Hidden from the hustle of elections and bugles of political parties, about 30-35 kms from the Varanasi district headquarters in Uttar Pradesh lies a small Musahar basti in Chitrasenpur village (block Sevapur). On February 26, when independent local reporter Neetu Singh visited the area for a ground report on elections, she found a child named Sumi in dire need of medical attention. On looking around, she found many kids to be ill and noted that apart from not having proper homes and toilets, this basti — home to one of the most oppressed castes in India — did not even have a hand pump for clean drinking water. Singh got out her phone and made a 10-minute video and posted it on her social media pages.
The video went viral and soon caught the eye of the local district administration. Today, little Sumi is being treated at the Varanasi district hospital and the neighbourhood — much to the surprise of residents and delight of the reporter — now has a hand pump. The short video that she had posted on her Facebook page, made the difference of life and death in a village that seemingly no one cared about — not the government, politicians or mainstream media. “This is why I do what I do. This is how I covered the elections this year. The real job of journalists is to make the voices and needs of the unheard reach the masses, not to hold loudspeakers to politicians who already have their own,” Singh tells Outlook.
ALSO READ: Other Voices: Rise Of New Platforms Run By Dalit Youth And Others
Singh grew up in the interiors of Kanpur Dehat district watching women journalists and news presenters on Doordarshan. They were always poised, wore prim saris and talked about issues that mattered to people. When they spoke, people listened. Inspired by them, Singh did a Master’s in Journalism and Mass Communication, from Kanpur University. But in 2010, when she finished the course, she realised the ground reality was not always what one saw on television. “I did not get a job. I returned to my village and did farming for a year. Villagers and relatives would taunt me, saying, ‘You should have done BEd’. I had just two options before me. Work a low-paying job or get married. Just then, I saw an opening for a ground reporter at a local community radio,” Singh recalls.
ALSO READ: Finding Their Mojo: How Independent Media Became The Newsmaker
What started as a low-paying job (Singh’s initial earnings were just Rs 1,700 per month) helped her realise what she wanted to do. “There I was, with my trusty jhola, walking 10 kms to reach remote villages on foot to tell stories I knew no one was telling,” Singh adds. During this time, Singh began to understand the lack of proper media reportage on real issues that people, especially women, in rural areas faced and the gap between mainstream media and real news.
After this stint, Singh moved on to Gaon Connection, an independent media organisation that focuses on rural news and ground reporting. “While both organisations gave me the freedom to do the kind of work I wanted, I always enjoyed the thrill of being and travelling on my own. Eventually, I decided that I did not want to work for anyone. So in 2021, I quit,” Singh narrates.
ALSO READ: The Invisible Newsmakers: Heard And Seen But Never Recognised
And thus began Shades of Rural India, a local media platform Singh set up in 2021. On March 8 this year, she launched Reporter Sakhi, an initiative that aims to train women and young girls from rural UP to come forward as community journalists and local leaders who can bring forth in the public a multitude of intersectional problems plaguing women, such as domestic or sexual abuse, unemployment, and women farmers’ issues. It was also a way for Singh to provide economic support to women who could eventually act as ‘stringers’ for mainstream media houses.
Singh’s initiative captures the mood of women across UP, who form an important vote bank and yet are one of the most vulnerable and under-represented groups here. Not only is this initiative a way to educate and empower women, it also provides livelihood and a sense of identity. Even if the conditions are not always ideal and the pay usually little, the solidarity and sisterhood is what keeps these independent journalists going.
ALSO READ: How Farmers' Protest Also Gave Birth To An Alternative Media In Punjab
“When my husband and family left me to fend for my five children, I had no idea what do. I had been married as a minor, with no education or job skills. I was ready to do just about anything to feed my kids,” says 40-year-old Nazni Rizvi. By a stroke of fate, Rizvi, back then a resident of Banda, Bundelkhand, came across an organisation called Khabar Lahariya in 2004. They had started just a couple of years ago and were apparently hiring women, even uneducated ones, from diverse backgrounds — Muslim, Dalit, Adivasi — to work as journalists and ground reporters in an all-women led news organisation.
“At first, I sold their newspaper from door-to-door and village-to-village. Within a month, I enrolled for their reporters’ training project and then got selected. My life changed,” recalls Rizvi. In the past 18 years, she has learned not only how to investigate and tell stories of underprivileged and exploited women and delve into local politics, but also to look powerful men in the eye. It’s not an easy field, says Rizvi. “When I first started working, I faced many jibes. On production days, I returned home late. Neighbours made many comments. But I knew I had to raise my children,” Rizvi recalls. Today, all her children are settled in Delhi, while Rizvi is in Bihar where Khabar Lahariya is setting up another office.
