Traditional media, empowering messages

BY malavika kaul| IN Media Practice | 26/11/2003
In India the hype created over ICTs has often overshadowed the remarkable changes traditional communication systems can bring in poor peopleøs lives.


 Malvika Kaul                                                       
Women`s Feature Service

Almost every state in India today boasts of at least one ambitious Information Communication Technology (ICT) project attempting to transform lives of the poor.

In Andhra Pradesh, Chief Minister Chandra Babu Naidu`s government claims it is more transparent and accountable since the poor started accessing land records on a computer. In Gujarat, NGO SEWA is converting poor women labourers and artisans into better global partners, training them in computers, video cameras and educating them through satellite programmes. In some Madhya Pradesh villages, a business house supports e-chaupals (public platform), offering a competitive edge to the farmers.  

But the hype created over ICTs has often overshadowed the remarkable changes traditional communication systems - street plays, puppetry, padyatras (marches) and jan sunwais (public hearings) - can bring in poor people`s lives. As part of research for the Panos Media fellowship on Women and the use of Information Communication Technology, I found that in drought-prone Rajasthan, villagers involved in the Right to Information Movement (RIM) used traditional communication tools to strike at the roots of poverty.

Almost five years ago, Amchi Bai, a Dalit (community pegged lowest in the Hindu caste system) was made in-charge of the anganwadi (childcare centre) in village Aswan, district Jawaja. The district administration sent her food supplies every month to feed the children at the centre. Soon the high-caste village head`s wife, Kamala, started demanding that the grain and oil meant for the children should be sent to her house.

In Amchi`s village, the head had always been a man from the higher caste. He controlled the funds and development activity in the village. The Dalits (approximately 40 per cent of the village population) neither had land nor any other means of survival. Amchi was made the anganwadi in-charge with the assumption that she would comply with Kamala`s wishes. But Amchi`s refusal to send food supplies to the head`s house upset the traditional power balance in the village. And soon she was asked by the administration to quit the anganwadi.

Months later, in a jan sunwai organised by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a grassroots organisation of mostly labourers and agricultural farmers, Amchi narrated how the sarpanch (head of village council) and his family misused government funds earmarked for development work in the village.

Jan sunwais manifest village justice. A blend of peaceful yet affirmative communication against corrupt leaders who marginalise the village communities and reduce them to starvation. At each hearing, audit reports, certificates, muster rolls, bills and vouchers are produced to expose the nexus between  village heads, government engineers and development officials. Besides the villagers, government officials, district leaders and even politicians are present at the hearing.

Before any jan sunwai, the MKSS runs an awareness campaign through street plays, cycle rallies and ghotala yatras (march against corruption). Their songs - Aurat ke sahbhag bina, har badlav adhura hai (without women`s participation, all change is incomplete), and Hamara paisa, hamara hisab (our money, our accounts) - specially motivated Amchi to speak up.

At the public hearing, records presented by MKSS confirmed Amchi`s allegations. People in her village, who had remained silent for long, spoke in her defense at the hearing. The sarpanch was asked to return the money or face a jail term.

"For me, to question is to live," says Amchi, who now inspires other women to question authorities about accounts, development projects and lack of basic facilities in her village. She goads other women labourers who are not paid wages to demand the muster rolls from the contractor.

MKSS uses every folk and traditional form of communication to reach out to the poor. Their communication strategy is based on building strong relationships with village leaders and marginalised groups like the Dalits, women and tribals.  Their mobilisation centres are STD booths, ration shops, fairs, roads where repair work is on, schools where construction is on - any place where there are people.

One of the most well-known figures in several Rajasthan villages is the hand puppet called Mooh phat (outspoken person), who travels with MKSS members during their awareness campaigns. Says Shankar Singh, one of the oldest leaders of the movement and creator of the puppet: "Mooh phat is the voice of sanity. The voice of the poor against corruption."

Mooh phat arrives in villages amidst the roll of drums. He can be seen in village fairs and even theatre festivals, voicing the aspirations of the poor. Often he is the Dalit farmer exploited by the long chain of landlords, moneylenders, priests, shopkeepers, village heads and government officials. Sometimes Mooh phat narrates the plight of a woman labourer, who has got only 10 days of wages though she has worked for 20 days.

In the almost decade-old RIM, Mooh phat has put forward several basic questions to the public - why the handpump sanctioned for the village was not installed; where is the school building in the village despite district records claiming construction of two schools; why are thousands starving when government godowns have surplus food supplies. These questions have motivated even the backward caste villagers to demand information from powerful landlords and village heads.

Equally empowering has been the use of songs, folk music and dance in the people`s struggle. During the 1996 45-day dharna (sit-in demonstration) against the exploitation of traders in Beeawar, several village women like Bhuri Devi (who has fought her own battles against a corrupt sarpanch) created songs against corruption in Rajasthani. "My struggle made women in my village place greater trust in me. We organised marches and street plays to share with everyone our problems as well as the advantage of demanding information from everyone - government officials, police, labour contractors, moneylenders, schoolteachers - anyone who exploits our ignorance."

Initially, the MKSS women were nicknamed ghagra paltan (team of women in long skirts) in Rajasthan as they danced and beat drums while protesting. Today the same women are given a patient hearing whether they visit the district headquarters or a police station. 

The women`s team also tracks down cases of atrocities against women and demands to know the contents of medico-legal cases and police proceedings where women are victims of rape and harassment.

Although MKSS barely has two computers and the villages where it works have still not caught on to the ICT mantra, its campaign for right to information has spread in many parts of the state. 

The struggle has been a big step towards realising democracy. The Freedom of Right to Information Bill was cleared by the Parliament in 2002. Several state governments, including Delhi, have already adopted it.

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