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India's Rural Mobile "Radio" Network: A Voice Portal for a War Zone
How mobiles and an inexpensive server turned tribals into citizen journalists, in conflict-ridden central India.
May 18 , 2014
On a chilly evening in London in March, Index on Censorship presented its 2014 Freedom of Expression awards to “the world’s bravest journalists, campaigners and digital innovators.”
All eyes were on the Google Digital Activism Award: its nominees included whistleblower Edward Snowden, and it was the only category decided by public vote.
Snowden lost. The award went to Indian journalist-turned-activist Shubhranshu Choudhary. His CGNet Swara service allows tribals in the central Indian states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh to share news in their local languages—and to reach the world outside.
Fast forward to a sunny mid-May afternoon, 4,500 miles away in Madhya Pradesh, where a villager, Mangaldeen, has a problem. This Indian farmer’s house and land are underwater.
They were submerged under millions of gallons from the Ataria Dam, build by the irrigation department in the state. Mangaldeen has run around for years for compensation.
He has no internet access. But he does, like over half of all Indians, have a mobile phone. He dials 80500-68000 to reach CGNet, the closest thing rural India has to community radio.
The call lands into a server in Madhya Pradesh’s capital Bhopal, part of a system designed by a student at MIT who now lives in Bangalore, and still maintains it.
Mangaldeen records his complaint. A text message goes out to other villagers, some of whom dial in to listen.
Meanwhile, a volunteer translates his complaint into English, and posts it onto the CGNet website: “Please call the district collector at 76922-41700 to ask for my compensation,” ends the post.
Others will now call that official—friends, well-wishers, volunteers—and urge him to help. The calls, from strangers across the world, spur many officials into action. A senior politician also picks up Mangaldeen’s case.
A day later, Saroj Paraste calls CGNet from another village in Madhya Pradesh. She had earlier called to say there was no water-pump in the tribal girls hostel in her village. Her message triggered calls to the government officials—and on May 6, a hand-pump was installed. “Now the girls finally have water,” she says.
So why this complex system of mobile phones, servers and telephone interfaces—instead of radio?
Because mobile telephony works where radio doesn’t. There is state-run television and radio, but with no local news on them. The mobile powerhouse that is India lives in the dark ages of radio.
India has no digital or satellite radio, and virtually no community radio outside educational institutions. Privately-owned FM radio stations are entertainment-only. News is allowed only on stations run by the government’s All India Radio.
And so the need for an alternative. A server lets “citizen journalists” call from mobile phones to record their reports, and plays them back to others. Villagers crowd around a mobile phone, dialing in for news, opinions and even protest songs.
Choudhary’s group has trained thousands of ordinary villagers to be “citizen journalists.” Their audio news reports are hosted on the CGNet website, with many transcribed into English text, giving them global reach.
A BLOODY WAR
What makes CGNet Swara’s base in central India, where Choudhary grew up, interesting is that it’s virtually a war zone.
This war between Maoist guerrillas and Indian security forces, which has killed thousands over the past decade in the so-called red corridor, was labeled by New Delhi as the “biggest threat to India’s internal security.”
As a BBC reporter, Choudhary covered four wars across South Asia, “hopping from one war to another,” he says. “Then I began covering this war in central India, where some of my former schoolmates were labeled terrorists.” And he saw the disconnect between them, and mainstream media, which had no focus on their local issues, and which didn’t even speak Gondhi—the guerrillas’ language across at least five Indian states. And the tribals viewed government media as propaganda.
That is a gap he set out to fill with CGNet Swara, with citizen journalists from among the locals. Its stories reach mass media. A report on a police attack on three villages that left two dead, homes burned and women raped, was picked up from CGNet Swara by newspapers. India’s National Human Rights Commission stepped in, and the country’s supreme court ordered an investigation. CGNet Swara monitors and reports impact and outcome regularly.
To scale it up, Choudhary wants help from the government’s All India Radio, to carry CGNet Swara. “Community radio won’t have the reach. Our tribal areas stretch over 3,000 miles from Gujarat in the West to Bengal in the East.”
LOW COST TECH
In 2009, Choudhary was looking for a way to connect tribals and villagers without internet access, inspired by the Yahoo groups he was then using.
A friend connected him to Bill Thies, who had moved to Bangalore to work with Microsoft Research on technologies for emerging markets. As a computer-science PhD student at MIT, Thies had worked on AudioWiki—a voice-based Wikipedia.
Drawing on that expertise, Thies worked with some student volunteers to develop the system that CGNet Swara uses. He set up its server in Bangalore, and maintained it subsequently. The two-way interactive voice response (IVR) system lets users upload messages, and listen to recordings. A “moderator interface” lets them review recordings, and even annotate or edit them.
The software is open-source and freely available. The server is a cheap PC running Linux and Asterisk, with the Topex Mobilink IP telephony interface, to allow cellular calls. After three years in Bangalore, CGNet moved its server to Bhopal, where it also tested cheaper variants such as one using Raspberry Pi computers.
Thies and his colleagues have also developed an open source platform called IVR Junction that helps small organisations set up services like Swara on Windows PCs.
CGNet offers guidance to others who want to set up similar systems around the world.
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