India's tribal people represent an indigenous collection of hundreds of languages and ethnic backgrounds. Throughout the country, they are about seven percent of the population. For all the economic and social progress made by Indians in recent years, the tribes remain at the bottom of the development curve. The vast forest region where they are concentrated is a setting for intense conflict, largely the result of Maoist movements that now represent a significant political force in the area and a major security threat. Choudhary believes that a principal cause of the unrest is that the tribal people remain largely outside the mainstream of India's rapidly developing media. With a substantial rate of illiteracy and virtually nothing available in their own languages, they have no means of communication aside from the age-old world-of-mouth traditions.
The majority of their households still lack electricity. The Internet reaches less than one percent of the indigenous people, Choudhary says. Terrestrial television and radio continue to be overwhelmingly dominated by state-controlled services. (India does have forty news channels, but they are all on cable or satellite television, which reaches mainly urban residents who have arrived at international standards of technology and middle-class identity). So among those people who can only speak a regional dialect and who are unable to participate in the country's broader political debates, the local Maoist influence is particularly strong.
Choudhary grew up in Chhattisgarh, where his father, a Hindu, worked for the railway as a guard. After school, college, a stint at a newspaper, and a successful run with the BBC around India, Choudhary became intrigued with the possibility of developing a news-gathering operation for his home state. While continuing to freelance for the BBC and Britain's Channel 4, Choudhary embarked via the Internet to find a system that might work in the remote hinterlands. He found a group at MIT working on the development of voice XML technology, which he describes as a "wiki for non-English speakers with access to a mobile phone." In a Yahoo discussion group and in conversations on Skype, the principles for the project were shaped and refined. Choudhhary's goal was a point of entry as straightforward as a phone number that would offer the caller a menu of spoken stories ("hit 1") as well as the capacity to submit stories ("hit 2") that would be reviewed by an editor and made ready for delivery to other callers. There is also a companion website at CGNet Swara, where I found an extensive catalog of stories that can be played.
It has now been about fifty years since the advent of transistor and battery-powered radios made an enormous impact on these rural areas. But the news on the radio stations is still very tightly managed by the state (there are no independent or private news stations). And, of course, the information only goes one way. That is what makes the mobile project so promising. For the first time, news can be made available from across the region in several languages, provided by reporters in towns and villages in a way that substantial parts of the community can engage.