With the advent of mobile telephony and digital technology, the available means of communication have taken a quantum leap, including in an instant far-flung regions that had hitherto remained disconnected and isolated from the outside world. With ever-improving penetration into India’s rural areas, aspirations for a better life are more evident: for instance, despite the absence of electricity and all-weather roads, people who own handsets recharge them on motorcycle batteries and stay connected.
This radical improvement in connectivity brought to the fore a hitherto unmet need among rural communities: the need for information, which, if accurate and appropriately shared, would enable them to take informed decisions, with equality and independence, to improve the quality of their lives. It marked the beginning of a new approach to connecting people: building Communication as well as Information Networks.
The model remains simple: to use the very means of establishing Communications Networks to also provide information to people on new livelihood opportunities, and improving existing sources of livelihood, as well as education and health services. The Information Networks are created in – and among – villages through media that are appropriate and sustainable. Anchored in Multimedia Rural Resource Centres that serve as hubs of information, the Networks draw socially motivated persons to come together to find solutions for local development concerns, thus becoming platforms for social change.
The Centres, initially facilitated by Charkha and supplied with resource material in print, audio and audio/visual media, are digitally connected and designed for long-term financial sustainability by a trained local group who takes ownership of the Centers over time. These Centres serve as sources of Information to facilitate the exchange of information between the rural communities and the mainstream, in the form of writings from the grassroots and details of government schemes, legal rights and entitlements and other locally relevant information. The Centers collate writings from local writers in their areas and transmit them for publication to Charkha’s Trilingual Feature Services’ Editors in Delhi.
The most popular – and most cost effective – among the viable media to share information at the village level are Wall Magazines. Charkha’s Skill Building Sessions now employ this medium extensively – and participants are quick to recognize its potential. In addition to sharing positive local stories about successful development initiatives, Wall Magazines are also used to share information about civil society initiatives and government schemes for improved livelihoods and basic services like education and health.
The use of audio media to successfully transcend the barriers of distance and illiteracy, thus connecting the most marginalized with the mainstream, has proved to be an enlightening experience. Charkha has thus far introduced three diverse communities to the potential of this medium: in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and the Andaman Islands. Local groups were taught how to create audio programs in the local language and have them broadcast from the local station of All India Radio, the national broadcaster with an extensive coverage area spanning large distances.
Compared with the popular option of setting up a Community Radio, this remains the more practical, affordable and potentially sustainable option for impoverished communities with meager resources. The experiments shed light on the extraordinary power of the medium to bridge the distance between remote villages and hamlets. It empowered them with the confidence that it is possible to be heard, quite literally, through the use of Radio, the most popular source of information and entertainment in remote areas, and demand improvements in the state of basic amenities in their villages.
Most popular in the form of Wall Magazines, this is an affordable and appropriate form of media to share information within villages to generate awareness and discussion on successful local initiatives, best practices, legal rights and entitlements offered by the Government for the betterment of disadvantaged communities.
Given the intense pace of penetration of mobile telephony in rural India, the Information Networks are expected to rely increasingly on this mode of communication across States in the coming years. Currently, this remains the most feasible means of sharing information, particularly in blocks and villages with poor connectivity and infrastructure; in difficult geographic terrain (such and mountainous and island regions); and in conflict-affected areas with high security concerns.
In areas where Resource Centers have been set up in towns with adequate infrastructure, including electricity and internet connectivity, digital media enables the effective bridging of national-state distances. Presently, Resource Centers connect with the Central Resource Center at the Charkha Office, where information on national policies and schemes is made available on an ongoing basis. Digital Media also enables the dissemination of writings from rural writers to Charkha’s Editorial team, and then to the National and State Print Media and Web Portals for publication in all three languages.