Gaon Ki Awaaz: Grassroots media finds a voice
Rampur-Mathura (Uttar Pradesh), Dec 13 - It is not yet 5 p. m. but the light has started fading in Rampur-Mathura, a village of barely 5,000 people, in Sitapur district. A group of village elders settle down comfortably in wooden chairs around a small fire lit under a tree.
It is here that they gather every evening to discuss the day's events before retiring for the night. Until now, the village's busybodies used to keep them informed. But now they have a new source of information -- Gaon Ki Awaaz (The Village Voice), a pathbreaking audio bulletin broadcast on their mobile phones that comes for free.
"The wait begins at least 10 minutes before 5 p. m.," says Satyendra Pratap, the village chief and a key link in the rural broadcast.
"Most villagers now know the number from where the call comes, and pick up the phone on the first ring. They listen intently to the audio bulletin, and then break into an animated discussion of what they have heard," he adds.
The path-breaking mobile bulletin broadcast twice a day - at 12 noon and 5 p. m. - is the brainchild of the International Media Institute of India (IMII), a journalism institute which was set up early this year in Noida with the help of the Washington-based International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and the New Delhi-based Society for Policy Studies (SPS).
Dave Bloss, a Knight International Fellow who works as an academic consultant to IMII, is delighted by the buzz. "This is the first time that the mobile phone is being used as a broadcast tool for communities living in rural areas and the response has been heartening," he says.
Sunil Saxena, dean of IMII, attributes the popularity of the mobile broadcasts to the fact that they are generated by the villagers and focus on what is happening in the village. "Most importantly, they are in their language," he points out.
Thakur Virendra Pratap Singh, one of the recipients of the news bulletins, concurs. "What's most exciting about Gaon Ki Awaaz is that it is in Avadhi and of immediate relevance to us," Singh told IANS.
He gives the example of two bulletins. One informed the farmers of 18 tonnes of urea being allotted to the village. Another bulletin gave the time and details of a religious discourse and yagna being organised in the village by a Haridwar mutt.
The audio bulletins are a great leap over text-based SMS news alerts, says Saxena. "One, they overcome the illiteracy barrier. And two, they go out as recorded voice calls that can be accessed on the simplest of mobile phones."
Currently, the audio bulletins are broadcast to a closed user group of 20 villagers. "Their feedback is reviewed by the IMII Faculty and communicated to the two village reporters to make the bulletins more focused," Jody McPhillips, a Knight International Fellow working at IMII, told IANS.
The institute's plans are ambitious. Bloss, who believes the rural bulletins on mobile phones can redefine the way news is communicated, says, "IMII plans to scale the broadcast to 500 users by mid-January, and then extend it to the neighbouring villages."
The institute has set up a blog (gaonkiawaaz.wordpress.com/) where the audio files of the bulletins, which are in local Avadhi, and their English translations are hosted every day. The English translations are also published on www.twitter.com/gaonkiawaaz. (IANS)