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<nettime> Ushinor Majumdar: Giving a voice to the voiceless

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(bwo BytesforAll list/ Frederick Noronha)

Giving a voice to the voiceless
Ushinor Majumdar

A little-known initiative from the Chhattisgarh won the Digital Activism
Award this year. Ushinor Majumdar on the project that beat Edward Snowden
in the race

Last year, Edward Snowden became the champion of Internet freedom for
exposing the US government's pervasive Internet surveillance and privacy
invading programmes. With adulation came accusations. As Internet
activists rallied behind the former CIA contractor, the US government
charged him with espionage, sparking off a global debate on the protection
of whistleblowers. Snowden put Internet activism in the spotlight and was
nominated for the 2014 Digital Activism Award.

He won the online battle. In January, he said, 'For me, in terms of
personal satisfaction, the mission's already accomplished. I already won.'
Digital corporations and governments across the world came under fire for
colluding on sharing personal data of Internet users.

However, he lost the Digital Activism Award race to a little-known Indian
journalist, who works with tribals in India's hinterlands. The year's
award was given to Bhopal-based Shubhranshu Choudhary for his initiative
called: CGNet Swara, which seeks to empower the most marginalised of the
Indian population. Tribals from hard-to-reach areas in central India dial
in with local news stories and they are then podcast through CGNet Swara.
In fact, it doesn't even require a call. A missed call ensures that an
automated service dials you back and helps record your message into the

Considering the four heavyweight contenders  --  Edward Snowden, for his
expos' of US surveillance; Free Weibo, touted as the Facebook of China,
for providing information that has been censored or deleted by the
country's oppressive regime; and TAILS (The Amnesiac Incognito Live
System), for developing an encryption system that seeks to protect online
sharing of information; and Choudhary's CGNet Swara  --  the award is a
matter of great prestige.

Although, regulations in Chhattisgarh do not allow community radio, it's
surprising what CGNet has achieved since its inception.

For example, when State-sponsored armed militia, Salwa Judum, started
fighting the Maoists, national newspapers ignored the atrocities committed
on civilians. International media that were tracking CGNet's podcasts
first broke the news globally. The Indian media later picked up the story
to produce some stellar reporting on Salwa Judum, which finally led to the
Supreme Court banning the outfit.

'Advertisement-based revenue generation system of the Indian media doesn't
allow journalists to cover many things. The reasons for the rise of Maoism
is one such phenomenon,' says Choudhary. He set up CGnet as a mailer group
on Yahoo! to report from the interiors of Chhattisgarh and within a year,
there were 2,500 people on the list.

There were bigger issues like conflict in mineral-rich areas, which the
national media kept well away from. CGNet had to evolve into a platform
where the tribals themselves could report.

In February 2010, CGNet Swara was launched as an 'experiment' to connect
tribal people with the Internet using mobile phones, which had started
permeating into the central Indian tribal territory. Choudhary picked up
funding from the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) under the
Knight International Journalism Fellowship for his project. And since
2013, the UN is funding the project.

Accustoming the tribals to technology was difficult. Choudhary started
with the basics of traditional news reporting, right out of a journalism
school. Needless to say, it didn't work. The new CGNet Swara training
module employs trainers like Bhanu Sahu and Choran Parte to use song,
dance, puppetry and traditional forms of storytelling to train the
tribals. They are also taught to attribute, and check and verify facts.

The reports range from health issues, social welfare payments, education,
midday meals, PDS leakage to corruption.

Villagers drop a missed call on CGNet's server, which then calls them
back, and records their reports. Moderators later edit and put up the
audio files on CGNet Swara's website.

It is not just a source for information but an arterial network that gives
the pulse of the tribal heartland, and can be used to understand what
absorbs tribal people into the Maoist struggle.

'There are a number of tribals who are pulled into the Maoist struggle.
Most are pushed into it because of the negligence of the government;
alienation and neglect of local language is one of the great
contributors,' explains Choudhary.

Politics of language has an important role in the growth of the left wing
extremism (LWE). One of the most common languages among the tribals in
central India  --  across Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya
Pradesh and Maharashtra  --  is Gondi. Hindi loses its significance in the
interiors, where it is associated with affluence.

The Maoists monopolised on this divide and used the politics of language
to their advantage by publishing nearly 10 revolutionary magazines in
Gondi. They gained futher popularity as Telugu and Bangla leaders spoke to
the tribals, suffering neglect and oppression, in Gondi.

When CGNet Swara began, its founders realised the importance of Gondi and
reporting in Gondi enabled more citizen journalists to report from this
part of the world.

'The idea for using radio came while interacting with the Maoists. They
said we can only use 'hawa (air)'  --  a resource that everyone has access
to,' says Choudhary.

In the tribal hinterland, especially places such as south Chhattisgarh,
the Maoist diktat regulates daily living. However, Choudhary never faced
opposition from the Red Brigade, as platforms such as CGNet and CGNet
Swara helped report the neglect of the tribals. Choudhary claims that his
training sessions were never disturbed. Moreover, staff and volunteers of
CGNet Swara were given deep access to areas where the State is yet to make
its presence felt and are Maoist fiefdoms known as 'liberated zones'.

Working for CGNet Swara, Choudhary came face-to-face with tribal issues
and the nuances of Maoist politics. A little over a year ago, he wrote
Let's Call Him Vasu, a book that he claimed was from the Maoist
perspective. The book and an article condemning the bloodied Darbha Valley
Massacre (in which several Congress leaders, including Salwa Judum founder
Mahendra Karma, were killed) drew sharp flak from the Maoists. Though
CGNet Swara continues its work, Choudhary now avoids venturing into Maoist

A trained radio journalist who worked with the BBC in the past, Choudhary
believes that radio still has the deepest reach when it comes to
disseminating information, in the country. He plans to exploit this
potential to broadcast news in Gondi in the forests of Chhattisgarh.

Developing a self-sufficient community platform also means making it
cheap. And Choudhary has also been at the forefront of adopting open and
sustainable technology to drive his project. Although, CGNet Swara
starting with complex machines and depended on subsidised calls rates, the
project now uses Raspberry Pi, a programmable credit-card-sized
single-board computer. Add to it a solar battery and a modem and each unit
in a remote village costs about Rs 15,000.

Choudhary began CGNet with the intention of containing Maoism by giving a
voice to the voiceless. 'Policing cannot curb Maoism, it is initiatives
like CGNet Swara that can eventually end tribal support to Maoism,' he
says. With millions of tribals stuck in the quicksand of the Maoist
insurgency, the government could take a page or two out of such

(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 12, Dated 22 March 2014)

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