As the South Asia producer for BBC TV and Radio during the 1990s and early 2000s, Shubhranshu Choudhary spent much of his time darting around the region covering wars and natural disasters, dropping into trouble spots—Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Kashmir, Afghanistan—interviewing local leaders, politicians, or NGO spokespersons, filing his story then moving on.
It was an exciting life, full of foreign travel, helicopters, and headline events, far removed from the rural coal-mining backwater in India's Chhattisgarh state (part of Madhya Pradesh state until 2000) where he grew up, attending the local tribal school, or his first job reporting for a Hindi-language newspaper in Chhattisgarh's capital, Raipur, and learning English by listening to BBC Radio at night. He was well respected, well connected, with a broad view of news and world events—an accomplished practitioner of what he would later come to regard as an "aristocratic" form of journalism.
Over the years, every now and then, he would get calls from people he knew back in his old neighborhood, urging him to come back to his roots and report on the issues behind the Maoist insurgency headquartered in the hills there, a conflict that had ravaged his region intermittently for decades.
"To tell you the truth, I kind of ignored them," he recalls. "At the BBC we had a world audience and were more interested in covering bigger international wars." Eventually, though, when the Maoists killed 76 Indian police officers in an ambush, the story became a headline event and Choudhary found himself leading a BBC TV crew into Chhattisgarh. By then what had been a simmering guerrilla war was well on the way to becoming what the Indian government would describe as the single biggest internal security threat facing the nation.
Listening to the Disenfranchised
For Choudhary, covering a war on his home turf was a transforming experience. This was no foreign conflict, but one that was unfolding in an area he knew well and understood. From having grown up in a small railroad town and attended the school there as a child, he found he had many useful contacts within the Maoist ranks. They were keen to talk. And what they told him led him to question the role journalists, journalism, and powerful media organizations played in presenting stories to the public and in deciding what was news—and what was not.
"I saw there were really two wars going on in Chhattisgarh," Choudhary recalled. One involved a small fraction of the rebels who were fanatically committed to communism. The other involved the vast majority of their followers, mainly poor, lower-caste tribal people, who had picked up rifles and joined the Maoists because they had run out of patience. "They could think of no other way to call attention to the grievances they had and the problems they were facing—things like poverty, lack of health care, poor sanitation, crime, corruption, unpaid wages, and the fact that nobody listens to them or seems to care," he said. "It wasn't communism they wanted but to have a voice, to be heard and taken seriously."
Their stories caused him to reflect on his own childhood years in Chhattisgarh. Although he was in school with the other children in the town, his parents were of a Brahman caste, his father had a good job with the railways, and Choudhary had naturally enjoyed the benefits of an upper-caste rearing. Although the children all played together in the streets after school, there were social, economic, and linguistic barriers between them that were as unyielding as brick walls.
Choudhary's parents had held high aspirations for him. They wanted him to become a professional man, a doctor or an engineer, and saw to it that he had every opportunity to do so. He, on the other hand, had no such ambition. It was the raw material of life and living, the stories of the streets, that fascinated him. He studied anthropology instead and drifted into journalism.
Intrigued by the conflict on his childhood doorstep, Choudhary left the BBC, returned to Chhattisgarh, and with the assistance of a Knight International Journalism Fellowship began to study the problem of how to give disenfranchised villagers of Chhattisgarh the voice they craved and were willing to fight for. It needed to be simple, low cost, and democratic—not run by outsiders with vested interests but by the locals themselves. He wanted it to reach even into the remotest corners of the state and deliver the news and raise issues in the locals' own Gondi language yet still reach the ears of the outside world.
A Collective Voice From Mobile Phones
Community radio would have been an ideal solution, but radio licenses are tightly controlled in India, and the nonofficial broadcasting of news, even the discussion of news and current events on air, is strictly forbidden. High illiteracy rates among the very same villagers who needed and wanted a voice in the media ruled out newspapers or magazines, and there is no Internet to speak of in rural Chhattisgarh. Only 0.7 percent of homes in Chhattisgarh have access to the Internet.
