Rodrigo Davies

Thoughts on Neighborly, civic crowdfunding and the future of community development

Giving voice to India's silent communities

20 Jun 2012

CGNet Swara

Chhattisgarh, a forest-dominated region of 25 million people in central India, rarely makes the news headlines. When it does, there's usually just one topic of interest: unrest and violence related to the Naxalite presence in the state. You'll hardly ever hear or read the point of view of a tribal community in the media, since almost no Indian journalists - let alone foreign correspondents - speak their local language. The Naxalite revolutionaries, it's worth noting, have learnt most tribal languages in the four decades they've been embedded in communities.

The result of this mismatch in communication is that the media dedicates its attention to the political aims of the Naxalites and the threat that they pose. Tribal people are presumed to be silent and willing sponsors of terrorism; their problems go unheard and they remain marginalised.

In an attempt to break this cycle, Shubhranshu Choudhary (a Knight International Journalism Fellow and former BBC producer) has set up a community media network called CGNet Swara (Chhattisgarh Net Voice).

Individuals can hear the latest news or contribute a story of their own by calling a telephone number - those who can't afford to pay for the call can hang up, and the system calls them back. Currently around 10-15 people per day call to contribute news stories by voice, which are captured by a system based on the audiowiki platform developed at MIT. The CGNS team listen to each story and attempt to verify its authenticity by calling the caller back. They ask further questions, and cross-checking with other contacts on the ground.

Once verified, the message is translated into Hindi and English. It is then added to the CGNS hotline for callers to hear, added to the CGN Swara website in audio and text form, and updates are pushed to subscribers by social media and SMS.

The platform has produced a very unique range of voices: stories range from crime reports and complaints about government policies to campaigns on local development plans and opinion pieces covering India-wide issues. A growing and very exciting trend is the uploading of traditional folk music - much of which has never before been recorded - though CGNS is still working on a separate home for musical content.

Giving voice to the community's stories has not been an easy process, though, since unscrupulous elements in authority strongly oppose it. The medium's potential power to expose corruption and government inaction is significant, as its opponents are aware; verifying messages that are politically sensitive is also the CGNS team's biggest challenge (as a report by Mobile Active also noted).

As a result of covert opposition, CGNS has been forced to change the location of its server three times in the past year. The group's latest strategy is to locate the server, now a single laptop, in large institutions such as universities, where disgruntled officials are less likely to tread - I met Choudhary at Mumbai's Tata Institute of Social Sciences campus, their temporary home for a few days in May.

Attempts to train local citizens as journalists have been less successful, though. Of two men CGNS has worked with, one has disappeared and the other is in jail. Nevertheless, assuming the platform can continue to operate as a mobile server, it has the potential for much wider application.

The team are planning to add functionality for tagging stories by subject and location, which will allow callers to choose more precisely the types of stories they'd like to hear, and enable the service to be used nationally - with callers dialling in to their local area, or another area in which they're interested (particularly useful for the millions of internal migrants to Mumbai and Delhi).  Greater filtering capability will also allow the platform to include less newsy, more hyper-local stories such as birth, marriage and funeral announcements, which would be of interest to specific neighbourhoods. With hyper-local media becoming a buzz topic in the West, this could be another instance of technology enabling so-called leapfrog development.

The CGNS concept is explained very neatly in this cartoon video: