Rural India is a surprise

IN Regional Media | 22/12/2004
To understand how contagious journalism has become you have to come to the stomping ground of Rajasthanøs two leading Hindi newspapers.

Reprinted from the Hindu, December 19, 2004





MOTORING across Southern Rajasthan on some rather good roads you discover that journalism, or what passes for it, is thriving in the villages here. From the State transport bus driver with small, village-bound newspaper bundles arranged neatly on his dashboard, to local store owners receiving news handouts in their shops and stamping them with the words "news agency" affixed after their own names, to activist panchayat samiti members rushing off to inform the nearest NGO about a death in a tribal village, the rural news network is alive and well. And occasionally enlivened by the enterprise of a rural newshound.


Battle in Rajasthan

To understand how contagious journalism has become you have to come to the stomping ground of Rajasthan`s two leading Hindi newspapers, competing furiously with each other. If one starts a local edition, the other also launches one, within a week. Or gets word of it and launches the week before. Banswara and Dungarpur are both tribal districts and not exactly hot markets for media, either in terms of newsbreaks or buying power. But that was before Rajasthan Patrika and Dainik Bhaskar decided that there was potential here. Now Patrika has 40 stringers to cover a 100 villages and every day a four-page colour pullout is produced locally for each of these districts, to be inserted into the 12-page main paper which arrives from Udaipur at 3 a.m. In the next few months, Patrika is expanding its printing operations to print the entire paper from Banswara, and cater to bordering districts in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Bhaskar is not planning to follow suit yet. We are already established in M.P. and Gujarat, they tell you smugly.


Freebies, low ad rates

Circulation and advertising drives proceed apace. Tempted by a variety of freebies (a plastic bucket from Patrika, a packet of tea from Bhaskar) village homes try out a newspaper for a month. And enticed by really low ad rates, local people are buying space in these papers to announce deaths and weddings and to felicitate local politicians. The Patrika puts its local ad revenue from Banswara at Rs. 30 lakhs last year. It grows every year, says the local bureau chief.


A scribe with potential

So who generates news from these parts to provide the stuff between the ads? Several levels of journalistic enterprise operate. In a large village called Sabla which is astride the State highway, you come across a pleasant 22-year-old called Dipak Patel in his double-storey parental home, fronted by the family shop. In his working corner at home is a branded computer, a scanner, a modem and a small digital camera procured from Jaipur. There is no internet node in these parts so he uses a file transfer protocol to send his stories and digital photos for the Dungarpur pullout of the Bhaskar. The equipment is a combination of family and personal enterprise; he took a bank loan to buy some of it. "My aim is to have all the equipment the local bureaus of these papers have," he says.


His journalistic career began at 18 when the paper made him its circulation agent and unleashed unsuspecting potential in the lad. He dropped out of college and took to reporting, booking ads and promoting circulation full time. He covers a radius of 20 km for his stories, and for his pains he earns about Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 4,000 a month. "No money in all this," says his mother. "Call it social service." But she underestimates her young son`s business instincts. Once a year a huge tribal fair takes place near here — the Baneshwar mela. He took photographs of the fair, and booked ads around it filling an entire page of the pullout. That fetched him money for the pictures and a 25 per cent commission on the advertisements.


His stories

His most evocative recent story is one told by a photograph: a line of adivasi lads posing in the school uniforms given by the local administration. Every single boy`s trousers stop short at his calves. The caption asks if the government ran out of cloth. After he filed a story on water logging, the local irrigation department turned off water to the feeder channels. So another news photograph appeared a few days later of bone dry irrigation channels. He covers three police thanas, filing a crime story a day from here, and some times goes to the site of accident or crime, in search of a human angle. He creeps up behind unsuspecting forest marauders and sends pictures of illegal fellings. On Republic Day 2004 the tehsildar bestowed a certificate on him, recognising his service to the community. How did he develop a news sense, you ask him. "God`s gift," he says modestly.


The payment is Rs. 20 a photograph, and Rs. 1.50 per column centimetre of copy. Rural Rajasthan abounds with these twenty rupees-a-story scribes. "Leave behind your Delhi notions of journalistic payment," says a resident editor in Udaipur. "Don`t forget that what all most of them file is publicity handouts." Patel is an exception, and the competition is eyeing him.


In Udaipur district`s most backward pocket of Kothda, there is no booming journalism because both education and income levels are very low. But it is a good place for Udaipur scribes to dash across to for an atrocity story, when alerted by a local NGO. Until last month the Patrika`s circulation agent was a local store keeper who doubled as a stringer, stamping handouts of local functions and giving them to the State transport bus driver to pop into mailboxes that all local newspapers have installed at the Udaipur bus stand. But competition has just increased in Kothda. While both papers used to reach here by bus at mid-morning, the Dainik Bhaskar has just upped the ante by putting a taxi on the route to get papers across by 7a.m.


The Patrika has decided to brush up its journalism in response. Their first official stringer here is a recruit from an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated NGO, a lively man who insists that he can sit in his shop and get all the news there is to be got. The big issue is here is the chronic absenteeism of school teachers, so how will he do stories like that sitting in his shop? His shop is on the village square, and he knows who the teachers are. "All of them live in a 50 km radius from here. If I see any of them wandering about the square I know they are bunking," he tells you triumphantly.


This column is based on field research supported by the National Foundation for India.

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