The one piece of modern telecommunications gear that has deeply penetrated most of Chhattisgarh, however, is the ubiquitous mobile phone. Many, if not most, villagers have them, and those who do not can always get access to one in any one of Chhattisgarh's bustling marketplaces. Choudhary began exploring the idea of using mobile phones as a media platform. And with technical expertise provided by Microsoft Research India he came up with CGNet Swara: a world-first cell-phone-based news and current affairs network.
In the four years since it went live, in February 2010, it has transformed the way news is shared among the rural poor in central India. More than 300,000 reports have been called in by the new citizen journalists of Chhattisgarh, and 4,700 fact-checked stories aired and shared, many of them translated into Hindi and English and posted on CGNet Swara's website, where they have been picked up by mainstream media in India and abroad, bringing the voices and views of the villagers in rural Chhattisgarh to the outside world for the first time and providing a peaceful vehicle for change.
Model Citizen Journalists
Its success has spawned similar cell-phone-based news services in other far-off regions around the world, from Somalia to Borneo, and earned 45-year-old Choudhary the 2014 Google Digital Activism Award—beating out NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden for the distinction. "If we want to live in a peaceful society, it is not enough for our elections to be democratic," he says. "We need for the media to be democratic as well, so that everybody, all of us, has a say in deciding what issues are going to be discussed, not just a few wealthy media proprietors and their chosen editors."
Chhattisgarh is a heavily forested state in central India that forms a part of Gondwana, India's rural heartland. (The "CG" in CGNet Swara stands for "Central Gondwana"; swara means "voice" in Sanskrit.) As when describing the American Midwest or Appalachia, there are no formal boundaries to Gondwana. The name derives from the Gond people, a widespread ethnic minority whose language is spoken by an estimated eight million people in the region's crowded streets and marketplaces and distant mountain villages—but by very few journalists in any of India's mainstream publications.
None of India's influential newspapers or magazines are published in Gondi, nor does All India Radio—that nation's sole radio broadcaster—provide any broadcasts in the language. Despite their numbers, poverty, remoteness, high illiteracy rates, and the general "otherness" of the Gondi speakers didn't make them an attractive market. Indeed a recent study showed that mainstream media outlets across India devote as little as 2 percent of their coverage to India's poor tribal minorities.
Serendipity: Choudhary Meets Thies
When Choudhary seized on the idea of a grassroots mobile-phone-based news service, using playback voicemail to "broadcast" the stories, he faced some technical stumbling blocks that he was unequipped to solve. Serendipitously, Choudhary happened to meet Bill Thies at a mobile technology conference in 2008 in Bangalore. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) doctoral student in computer science, Thies had recently taken a job as a researcher with the Technologies for Emerging Markets Group with Microsoft Research India.
Thies had been working on an MIT-sponsored project called Audio Wiki, a user-generated platform for publishing audio content to a wider audience, which proved to be an ideal starting point for building a mobile-phone-based news network. The two men hit it off. And from their collaboration CGNet Swara was born.
"It was no great technical breakthrough," says Thies. "All we had to do was modify a voice mail message system so that messages could be edited and then listened to by anyone who called in and pushed number two on the menu. It was more of an engineering problem. What we have accomplished, though, will make it easier to set up similar systems elsewhere."
Already a community-based news service modeled on CGNet Swara is being planned in Somalia, while in Indonesia a text-based service is up and running and proving popular in Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. "It is the sort of thing I think we are going to be seeing a great deal more of in the future," says Elisa Tinsley of the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Journalists, who attended CGNet Swara's inaugural workshop in 2010 in the remote village of Jashpur, where locals were introduced to the service, shown how it would work, and given instruction on filing stories.
"The big challenge is going to be how to sustain it in the long term," she says. At present CGNet Swara is a free service, the cost of running it underwritten by grants from the UN Democracy Fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
It is a sultry morning early in May, with the heat and humidity in Chhattisgarh ratcheting up ahead of the approaching monsoon. From a town called Dharamjaigarh, a man who identifies himself as DS Maliya phones in to report that two herds of elephants have been terrorizing villagers there who are afraid to go to sleep at night, but government officials refuse to do anything about it; another caller from a remote village in Madhya Pradesh reports that laborers who have been working on a dam project are being paid only 98 rupees a day instead of the government-mandated minimum wage of 146 rupees, and urges the broader community to put pressure on the company to pay up.
