When a team of rural women journalists based in the heartland of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar want to take their news to the world, what do they do? They turn to the world wide web – and do it in Hindi and Bundeli.
The publication – Khabar Lahariya – is unique even among a media-crazy nation like India. It began in 2002 in the Bundelkhand district of UP as a project of Nirantar, a Delhi based gender rights group, to train rural women in producing a newspaper that focused on local issues and news. From one Bundeli edition in Chitrakoot in 2002 it has now turned to five languages – Bajjika, Awadhi, Hindustani and Bhojpuri published from Banda, Sitamarhi, Mahoba, Lucknow, Faizabad, Ambedkar Nagar and Varanasi.
Speaking to Firstpost, Meera Devi, editor of Khabar Lahariya, said, “When we have looked at major newspapers, we realised it was mostly men from the upper caste who couldn’t care less about the rural readership or their issues. Reaching out through the internet is to counter their control over news.”
Meera Devi does not shy away from mentioning that Khabar Lahariya has often been at the receiving end of politician’s ire. She said, “A Dalit village in Karpai in Banda district had dirty water logging all throughout the year. When we exposed the deplorable living condition and the apathy of the local BJP leader who is also from the village, he got furious. There were several attempts made to stop the newspaper from releasing the information.”
However, this was not the first time. Being from the badlands of UP and Bihar as Dalit women is not easy, especially given that they encounter oppressive situations all the time.
But why a web edition when a large section of the people in the village might not have access to a computer and an internet connection? “The journalists and the editors of the newspaper felt that the world must know what they are publishing. They wanted to reach out to the world,” Shalini Joshi, co-director, Nirantar Trust told Firstpost.
The website – which is easily navigable – bears resemblance to the printed newspaper, and has different sections like district news, women’s issues and an editorial. It will curate and republish the best articles from across all the editions, the women journalists said.
Khabar Lahariya does not want to treat the internet as an appendage to the newspaper. In fact, according to them, being on social media is very much a part of their existence now.
Their daily routine as journalists involve scouring the websites of foreign and national newspapers, trying to understand how to write about national issues and also reading up on subjects that they may not be familiar with. This with just two computers, that they have been able to procure in these 11 years of existence. Meera Devi said, “We are undergoing training in Delhi so that we can learn to manage the website on our own. The website will be completely operated by the women in KL and not by a remote-controlled team in Delhi or Mumbai.”
According to Shalini Joshi, the website was designed keeping in mind the readership that was largely neo-literate or self-literate. Which is why the font size – just like the printed newspaper – has been kept higher than usual to facilitate easy reading.
The newspaper, which has a readership of about 80,000 per week combining all its editions is also unique in the way readers access the newspaper. It is not unusual to find several villagers huddled around a single newspaper, sharing news and opinion – forming a community reading habit. Something, that KL team feels might work for the web edition as well.
The web edition could also bring in the much-needed funds for the newspaper. The women journalists after much debate among themselves have partially agreed to carry local advertisements – though they would like to avoid any casteist, sexist advertisements having been survivors of caste and gender oppression themselves. The older editions of the newspaper till now has been receiving funds from United Nations Democracy and Equity Fund and the Dorabji Tata Trust. The newer editions however, are run from the prize money – KL having received several awards including the prestigious UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize in 2009 and the Chameli Devi Jain Award in 2004.
Meera Devi and other journalists are very aware that they are not alone in the online space – that a web newspaper called Gaon Connection has already launched their own rural newspaper. “But,” Meera said, “we belong to the rural heartland and are not writing from the city. When we take the news back to the people who really make it happen, we know we are doing something different.”
As they make the tireless journey every time from running across the countryside, chasing politicians, running to Allahabad(where the edition is printed) every week from Chitrakoot and distributing it back to the villages – this belief might just give them a little hope. And a lot more of hope from several others as KL becomes more and more active on Facebook and Twitter.