Braving odds to focus on social problems

NGO Video Volunteers concentrates on basic issues

Braving odds to focus on social problems
They try to expose under-reported stories from their communities

Far away from loud political debates in studios and air-conditioned newsrooms, 20-year-old Annapurna Kumari has become part of a revolution. Armed with a 12-mega-pixel handheld video camera, not much bigger than a cell phone, she is reporting right from the spot where drinking water is an issue. Hardly accessible by most vehicles, her job is to hunt for stories like any other reporter. Part of an alternative media model, acclaimed worldwide, Annapurna is a "Community Correspondent".

At a time when social media is changing the face of conventional news presentation, Annapurna and her fellow community correspondents are adding a whole new dimension to the idea of “citizen journalism”. They report from areas that have become what many think as the dark underbelly of development. Their job is to highlight issues that have dogged these areas for decades.

Annapurna comes from a village around 70 km from Purulia, the only place resembling an oasis in the parched district, caught between mercilessness of geography and lack of political vision. Despite coming from a family that works hard to rustle up two square meals a day, Annapurna is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Geography in a college in Jharkhand’s Bokaro, a 25-km bicycle ride away. Although a bus ride would be convenient, the nearest bus-stand also being 25 km away from home, she prefers to ride all the way and back.

When life had seemed almost unbearable, Annapurna came across a team from Video Volunteers, scouting the area for interested young men and women. A sit-down and weeks of training later, Annapurna now wields the handheld video camera like a pro and shot her first “story” on lack of proper drinking water. While this story earned her Rs 2,500 as is the rate paid by Video Volunteers to community correspondents, she is already planning to shoot yet another piece on bad roads and poor connectivity.

Debasish Aich, state coordinator of Video Volunteers, pointed out that the NGO with presence in eight states strives to form opinion locally and intensify focus on issues, following through periodically. “Most journalists come from urban areas or pursue urban agenda. Unless they come across what they consider a major event media organisations hardly have the time to cover things at grassroots level. Our job is to bring to light basic issues that plague these forgotten areas,” he said.

Aich pointed out that the NGO equips people with video journalism skills, which “enable entire communities to expose under-reported stories from their communities”. Content produced by them is broadcast in mainstream media and streamed regularly online. “Because of our training, hundreds of people from different walks of life have transformed themselves into journalists and activists,” he said.

Launched by acclaimed documentary film maker Stalin K Padma around six years back, Video Volunteers is one of the biggest community media organisations in the world, claims Wikipedia.

The organisation recruited 14 “correspondents” from 18 districts of Bengal, since coming to the state in June. “We plan to recruit a few more. With a presence in states like Maharashtra, Goa and Jammu & Kashmir, our network is getting wider,” Aich said.

From the drought-affected plains of the Western Bengal to the verdant tea gardens up north, Video Volunteers has managed to set up a wide network  and correspondents are providing a steady source of reportages.

Take Sushanti Indwar for example. At 27, the woman from Oraon tribe is one of the eldest community correspondents. Hailing from Nagrakata near Jalpaiguri in north Bengal, in the heart of tea country, she comes from a family of tea pickers. Ever since coming on board her focus has been to highlight the poor pay of tea garden workers.

With Sushanti’s mother working as a tea picker and father a goatherd, her first story was on issues related to poor living conditions of people like her. “The biggest crisis at tea gardens is poor pay. Living quarters are in deplorable condition and government aid do not reach us. The condition is such that even children below 14 are employed to clean weeds around tea plants,” said the 2007 Class X pass-out, who could not continue her studies further. Refusing to get married, Sushanti joined Video Volunteers and has been focusing on issues in immediate neighbourhood and adjacent tea gardens.

Sariya Bano also pushed back her family’s plans to get her married away and took up the video camera. Daughter of a daily wage labourer, she tried her luck with School Service Commission after completing Master’s in Bengali but failure to cough up the customary bribe kept her from becoming a school teacher.

Coming from Kaliachawk in Malda, close to the Indo-Bangladesh border, hers has been the most difficult assignment of all. With steady inflow of fake Indian currency notes being the biggest issue, along with human trafficking, Sariya’s first story was on how these issues affect the local population. Although she also did a story on lack of ICDS facilities and poor road conditions, the district administration was reticent in talking to her. “For the story on ICDS and bad roads, I managed to talk to the BDO but when I tried talking to the police superintendent about fake currency and trafficking, I was stonewalled,” she said.

The story of Bikash Burman from Khagrabari in Cooch Behar is somewhat similar. Although he does not face pressure to get married like the girls, the 21-year-old son of a mason, pursuing a Master’s degree in Sanskrit, finds his academic qualification inadequate in a digitised world. After he failed to get a school teacher’s job given to his inability to grease the right palms, he took to Video Volunteers around five months back.

Elaborating on the process of stories going on air, Aich said, “After collecting the videos from correspondents, we put these on social media. We also have tie-ups with leading media organisations from around the globe. We currently have a 30-minute weekly spot on Doordarshan.” He added that other partners include CNN-IBN, Headlines Today, Magnum Foundation, Reuters and Bloomberg.

With the process of maintaining a brigade of correspondents and equipping them with necessary tools being an expensive proposition, the NGO receives funds from agencies such as UNDP and DFID, besides Bloomberg.  
“This is news by those who live it,” he added.

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