And now for the Gondi news

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By Samarth Saran              

Not his master’s voice Excited Adivasis check for local news on their cell phones, connecting with the world in their own voice
Not his master’s voice Excited Adivasis check for local news on their cell phones, connecting with the world in their own voice

AFTER HEARING about it on CGNet, the Collector ordered that a liquor store operating in front of a school be moved. The district administration had been trying to get the school to relocate, instead of the liquor vend!” This bulletin, filed from one of the remotest corners of Chhattisgarh by Kushal, a tribal, has a quirky, newsworthy subject. But what is actually unique about it is the ChhattisGarh NET Voice (CGNet Swara), the medium it was disseminated in. CGNet goes beyond traditional media of print, radio or television. This bulletin, and thousands like it, have been spread as voice messages accessible from any phone. As with many path-breaking ideas, it is simple, even elegant: listeners give a Bengaluru number (080-4113-7280) a missed call. The CGNet system calls them back and they can hear the top four news stories contained within the system.

The man behind the idea is 40-yearold Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist-turned-activist working in the field of rural news. “Tribals are alienated from the mainstream media. I want to bridge that gap,” says Choudhary, who studied in tribal schools in Chhattisgarh. He first started cgnet.in, a Chhattisgarh news and information website. When Choudhary realised that low rates of literacy and Internet penetration were crippling outreach, he started looking for a better — and cheaper — method. That is when he stumbled upon Audio Wiki, a platform developed by Microsoft Research India Lab and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that allows people to use phones to record and listen to voice messages. It was on this platform that CGNet Swara was launched on 10 February 2010.

But how are the bulletins created? CGNet allows listeners to submit news reports, which are usually in Gondi and Hindi. The reports are stored on a server in Microsoft’s Bengaluru campus and, after moderation and editing, are made available to listeners the next day. Translations are uploaded to the cgnet.in website.

In just a couple of months, CGNet has evoked wide interest. “It’s grown exponentially,” smiles Choudhary. Over 600 reports have been filed and more than 200 moderated stories have been published so far. In the past few months, thousands of listeners have been called with fresh capsules of local news.

THOUGH IT has come a long way in a short time, the journey has not been without its difficulties. One of the problems faced by Choudhary is the lack of funds. There aren’t any sponsors for his initiative and it is a big problem for him to find people who can fund him.

People with mobiles use Audio Wiki to record and listen to voice messages — the genesis of the Gondi newscast

However, the result of this struggle has been worthwhile. “CGNet has given a voice to the tribals that has been denied for long,” says 38-year-old Bhan Sahu, one of CGNet’s 33 unpaid volunteers. A tribal from Chhattisgarh’s Rajnandgaon district, most of Sahu’s stories are from the state’s interior. As mobile coverage is scant, Sahu sometimes walks several kilometres to file reports. This has not deterred her; she has more than 30 stories to her name. “For our stories to be heard, we need to make this effort,” says Sahu, whose report on how contractors were illegally employing children to dry tendu leaves at a daily wage of just 15 spurred the local administration to stop the practice.

Tribals are often illiterate, but have a rich oral tradition, says Sahu, pointing out that due to this, CGNet’s use is growing rapidly among tribals. “I taught people in my village how to report. They are now teaching others!” grins Sahu. Plans are on to take CGNet to other Gondispeaking parts of India. So is a media revolution afoot? “It could be,” smiles Choudhary.

PHOTO: SAKHII
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