Meanwhile, that same morning, a woman from Dharampur calls in with the happier news that following an earlier broadcast on CGNet Swara, local pickers of tendu leaves—an ingredient in Indian cigarettes—are at last receiving their wages after having gone unpaid for months.
She reports that a payroll officer hastened to the village before dawn that morning, waking people up and hurriedly making the long-overdue payments ahead of a visit from a high-ranking government official who was expected to arrive later that afternoon and look into the report himself.
These calls, and others like them—about 500 per day—come in to the CGNet Swara headquarters, in Bhopal, where they are reviewed and filtered by a team of moderators, who check the reports for accuracy, relevance, and fairness, editing them for length and clarity as needed.
Spreading the News
Ideally, says Choudhary, and in the future, the moderators will be elected from the community to keep the news service true to its democratic roots. But for now the network's staff of four moderators are trained journalists who happen to speak and understand Gondi—among them a lawyer who has some journalism training. "We have to go out of our way to be scrupulously accurate and impartial," says Choudhary. "One mistake and we could be accused of spreading propaganda. Remember, there is a war going on here."
Approved reports—such as this morning's herd of rogue elephants, the plight of the underpaid dam workers, and the victory enjoyed by the tendu leaf pickers from Dharampur—are published and made available for playback by anyone who dials in and presses two on the menu. A message is sent out via Google's SMS messaging service to notify users that a new story has been posted. Along with reports made by Chhattisgarh's citizen journalists, relevant news items from the major newspapers are translated into Gondi and added to the list.
Selections of stories are posted as audio tracks on the CGNet Swara website, together with written translations in Hindi and English to make them accessible to the mainstream media in India and abroad. Stories are also shared on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, in addition to being published on CGNet Swara's blog.
Radio broadcasts in Gondi and other tribal languages would still be the gold standard, says Choudhary, who is exploring ways of getting around the Indian government ban on independent radio news by setting up shortwave broadcasts from Europe and making available clockwork radios—which work by being spring-wound, like old-fashioned alarm clocks—to villages in isolated areas that do not yet have electricity.
A Growing Sense of Community
In the four years since CGNet Swara went live, the service has chalked up a number of victories, large and small, for the Gondi-speaking villagers who had been ignored until now—from unpaid wages to broken wells to publicizing a police attack on three tribal villages that left two dead, homes burned, and a woman raped. That particular story was picked up by the mainstream media, and as a result the UN Human Rights Council got involved and issued a formal report, and the Indian Supreme Court ordered an investigation.
Perhaps the most potentially lifesaving result of CGNet Swara's stories is the increasing awareness of malaria in Chhattisgarh. So ignored was the province by the mainstream press and government health statisticians that the official figure for malaria deaths in Chhattisgarh for 2007 was zero—this in a steamy tropical part of India with a population of 25 million. "It was absurd," recalls Choudhary. "Every single village loses many people to malaria every year, thousands of deaths in all." Since the citizen journalists of Chhattisgarh started reporting on malaria and other health care problems in the region, official figures for malaria deaths in Chhattisgarh have soared—giving rise to a joke that the new news service was the biggest cause of malaria in central India.
It isn't just news and current events that CGNet Swara is disseminating: The calls coming in are full of stories, poems, songs, recipes, and herbal remedies as well, creating a growing sense of community. They find they have much to talk about. Choudhary recalls wondering how well his grand idea was going to work in real life at the first workshop to teach Chhattisgarh's would-be citizen journalists how to participate in their new community-based news service. He needn't have. On the long drive to the nearest airport and their flight home, Thies tried dialing the new CGNet Swara number, curious to see if it was working and if anyone had begun using it yet.
"He listened for a moment, and then his face lit up," Choudhary recalls. "He passed me the phone and said, 'You've got to hear this.' It was incredible. Some young guy had filed a story about a protest rally against the opening of a new mine. He introduced the story with the sounds of the protesters yelling, then faded out like he was in a studio and went straight into his reportage. He couldn't have done it better if he had been with the BBC.
"I wondered why I ever doubted," Choudhary mused. "You take a people with strong oral traditions like the villagers in Chhattisgarh, and what is the one thing they are going to do very, very well? Tell a story. Now they can tell them to the world."