I was 14 when my father died. After his death, I had to drop out of school to take care of my family. I never got another chance to study again. I also didn’t learn English at all. Initially, I used to feel bad about it. I regretted not having a formal degree. I felt I could have had a better life and a more successful career.
But after a few years’ work I realised that even with my level of education, I could still do a lot. Most of the people that I work with are either less educated than me or are people who never went to school at all. Unlike them, I can read a newspaper, or sign an application form. When the government announces a new aid package or launches a new scheme, I can read about it and apply for it. These are small benefits that can transform the life of a farmer whose crops have died due to drought or who has to give up land for a development project.
I realised, as a grassroots activist, this is what I should do. And for the past 15 years, I have been doing that – sharing my knowledge to help people claim their rights.
In this, one thing that has helped me tremendously is a voice-based citizen journalism tool called CGNet Swara, meaning ‘Voice of Chhattisgarh’. It is a simple tool that allows me to send a report by just dialling a number and speaking it over the phone. The report automatically gets recorded on the CGNet Swara website where it is reviewed and verified by a group of trained community journalists. Those who know how to use internet, can open this website and hear the report. Others can listen to the report on their mobile by dialling a number.
I have been reporting through CGNet Swara for over four years now. It is designed to get news reports from ordinary citizens like me who live in remote conflict areas, have little access to civic facilities and are always left out by the mainstream media. CGNet Swara gives us a chance to report news that matters to us.
Now, I tell people I work with – farmers, labourers, firewood gatherers and such people – to use this tool and record their voices. I tell them that although they don’t know how to read or write, they can still tell the world their stories. They can report when they face any difficulty like when a company takes away their land, when there is a drought and they lose a crop, when they do not receive compensation for a lost crop or when the police harass them for allegedly being Maoist sympathisers.
I have already trained more than 100 people to use CGNet Swara. And I am planning to train many hundreds more this year. But there are many people who do not even own a phone. Since I have a mobile handset, I record their stories for them as often as I can.
Like the majority of my community members, I do not have a TV or a computer and I do not know how to use the internet. We cannot hear the news of the world. But we can now tell the world our stories.
I am told by others that the world is listening to these stories. I do not know how they react to these stories. But what I know is that by recording our reports, we are breaking our silence in support of our rights.
And I believe that change always begins with that.
As told to Stella Paul