to hear the report calls in to the same number and the message is played out. It boasts today of receiving over 300 phone calls every day.

Awareness of local issues

Trained volunteers have used the system to help mobilize awareness of local issues. So it is not surprising to hear reports on illegal mining, irregularities in the government’s welfare schemes, anti-liquor campaigns and even atrocities meted out to the indigenous population.

Tribals in Chhatisgarh using CGNet for sending reports

Tribals in Chhatisgarh using CGNet for sending reports

Adiyog, a volunteer who has seen the service grow rapidly, says CGNet is a vital link for the population, as the mainstream media tends to ignore aspirations of indigenous communities. Not only that, he adds, "It has ignored their problems and their struggle. From the places I have visited this service is popular and the feedback is good."

Tribal women’s empowerment groups say CGNet has helped in raising awareness of local issues in surrounding villages as well.

Choudhary is now working on scaling up the system to reach as many as possible. He is considering incorporating the system into a national cellphone network at a later stage. "We hope to take it to as many tribal areas as we can." He says the task is not so simple, because, "what has happened to the tribals in India is that they got divided into many states. Say for example the tribal language Gondi. The people who speak Gondi, on which we are working, are divided into five states. So we hope this platform will give them space where they can talk about their own problems in their own language."

For now tribal folk seem to have found a new voice, their own voice.

Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Sarah Berning

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