Bringing News to India's Poorest People

The tribal areas of India are as far from our media culture as it is possible to be in today's world. But a project called CGNet Swara, serving communities in the state of Chhattisgarh and led by a forty-year-old journalist named Shubhranshu Choudhary, is a fascinating glimpse of how mobile technology can provide news and information to people unlike anything they have ever had before.

Choudhary, an experienced television producer with a background in newspapers, is completing a year as a Knight International Journalism Fellow. It's a program of the International Center for Journalists based in Washington; I met him through the program. The essence of his project is this: The Internet, cable television and newspapers reach only a fraction of the 80 million people in the rural tribal region of central India, but about half the population now has access to mobile phones, which cost the equivalent of only $15 or $20. These people, citizen journalists, supported by a small group of professional editors, can collect and deliver news through what amounts to a portal reachable by a phone number. It is, in effect, a voice version of news websites with a menu of stories available for listening.

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.

The International Center for Journalists (of which I am a board member) lists 17 international fellows in the competitive Knight program. Each fellow has embarked on a project with an objective--the preparation and dissemination of news--comparable to Choudhary's. The fellows are paid a stipend (Choudhary says he has received $3,000 a month, plus expenses). For CGNet Swara to continue, Choudhary will need to find philanthropic funding, and eventually a sustainable business model. What is most exciting about his effort is the innovative use of mobile technology. "The real power of the mobile phone," wrote Sam duPont in a comment for NDN, a Washington think tank, "is in the fact that people around the world are adopting them of their own accord. . . . Mobile phones have leapfrogged not just land-line phones, but television, radio and nearly every other information and communications service and brings information into citizens' hands directly."

For those of us immersed in this most sophisticated of media environments, it comes as an encouraging surprise to learn that the ubiquitous cell phone could bring news with incalculable benefit to people who, as Choudhhary observes, have barely left the fifteenth century in so many other ways.