Grassroots journalism in Chittoor

BY Usha Revelli| IN Community Media | 09/02/2005
Rural women, mostly Dalits, handle all the reporting, writing, editing, layout, artwork, photography and even circulation.

Usha Revelli in Hyderabad                                           

Women`s Feature Service

Manjula succinctly sums up the impact her new job has had on her identity: ?It has changed my postal address. I was Manjula, wife of so-and-so. Now, I am Manjula, reporter, Navodayam, Vedurukuppam, Chittoor. And now my mail reaches me,? she says with pride.

In Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, grassroots journalism is creating waves. Navodayam (which means `new dawn` in Telugu) was launched on August 15, 2001, in Chittoor district as a government initiative to create awareness on development issues. Launched as a quarterly newsletter in Telugu with just eight pages, it has grown to a 24-page monthly on popular demand.

Rural women, mostly Dalits, handle all the reporting, writing, editing, layout, artwork, photography and even circulation. More than 60 reporters have worked for the magazine so far and it currently has 10 staff reporters and 20 contributors.

The magazine prints 20,000 copies and has a readership of more than 200,000 - much more than the statewide readership figures of some of the leading AP dailies.

?Many of the remote villages do not get newspapers even though there are literate people out there. So we ensure that Navodayam reaches them,? explains Ratnamma, a reporter from Baireddipally village. She says Navodayam`s language, unlike in the mainstream newspapers, is simple and the issues they report on are directly related to the readers.

?We also give bylines extensively, even if it`s for a rangoli (patterns created from flowers or colours) design. We have to keep women interested. We find that they wait eagerly for the magazine every month,? adds Bharati, another reporter from Nimmanapalli village.

What do they write about? ?Our aim is to create awareness. Give them information and knowledge so that they can be empowered. And who can do a better job of this than someone of their own? So, poor Dalit women are trained in reporting and filing copy. They control this medium and shape information,? explains B Kiran Kumari, Consultant, Navodayam.?We write about alcoholism and its ill-effects; child marriage; child labour; government projects for poverty alleviation and bank loans and rural credit,? explains Manjula.

The impact of the magazine is real and visible. Mainly circulated among the women, who are members of more than 24,000 self-help groups, each reader of this monthly ensures that her husband and the rest of the family read it too. The reporters of Navodayam swing into action whenever they get news about any social evil and actually carry out some good work while reporting it.

Recently, the Navodayam team prevented a child marriage in one village and in another, convinced parents to pull their children out of work and send them to school. Elsewhere, they helped an alcoholic husband give up the habit. All these triumphs are reported in Navodayam. The Navodayam reporters have also helped in repairing broken marriages.

Do they face any problems during their activism? ?Oh, several!? says Manjula. ?When we started a campaign on alcoholism, we received a lot of threats. My husband was furious and asked me to keep out of it. Of course, I did not pay any attention,? she says.

Similarly, each time they ask parents to send their children to school, they face a lot of resistance. ?Parents ask us if we`ll compensate for the loss of their wages. It takes days and weeks to convince them that a child worker is a source of not immediate profit, but of long-term loss,? says Bharati.

?We do face constant problems. Whenever we have a meeting in the villages, men try to disrupt it. But now our women have learnt to ward them off,? says Kiran. ?During meetings, we all glare at men who interfere. That usually puts them off. But on one occasion, we thrashed a man, tied him to an electric pole and kept him there all night,? Bharati recalls.

?There was pressure from the liquor lobby, defaulters of government loan schemes and sometimes even officials. On one occasion, copies of our magazine were destroyed by government officers because we wrote against the corruption in the department that gives us funds,? says Kiran.

But there are several rewards the struggle has brought them. Now, Manjula`s husband, a truck driver, is very proud of his `editor` wife. He shows off Manjula`s pictures - of working at the computer, meeting former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu - to fellow drivers. And he picks a fight with anyone who says a single word against the magazine.

?We are unique because we go beyond what the mainstream media does,? claims Ratnamma. ?Journalists from mainstream papers and television channels either take money from people for writing or not writing reports; or they are too afraid of the consequences. We are not afraid of anybody or anything.?

?When a man burnt his wife to death in our village, journalists from four major Telugu dailies came to know of it immediately. His house was just a stone`s throw away from the police station but the culprit still managed to cremate her body within two hours after her death. Nothing was reported, no action was taken. Not even a complaint, which would have led to a post-mortem. I was so agonised by this that I could not sleep for two days. We wrote about it and then the man was arrested,? recalls Manjula.

Navodayam gets funds from the state government`s poverty alleviation project, Velugu, but is slowly collecting subscriptions and mobilising advertisements for sustaining itself. ?It even serves as a training module for grassroots-level workers.?

Now reporting from 35 blocks, Navodayam covers more than half of the Chittoor district. The magazine has convinced each self-help group to buy five copies of the magazine and has just introduced a subscription of Rs 5 (US$1=Rs 45) per month. ?We want our women reporters to enlist as stringers with major newspapers. A higher number of women stringers in the districts will help us fight gender bias in the rural areas in a much better way. Just look at the way our team members have translated empowerment into a way of life,? says Kiran.

?There was a time when we had to sit on the floor at the bus stop while men, village elders and others, sat on the stone bench. Now, I sit on the bench and men stand at a respectful distance,? beams Ratnamma.

And this elevation, it appears, is a symbol of all that poor Dalit women have achieved in life by owning their own media.

(Courtesy: Women┬┐s Feature Service)

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