By Pooja Moitra:Â
Mobile phones, nowadays, have become a revolutionary tool, bringing about a change in the lifestyle of people, be it rich or poor, urban or rural. According to the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI, 2012), a major part of the teledensity depends upon the wireless subscribers using mobile phones for communication. Among the total 79.28 percent teledensity of India, 76.68 percent is due to the mobile sector which means that less than 3 percent people use landline for their communication purpose. This data also indicates that the mobile phones have penetrated the lives of the population and thus these devices give a lot of scope for becoming the next generation revolutionary tool. The TRAI data also reveals that the mobile phone subscribers in rural India are increasing at the rate of 1.78 percent per month as compared to 0.48 percent of subscription growth in urban sectors.
At this point, a good question, worthy of asking is how mobile phones are changing the face of rural India. How do mobile phones promote transparency, accountability, enable people to question their own development that too, at the touch of a button? Conventionally, the rural people have to wait for the journalists to take note of their side of story and then publish the reporter’s version, the editor reserving the rights to re-edit the piece several times over — and what happens is that the crux of the issue, as intended, is lost. But now, mobile phones have given them the opportunity to express themselves in their own words, which is a rarity for them. In turn making mobile phones the new media in town. Bypassing radio itself, mobile phones have become the new companions for the rural population.
Organisations like CGNet Swara and Gram Vaani have been working relentlessly in this field to ensure that everyone with a mobile phone gets a choice to voice themselves. The USP of these organizations is the use of Interactive Voice Response Systems (IVRS) which involves human-computer interaction over phone or in simple terms – a computer interacts with the human beings by playing a series of pre-recorded messages, guiding people to leave their recordings and then to listen to the recordings made by others/themselves. The IVRS for both organisations works on a call back model, in which people call a toll free number which gets disconnected immediately and then they get a call back, which plays a pre recorded message to ask them if they want to place a report or if they want to listen to the reports of local interests; the reports are actively moderated by trained locals.
Driven by the journalistic ideology of Shubhranshu Choudhary (who gave up working in the mainstream media for setting up a voice based platform to ensure that the rural people are heard), CGNet Swara, has been actively working in the central Gondwana region (comprising of Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and Andhra Pradesh) since the past four years. According to its website, it is “a voice based portal freely accessible via mobile phones that allows anyone to report and listen to stories of local interest. Reported stories are moderated by journalists and become available for payback online as well as over the phone”. The highlight of CGNet Swara is the ability to ensure that the voices of the tribal communities of that region are heard and acted upon by people sitting at the top rung. CGNet Swara made people their own agents of change by collaborating with the Microsoft Research team, who built the IVRS for them. Now, if there’s a Maoist activity in the region, people have their platform to report their side of the story in their own words and that too without spending a single penny. A major breakthrough achieved here is that the use of voice based platform has helped in overcoming the barriers posed by illiteracy. The person just needs to know how to make a call and the world is at their disposal.
Working on similar lines, Gram Vaani is a social technology company co-founded by Dr. Aaditeshwar Seth in the year 2009, with an ideology to use innovative technologies as the driver of change for the rural and marginalized communities. Gram Vaani has built IVRS platform known as Mobile Vaani, a social media for the bottom of the pyramid, which according to them works as “the facebook, twitter, and YouTube for rural India”. Working on the same principles of IVR, it tries to bring the principles of community radio over phone. Apart from the general use of IVR, it uses interesting formats that they call as “campaigns” to garner in-depth discussion on a prominent issue, the recent ones being on child marriage and violence against women, thereby eliciting interesting pieces of content from the community in the form of song, poetry, real life stories and drama scripted by the community itself. Gram Vaani’s Mobile Vaani technology has its own pilots in Jharkhand and Bihar along with deployments across 15 community radio stations in the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra, enabling them to reach out to more people than the ones covered in their prescribed 12 Km radius. This technology has also been deployed for the non-profit organizations such as Seven Sisters Project, working to protect the rights of the people living in North-East India, and many more such organizations in India and abroad.
This marks the beginning of a new dawn in the sphere of Indian community media, where, enabled by mobile phones, people are not only able to voice themselves but also are able to gain a full awareness of the situation of others living a life, like their own. By giving the power to the people to voice themselves using their own mobile phones, CGNet Swara and Gram Vaani have contributed a great deal in enshrining the ideals of democracy — power to the people, in letter and spirit. It is true that this is not a panacea, but any sort of beginning is better than no beginning at all.