ALSO READ: Media And Manipur: Courage Under Fire
The organisation, one of the first newsrooms run by Dalit and marginalised women and on the forefront of reporting on issues of intersectional feminism, attained international fame after the documentary, Writing With Fire, based on the journey and lives of Khabar Lahariya reporters, was nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category for the Oscars. Since then, the Khabar Lahariya office has witnessed a flurry of media queries and phone calls for interviews. But for Rizvi and other Khabar Lahariya reporters, life goes on as usual. “The film may have got us a wider international audience but we have always been impactful and well known among our readers in both India and abroad,” Rizvi says.
During the recently-concluded assembly elections, the women of Khabar Lahariya took to the streets in groups and visited district after district to report on ground realities. “Apart from ground reports, we conduct shows like Chunaawi Bukhar Savdhaan to make voters aware of the kind of fake news that does the rounds during election season. We also did a series where we focused on UP women candidates,” Rizvi informs.
ALSO READ: News From Goa: Fast, Cheap And Truly Independent
However, for all the work put forth by these local reporters, the challenges often dwarf the remunerations. Khabar Lahariya transformed its model from being a non-profit organisation to a company after its founders started Chambal Media in 2015 in a bid to consolidate editorial control within the organisation and also to create a sustainable revenue model. Younger organisations, however, still have their work cut out.
“Funding is a big issue for independent organisations like ours,” says Behan Box founder Bhanupriya Rao. Behan Box started in 2020 amidst the pandemic after Rao noted the hollow coverage of women’s issues during the 2019 general assembly elections. “All we saw were strong men ruling the media narratives. It really struck me, ‘Where were the women?’” Rao tells Outlook. At the onset of the pandemic, this public policy expert knew that women would become even more invisible. According to a report by Global Media Monitoring Project, the mention of women as subjects or sources quoted in news reports dropped to 14 per cent. Meaning only 14 per cent stories appearing in media focused on women. The report also found a decline in the number of women journalists due to pandemic job losses. “Something had to be done,” Rao says.
ALSO READ: Dial M For Media: The New Muslim Voice
The Hyderabad-based Behan Box has become a growing voice in the local media scene, one that espouses the narratives of women as well as politics from a gendered lens. Their coverage focused heavily on issues such as women’s inheritance, unemployment, discrimination, and issues faced by women and trans persons with disabilities. The company is led by four women and works exclusively with freelance/independent women journalists like Neetu Singh to showcase ground realities from rural India. “We depend on grants and philanthropy and do side gigs like paid research projects or workshops to earn revenues. We want to ensure the women who work with us get paid in cash. Without investors taking interest in such women-led local media models, the onus is entirely on us,” she says.
ALSO READ: How Dalits Are Telling Their Own Stories
Rao says that while the response to companies like Behen Box has been good in terms of media partnerships and collaborations, the lack of government and institutional support for providing safety nets to women journalists remains a big hurdle. “Even if the organisation provides all safety measures, the safety of women is always in their own hands. It is the government’s responsibility to make the environment safe for women to go out there and do their job,” says Rao. It is not just sexual harassment and abuse. Women going on the field to report also have to face questions and objections that their male counterparts may not. “They ask us how many children we have, where our husbands work, how old we are...arre how does that matter, to them?” says Rizvi.
ALSO READ: Keeping Ambedkar’s Legacy Alive, One Story At A Time
Renu Gupta, 27, lives a few kilometres from Varanasi. On Women’s Day, she officially became a local reporter under Neetu Singh’s Reporter Sakhi initiative. She hopes to become like her one day and speak confidently on camera. “There are many problems in my and surrounding villages. No media ever comes here. I want to talk about those issues so that even the PM knows about the problems we are facing,” she says. Nevertheless, she hopes that the government in its second term fixes the issues of road safety. “If I am to go out and report from the ground, I need to convince myself and my family that I will be safe. But in the current scenario, we know that’s not true. When we go out, we are own our own.” Gupta signs off.
While women on TV news channels in staid suits and rosy cheeks or in mainstream print media who get hefty pay cheques may point to gender equality in the media industry, the male-dominated regional media scene screams the need for organisations such as Shades of Rural India, Khabar Lahariya and Behen Box. After all, women form nearly half the country’s population. And these organisations are dedicated to devoting their full attention to this ignored half.
(This appeared in the print edition as "HER STORY")
Journalism In Rural India: PARI Is No Fairy Tale
UP Election: Notes Of A Parachute Journalist
Theme Song: The Sweet Melody Of Election Music
Punjab’s New Media: A Story Of Avoiding The Mundane
Shifting Tides: How The Cookie Crumbled For Congress In Goa