Women Journalists Break The Silence of Oppression By The High and Mighty

Government officials had claimed that wages had been paid to those working on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) job sites in Rajnandgaon district of Chhattisgarh. The villagers themselves, however, maintained that they had been paid only half the money due to them. It was this issue that Bhan Sahu, 36, chose to highlight in one of her reports as a citizen journalist.

In her report, she pointed out that the concerned officials could not provide details of the exact amount of wages dispensed or how much money had been spent on materials for the work being done on these job sites. She also highlighted the fact that people were migrating out of the region in search of work because they did not have regular work, a trend symbolised by Atra village where almost 40 per cent of residents had been forced to leave their homes in search of a sustainable livelihood.

Sahu’s report caught the attention of mainstream national newspapers like ‘The Hindu’, and before long more than 1,000 people who had been working on the MNREGA work sites here were paid dues that were hanging fire for months.

That’s not the only story Sahu has done from this poverty-stricken region in one of India’s poorest states. She had also reported on the problems faced by the children of the area around Atra vilage. Many from the adjoining Sitafasa village could only reach the school in Atra by crossing a narrow rivulet that lay between the two villages. And during the rains, these 70 children of Sitafasa faced a lot of dangers while making it to school, because the rivulet was inevitably flooded. While no newspaper or television channel had bothered to report on this, Sahu found it worthy of attention. After her report came out, the state government finally sanctioned funds to build a bridge over the rivulet – a demand that the local people had been making for a decade.

Then there was another story Sahu did from Rajnandgaon. It highlighted how women there had got together to remove a liquor shop from the area. Easy access to liquor had seen household budgets shrink and, of course, rising alcoholism among the men in the community. Again, this was an issue that did not attract any media attention, but for Sahu – having witnessed the distress of the local women at first hand – it was a concern that needed public attention.

So who is Sahu? She is from the OBC (other backward caste) community, a widow and mother of two. And here’s how she explains her own evolution from an ordinary woman to an activist-journalist: “I have studied only up to Class Eight and couldn’t continue my studies because of poverty and lack of facilities in my village. Hunger, unemployment and deprivation marked our lives. I then joined a local organisation, the Ekta Parisad, as an activist working for the cause of tribals and the poor.”

In the course of her work, Sahu got to understand the ground realities of the local people and also realised that the mainstream media did nothing to focus on issues that really mattered. “I felt helpless to do anything about this, because media reporting for me seemed a difficult job, which needed high educational qualifications and communication skills,” she says.

Fortunately, that was when CGNet Swara, a new audio-based citizen journalism service, and India Unheard, a community news service launched by Video Volunteers, entered the picture. They trained her to be a citizen journalist and provided her with a platform to do such work. Today, her regular reports from the grassroots are giving a voice to poor tribals and oppressed women.

After the death of her husband about five years ago, she found herself without the support of even her husband’s family. That was when she decided to dedicate her life for the people. Two years ago, she began her reporting career. At that point, she was the only woman doing such work in these parts.

Things have changed now. Today, there are at least 15 women and girls from tribal communities with little education, reporting from the region.

Like Sahu, Tandi too has raised the issue of corruption on the MNREGA job sites through interviews with farmers on the CGNet Swara. In fact, the Chief Minister’s Office responded to her story by calling her directly to say that they are looking into the allegations of corruption that she had reported.

Says Tandi, “My mother and I have faced a lot of misery and challenges. The media ignores people like us. Take an issue like the right to food. It should be a priority for the media, but it is hardly picked up. That’s why when I heard about CGNet and India Unheard I decided to report for them. It was a golden opportunity for me to highlight the issues of the people.”

Sahu and Tandi, as citizen journalists, are pioneers in a state where men have completely dominated journalism. They may not have education and may come from very poor, rural backgrounds, but they have so much to share from their experiences of working with people. By picking up their mobile phones and talking into it, by using their digital camera to record the people they meet in their day-to-day work, they are breaking the silence and visibilising the unseen.

Observes Subhranshu Chowdhury, senior journalist and founder of CGNet Swara, “The majority of journalists in places like Chhattisgarh earn their main income from taking a cut from advertisement revenue and not from their salaries. The majority, in fact, does not get a salary. Given this, they are not in a position to report on the corruption done by the high and mighty, because it is these same people who are the main generators of advertisement revenue.” He adds, “Concerned citizens like Bhan and Rajim are actually breaking that vicious cycle when they report what they see while working with the people.”

According to a 2005 survey by the media organisation, Charkha, only an abysmal two per cent of media space went to cover issues related to people – like land, forest, water, and so on. It is this trend that Bhan and Rajim are helping to change. Many mainstream journalists are raising the concerns that were first highlighted by them.

In the process they are changing the very nature of Indian journalism. Says Alok Putul, Editor, Raviwar.com, “Given that in a state like Chhattisgarh there are very few women journalists in the field, this initiative by Bhan and Rajim will add a new chapter in annals of the media, and inspire other women to take up journalism as a full-time profession. We, as part of the journalist fraternity, need to encourage and support them.”