Even as this region hits the headlines for the wrong reasons, in particular the running battle with Maoists, an innovative mobile phone-based media venture is giving a voice to the native and badly exploited Gond tribals and helping them reach out to the rest of India.

CGnet Swara, the mobile phone-based information network, has been launched by Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC producer and currently Knight International Fellow working in what is called the 'Maoist belt' bordering Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

“The innovative medium makes it possible for anyone to file an audio report or to listen to news reports filed by their fellow citizen journalists,” Choudhary told IANS. The service is soon to be made toll free and can be accessed from anywhere.

“All that they need to do is to dial 080-66932500 from their mobile phone and punch one to record the news report or punch two to listen to the news stories filed earlier,” says Choudhary. This applies to all phones, including landlines.

The audio reports, filed in Gondi, Kuruk, Hindi and Chhattisgarhi languages, get stored on a server located in Bangalore. A team of editors fluent in these languages edit the reports. The edited reports are posted back on the same server for accessing on the mobile phone.

The audio reports are also published on the CGnet.in website with accompanying translation for wider reach.

The medium is already generating great interest. Over 250 audio reports have been filed by citizen journalists since its launch in February this year. Of these, Choudhary's team has edited and posted 110 reports that have news value. Currently, 60 percent of the reports are in Hindi, but the number of audio reports in Gondi, Kuruk and Chhattisgarhi languages has started going up.

There is also a spike in the number of users accessing the reports on their mobiles. The system has started logging in as many as 50 calls a day, says Choudhary. What impresses Choudhary most is the fact that CGnet Swara has started growing on its own.

“We have made no efforts to promote it so far. It is spreading by word of mouth,” says Choudhary.

Choudhary is also surprised at the “spontaneity” of the reports. “I was planning to hold several training sessions. But people have found a way to use the medium on their own.”

Choudhary believes the innovative medium has the potential to become a bridge between the isolated Gond tribals and mainstream India. “At one level, the tribals can use the platform to communicate with each other in Gondi. At another, their reports can be translated in Hindi and accessed by the rest of the world.”

With a population of over four million, Gonds are the largest tribal group in central India and have unique customs and traditions. They have been caught in the crossfire between Maoists and state forces and have been the hapless victims of violence and exploitation by both sides.

Another major spinoff can be the preservation of Gondi language and the knowledge that has been transferred over centuries by Gonds. “Gondi is very high on Unesco's endangered list. It has no written tradition and there is a real danger of centuries of knowledge passed by Gonds orally getting lost,” says Choudhary.

Choudhary plans to take CGnet Swara beyond Chhattisgarh. Currently, “CG” in CGnet stands for Chhattisgarh. Choudhary wants to enlarge its scope to central Gondwana so that all tribals living in central India irrespective of their states can make use of it.

The project has been developed with the help of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Microsoft Research India.