In rural India, a hub for tech, mobile innovation gives isolated people a voice

by Elisa Tinsley
Oct 30, 2018 in Media Innovation

Updated September 6, 2013, 10 a.m. EST

Booting up my laptop in an open-air concrete building on the outskirts of Bhopal, India, I’m astonished. As soon as my computer turns on, I have high-speed Internet access. The former mushroom farm where I sit is now Hackergram, a tech lab and the new hub of the CGnet Swara mobile news service.

CGnet Swara, created by Shubhranshu Choudhary during his recent Knight International Journalism Fellowship, uses mobile phones to give hundreds of millions of Indian tribal people, Dalits (“untouchables”) and others living in an information vacuum an outlet to report on their communities.

Choudhary developed the voice-based portal with Microsoft Research India. Anyone can use this Interactive Voice Response (IVR) service, accessible via simple cell phones (so-called "dumb" phones) to report and listen to local stories. A team of moderators confirms the reports, which are made available for playback via mobile phone and on the Swara website.

Choudhary, a former BBC journalist, and Arjun Venkatraman, who left an IT job in Silicon Valley to become the tech backbone of the operation, are creating a center for mobile- and citizen-driven community news that does more than inform. CGnet Swara helps citizens connect with officials who, thanks to this new service, have addressed at least 80 problems reported by marginalized Indians since February 2010. The problems that citizens identify range from polluted rivers and a breakdown of government-provided services to gang rapes and attacks on tribal villages.

Even before they moved operations to the farm, a rough patch of land with a few partly built structures and a small mango grove, Choudhary and Venkatraman had trained hundreds of citizens to use CGnet Swara. They also recruited and trained 54 moderators to confirm reports before making them public. Some speak tribal languages. The service now averages 500 calls per day.

The farm also is a lab, where Venkatraman and two associates contend with rain and heat to develop tech solutions for mobile distribution, create new CGnet Swara channels and experiment with citizen-band radio to create a network of hyper-local outlets for Swara.

The team moved their operation to the outskirts of Bhopal because they are focusing on the long-term. “We are thinking about the best use of available resources,” Choudhary says. Working in Bhopal is cheaper than in Delhi, he says. And locating the operation on a former farm has a few advantages. There is space to tackle further development of CGnet Swara’s mobile platform, to build the community-radio network and train citizen journalists, who live there during their training. Bhopal is in the heart of India’s central tribal area, so the move brings CGnet Swara closer to its community of users. And for citizen journalists who may have never seen a city or touched a laptop, the former farm is less distracting than an urban training center would be.

Jagdish Yadav, 39, is a Swara moderator who was at the farm getting additional training when I was there over the weekend. He and his wife started a school for Dalit children, and have trained six children to report for CGnet Swara. Yadab joined CGnet Swara after learning how the service connected isolated people to the wider world. “This way, the voices of Dalits, Adivasi (tribal people) and women are taken far – to the whole world,” he says. “We knew for the first time that we were not alone and that there were many concerned people in whole world.”

Mohan Yadav, 45, a moderator who has worked for Indian nonprofit organizations, grew up in India’s tribal forests. “Government help is not reaching the people,” he says. “We think this system can be used to get them support and relief.” He has another goal: bringing the ancient knowledge of the forest to urban populations. Yadab believes that through CGnet Swara, indigenous people can be a link to traditional healing and medicines.

The move to Bhopal has presented its challenges. It took six months to get the surprisingly fast broadband connection. Power is still spotty because the electric lines are temporary.

The hurdles have not deterred Choudhary and Venkatraman, who are creating new channels in local languages for CGnet Swara, developing the technology to connect citizen-band radios and building a corps of citizen journalists.

“In Indian wrestling, there is a final move: press yourself down into the ground so the opponent cannot move you,” Choudhary says. “This is our tactic. When the cyclone comes, pull yourself down and hold your ground.”

Elisa Tinsley directs ICFJ's Knight International Journalism Fellowships.

Global media innovation content related to the projects and partners of the ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellows on IJNet is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and edited by Jennifer Dorroh.

Photo of Hackergram technical assistant Bhagirath Verma by Albert Charles.