Photographby Spencer Milsap, National Geographic

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Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist, returned to his childhood home of Chhattisgarh to figure out how to give the area's disenfranchised villagers a voice.

Photographby Spencer Milsap, National Geographic

In Jungles of India, New Phone App Helps Indigenous Tribes Embroiled in Maoist Insurgency

An Indian digital activist and a student in Seattle designed a way to empower people in the remote forests of northeast India.

BHANPUR, India—An Android app designed to give voice to tribes at the heart of India's Maoist insurgency was launched September 20 as part of a campaign by activists to end the conflict through the combination of oral tradition and new technology.

The new app allows tribes living in the remote jungle interior of the Dandakaranya forest to become citizen journalists, posting and sharing pictures and stories on CGNet Swara, a mobile phone-based reporting platform cofounded by Indian digital activist Shubhranshu Choudhary and American computer scientist Bill Thies.

"We're trying to reach out with this new technology to solve so many of the smaller problems that have given rise to such anger in this area," explained Choudhary, winner of this year's Google Digital Activism Award.

"We want to bring hope back to a society where hopelessness has led [many to] resort to violence." (See "Shubhranshu Choudhary: Giving a Voice to a Ravaged, Neglected Region.")

Roots of an Insurgency

The conflict, pitting Maoist cadres—better known as Naxalites—against Indian security forces, is centered in India's mineral-rich heartland and has cost more than 10,000 lives over the past decade.

Exploiting popular discontent among impoverished rural communities and marginalized tribes, the Naxalites have seeded themselves in Dandakaranya, the 39,000-square-mile (100,000-square-kilometer) forest that encompasses parts of several Indian states, including Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Andhra Pradesh.

Amid tightened security in the affected states, the Maoist insurgents this week are marking the tenth anniversary of their banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) party with a series of rallies deep in the forest.

Many indigenous people, known as the adivasi ("original dwellers"), in the Dandakaranya region are blighted by problems typical of so many of India's remote communities: land loss and evictions, lack of schooling, absence of medical care, and dearth of civic amenities—combined with deep mistrust of local authorities.

Since the 1980s, when the first Naxalite cells appeared among the adivasi, numerous villagers have gravitated toward the Maoist call to arms.

Disparate and voiceless, the adivasi were motivated by awareness of their abandonment, vulnerability, and the vacuum of power rather than by any ideological commitment to the insurgents. They've become easy prey for a movement that has offered them a sense of patronage while the benefits of India's development surge pass them by.

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At this CGNet awareness event, villagers learn how to use the cell phone network to record brief reports on local issues and post pictures or clips of tribal music.

Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Now, the CGNet app aims to afford these communities cohesion and possible redress by giving shared voice to those who have neither recourse nor linguistic representation in India's mainstream media.

Focusing specifically on the Gond people, largest of the adivasi communities whose language Choudhary described as the "lingua franca of the Maoists," the app broadens the reach and lowers by tenfold the costs of CGNet Swara's existing older generation mobile phone reporting platform.

The modus operandi is simple. Teams of Choudhary's activists encourage Gondi people to use their mobile phones to record brief reports on local issues and day-to-day deprivations, along with pictures or clips of tribal song and music.

Common problems they face are absent schoolteachers, corrupt police, unpaid wages, or a need for hand pumps and wells.

As soon as either the phone owner or the activist moves to an area with a phone signal, the report is automatically transferred by the app to CGNet's Bangalore headquarters, where it's verified and edited by monitors.

Next, it is transferred to CGNet's mobile phone platform—equivalent to a digital community radio—where it can be accessed, stored, and shared by villagers using either mobile Internet or by dialing a low-cost call-back facility.

Whenever possible, the phone numbers of local officials are supplied with each report, so that in turn they can be contacted by other Gondi villagers and urged to solve the relevant problem.

"We're already getting reports of bribes being returned by local officials to villagers as soon as they are reported on CGNet," said Choudhary, "and of officials encouraging people to call them directly to solve their problems. We're starting to give a sense of redress."

Smart Phones, Smart Student

The CGNet Swara app is the brainchild of Krittika D'Silva, a student at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

D'Silva's idea was designed to exploit the rapid increase in India of low-cost smartphones. Handset prices have tumbled to between $50 and $100 (U.S.) as companies compete for the huge customer base among India's poor.

"As Androids become cheaper, more and more people use them," D'Silva said. "Even so, it was a totally different context to create an app for people in an area that doesn't always have connectivity, as opposed to creating an app for people in somewhere like Seattle."

Older generation mobiles are already widespread among Dandakaranya tribal people, who are familiar with having to walk miles to get a signal. Choudhary acknowledges that it will be some time before the Gonds in the area will be able to afford widespread ownership of even the cheaper smartphones, but says he aims to strike ahead of an inevitable trend.

"Ten years ago no one here had a mobile phone," he said. "Now phones are all over the place. In three to five years the smartphone will be all over the place too. Our work is to sort out a democratic platform for these people using phones and technology, so that within ten years the problems here will have been solved, and Dandakaranya can be a peaceful, democratic place.