In this post, Mrinalika Roy, one of the researchers who received the Social Media Research grant for 2015, introduces her proposed work.
When a New Delhi-based NGO ‘Nirantar’ began India’s first-of-its’s-kind, rural newspaper ‘Khabar Lahariya’ in May 2002 from Bundelkhand district – a semi-arid region where 60% of the population depends on agriculture for sustenance — their aim was to bring rural women into the sphere of journalism, information and technology.
A decade of droughts, bad harvest has brought the population of Bundelkhand to the brink and earned it the dubious distinction of being the ‘worst place in India to be a farmer’.
When it comes to social parameters, the scenario is equally bleak. Caste hierarchies are deeply entrenched and strictly enforced. Most low caste farmers have no land and work on fields leased from high caste landowners. Gender disparity is widespread.
However, Khabar Lahariya brought about a new wave across the dismal landscape, where survival is the focal point of existence and areas like literacy, gender equality and civil rights have taken a backseat.
“The region has one of the worst figures of female literacy and gender participation. Even gender-based violence is rampant. So, I believe the region was ripe for such an initiative,” says Poorvi Bhargava, coordinator at Khabar Lahariya.
Table 1: Women Literacy
(2011 Census Data; censusindia.gov.in)
Table. 1 gives the literacy figures for women in the region where Khabar Lahariya is active. The figures quoted above clearly show that majority of women in the region are illiterate. A survey conducted by Nirantar showed that even literate women did not have any material to read. Most reading material available was didactic and message-oriented (like propaganda government advertisements and political manifestos). There were no locally produced newspaper; hence the issues pertinent to the people in the area were hardly covered. Khabar Lahariya ensured women had an avenue to talk about issues they believed strongly in.
With only one edition from Chitrakoot, entirely managed by women, the newspaper began raising local issues and news from the region often in the limelight due to farmer suicides. To make its presence felt, its reporters and management — most of who come from marginalized sections of the society — had to crisscross the hinterlands, face opposition from a male-dominated society and at times even threats. However, the journey of thirteen years has been fruitful.
Nirantar has not only met its target of providing the women from the region a platform to raise their voice and issues, but the newspaper has also won trust and praise from locals and at the national and the international level. Over the years, the newspaper has won several awards, including a UN award in 2009, following which it expanded its operations.
Today, the bi-weekly ‘Khabar Lahariya’ prints six editions from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in seven dialects, with an estimated readership of over one lakh. Thereby, the newspaper has also achieved its goal of promoting readership in local dialects by producing material in the language of the people. Khabar Lahariya is the only Bundeli newspaper in India, and has editions in Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Hindustani and Bajjika. News produced in local languages has greater reach.
In India, 220 languages have disappeared in the last 50 years, and another 150 could vanish in the next half century as speakers die and their children fail to learn their ancestral tongues. Khabar Lahariya is not only propagating local languages but also serving as an archive.
Going the digital way
Over the years, the organization chose to take the recourse of technology. The digitization helped in not only information dissemination to a wider audience, thus effectively carrying the organization’s message across states and continents but also helped those at the helm of affairs – the rural women reporters – in better news gathering. This process has many aspects and need further elucidation.
Realizing the potential of the social media, the management of the newspaper decided to launch its Facebook page. By posting about the myriad causes the rural women were writing about, they managed to reach thousands of readers. Not only this, a unique outreach method followed by them is posting biographies of the women reporters, their work and its subsequent impact on the rural landscape.
For example, a short video posted by the organization on its Facebook page, introduces us to Sunita (27), a reporter from Ahmednagar in UP, whose story on the decrepit roads in her village forced the local administration to wake up and build one. We also find in the course of the video that she was a former child bride.
Without the internet and social media, the stories of Sunita and others like her would never reach the larger world. Although the rural reporters and their stories would have continued to make an impact in the villages, the social media ensures that these reach even the policy makers, social activists and mainstream media.
The culmination of these efforts came in 2013, when the organization launched its website and later the online edition of its newspaper. One of the limitations of the physical copy distributed personally by the reporters was that it had limited readership besides being a cumbersome process. The digital version of the newspaper and the website has been a game changer. They not have not only increased the overall readership but have also taken the newspaper to the corridors of power. They also serve as an online archive, documenting all the news articles.
The website works as a digital bulletin board that people living anywhere in the world can access to understand the grievances of rural population in India and their fight to change the situation.
A direct impact of the transition to online media is the rise in number of people pledging to support the venture. A prime example is renowned film critic Anupama Chopra who recently pledged to donate Rs 1 lakh each year to fund the operations of the newspaper.
The use of technology has also changed the way women reporters work on the field. Smartphones help in gathering and documenting information more quickly and efficiently. It has reduced the time it took the reporters to send their stories to Allahabad from where the newspaper is printed. The smartphone also works as a safety device in remote hinterlands where these women travel often.
Recently, the organization has also started workshops to increase internet literacy among its reporters. This in turn has resulted in spreading the internet literacy among the womenfolk in the villages.
By raising the issues concerning people and spreading awareness about the developmental policies of the government, ‘Khabar Lahariya’ has helped transforming one of the most poor regions of India by whatever means possible. By forcing the administration to construct a road, a new school or by highlighting corruption it has given the people means to change their lives and thus rural landscape. It has also opened the possibilities of other media and institutions to get involved in the region. Radio Bundelkhand is one of prime examples of this change. The community radio centre has been an instant hit in the region. Recently, ‘Khabar Lahariya’ collaborated with another online data collection group to shape a survey which would reach policymakers. Surveys and projects like these form the basis to frame key policies in the rural India.
In this paper, I intend to look into the transformative impact the internet has had on the rural landscape. As my case study I would look into the working of ‘Khabar Lahariya’ and how internet helped to further its cause. This includes exploring the use of media in the region and the news gathering process of the newspaper prior to the introduction of internet.
I also aim to document the personal stories of its reporters, most of who come from underprivileged backgrounds, change in their lives and the way they report.
Since the stories by the newspaper have created an impact and helped raise and solve issues concerning villagers, the perception of the villagers towards the newspaper is worth exploring and so is the attitude and views of the administration. It is also interesting to note what men of the region think about an all-women newspaper.
Lastly, I will explore the possibilities of similar initiatives in other rural areas of India.
 Bundelkhand-The Worst Place in India to be a Farmer’, article first published in The Mint (Monday, April 27, 2015)
 Bundelkhand Drought: A retrospective Analysis and Way Ahead, National Institute of Disaster Management report-2014
 ActionAid India claims more than 122 farmers have committed suicide between March-April this year. Figures available on ActionAid.org
 Exploring the Everyday: Ethnographic Approaches to Literacy and Numeracy’ – Ethnographic research conducted by Nirantar in collaboration with Uppingham Seminars, UK and Asia Pacific Bureau of Adult Education, in 2004-05
 Jill. M Bystydzienski & Joti Sekhon (eds.), Democratization and Women’s Grassroots Movement, Indiana University Press, Bloomington (1999). Published in South Asia in 2002 by Kali for Women.
 Figures obtained from People’s Linguistic survey of India by Bhasha Research Institute.