IndiaUnheard: Giving voice to the voiceless grassroots

Digital technology and social media are increasingly being used as vehicles for raising awareness about issues that have been neglected or under reported by traditional media outlets. For instance, Democracy Now, a community public service news, analysis and opinion based outlet in the US and Canada, broadcasts alternative non-mainstream views over the internet, radio and TV and is funded entirely through contributions from listeners, viewers and foundations. Elsewhere, Video Volunteers (VVs) is encouraging the world’s poorest citizens to participate in the community media movement to right injustices.

VVs has offices in the US and India and works with various NGOs and enterprises in a number of countries in an attempt to provide poor and often rural communities with media technology to advance justice and equality. By providing disadvantaged communities with journalistic and technology skills through its ‘community video unit’ project, it has helped to set up various media production companies that are financially self-sustaining and locally owned and controlled. In doing so, it actively builds people’s capacity to articulate and share perspectives on issues that are relevant to them.

IndiaUnheard is VVs latest venture. As a community news service, IndiaUnheard comprises a network of individual correspondents who are trained to report on concerns affecting their own communities, which would otherwise be left untold. Started in May, the long-term goal is to feed content to national and international outlets, such as mainstream television channels and social networking sites.

Internet and mobile phone based technology is key to IndiaUnheard, and the initiative is based on the premise that communities require a media outlet that can both educate and provide a platform for unheard voices, particularly the most neglected parts of society — the ‘lower’ castes, women and religious and sexual minorities.

Local community members were initially trained to use readily accessible and inexpensive cameras. They were trained to be ‘video journalists’ capable of conceptualising, identifying and shooting a story by themselves. The journalists were also familiarised with new media, including SMS updates, Twitter and Facebook. There are now 31 roving reporters or community correspondents (CCs) across 24 Indian states.

The correspondents are based in places such as Karauli in Rajasthan, the Dang tribal district of Gujarat, Jharkhand, Manipur, Himachal Pradesh and Chennai. Each correspondent has personally experienced hardship and their communities have faced long standing concerns over corruption and discrimination.

Their videos are sent to VVs office in Goa to be edited and uploaded by media specialists. They are then posted on the IndiaUnheard website, which acts as a one-stop online portal for accessing the stories produced. The videos are also distributed through social media sites so that viewers can connect with individual correspondents and receive updates posted by the correspondents (using their mobile phones) from their often distant and remote locations.

Target policy makers

Although IndiaUnheard wants information to reach national and international audiences in order to raise awareness, it also aims to make policy makers better informed so they can better tackle issues, including rural corruption and gender inequality. The project is not just about lobbying for resources or government action, however, but is also viewed as a tool for challenging taken for granted practices or unspoken issues, such as child marriage and domestic violence. When CCs take it on themselves to report and investigate these issues within their communities, the unspoken finally becomes articulated and the potential for changed occurs.

IndiaUnheard is already having an impact. For example, one of the CCs from Manipur made a video about a lack of life saving medical facilities in a local village. A Manipuri IndiaUnheard viewer living in Bangalore saw the film and wanted to help. Video Volunteers connected him with the Manipuri CC, who was put in touch with a local NGO. Together, they organised the distribution of medicines in the local area to over 500 people.

In order to fully appreciate the potential of IndiaUnheard, one need look no further than VVs community video units. Unlike IndiaUnheard, a nationwide project based on the endeavours of many highly committed individual reporters, the community video units are local production companies based within and run by poor communities. After having watched a video, slum dwellers in Mumbai became aware of their rights and took action that resulted in the quick clearance of the garbage and clogged drains by the authorities.
In another case, the government of Gujarat re-opened a water treatment plant and brought clean water to 3,000 people after the producers exposed a dangerously high level of flourosis.

Genuine ‘press (or media) freedom’ goes beyond a handful of rich corporations being able to disseminate information, which is often sourced from similar news agencies and based on mainstream agendas that focus on narrow concerns. To date, in India, genuine freedom of expression resulting in the ability to influence policy makers has been limited to certain privileged sections of society. By mobilising previously neglected grassroots level opinion through effective citizen journalism, IndiaUnheard is in the process of changing this.

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