Video Volunteers recently launched IndiaUnheard, a new project (and website) attempting to create a bridge, through community media, between disconnected rural communities and web audiences who are interested in news on issues of human rights, development and corruption. You can see the result and watch the community videos here. As this is a relatively new venture — it’s only about 4 to 5 months old — I’d love feedback from the highly knowledgeable Knight and MediaShift Idea Lab community.

Here are some videos to show you what it’s about: The village of Natpura, featured in this video below, in rural Uttar Pradesh has no women left in it. Every single one of them has been sold into prostitution rings in India and around the world by their families.

At the other side of the country, in another village, impoverished children featured in this video are not able to take their national exams because headmasters demand a bribe their families cannot afford to pay.

These two stories were broken not by mainstream journalists but by people living in these actual communities — people who themselves experience these same kinds of exploitation and disadvantage. Because of that, the reporters (or community correspondent, as Video Volunteers calls them) have a vested interest in making sure something happens as a result of the video. They are de facto activists. In the case of the second video, the teacher in question school has been demoted. After seeing that result, the people in a neighboring village asked the correspondent to come make a video about their horrible school, and the teacher in that school was also suspended. Angry villagers mounted a rally led by our young, 19 year-old community correspondent, Mukesh Rajak, himself a young Dalit from the “lowest” caste in India. Mukesh went to the government official’s office and showed her the video on his cell phone. The official was furious and took action against the bribe-taking teacher. This is the power of community media and the cascading effect of local media.

How it Works

Our 30 community correspondents (CCs) are stationed across India, nearly one in every state. They make us on average one video a month and we pay them about $30 a video. We are trying to set them up as entrepreneurs — they make videos, they get paid. If they don’t, they don’t get paid. This is different from the more charitable model of most community media and is possible because we are working with adults, not youth or children.

The first 30 CCs were trained in March 2010, with support from the News Challenge. They had a two-week residential training in all manner of video journalism. In our primary program, dubbed the Community Video Units, we give them 18 months of full time training that we have felt is necessary when working with such rural communities, so a short intensive training was a departure for us. We plan to take in two new batches of Community Correspondents every year.

A Diverse Network

Community Correspondents are dalits, tribals, Muslims, rural women, among others. Our CC in Chhattisgarh is Sarwat. He is a member of his village council and feels that IndiaUnheard offers a better platform for tackling real issues than local government does. Rohini is our CC from Walhe village in Maharashtra. She was married off right after she finished her 10th grade. She is determined to change the condition of women in her community and her videos bear testimony to this. She’s made video stories on devdasis (temple slaves/prostitutes), early marriage and anti-women customs like dowry. Christyraj is a transgender CC from Bangalore. He is one of the only transgender journalists in India and works tirelessly to bring the issues of his community to the fore.

Since May 1 (we launched on World Press Day) a new video report on key issues such as caste, conflict, identity and education is being released every day on the IndiaUnheard website. They are also further distributed through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other online news portals like Ground Report. Though these communities in India don’t have Internet access, they are speaking directly to a global web audience. The impact stories we have — such as medical supplies being delivered to villages after an IndiaUnheard report, by a web viewer, and people getting their ration cards because of the pressure of exposure on corrupt officials — are examples of something that is still very high tech in the developing world (cell phone video) actually seeping in to make an impact on corruption.

The people we work with are still totally unconnected, with only one cell phone shared between many family members, no computer skills and Internet cafes often hours away. We struggle with how to bring their media and their voices to a global audience when they themselves can’t participate in the online dialog. We’ve designed some rather unusual solutions to this digital divide challenge— such as maintaining Facebook and twitter accounts for them which we maintain on their behalf and call them on the phone when anyone asks them a question — but the internet is still rather unreal and insignificant to them, though storytelling and the desire to be heard certainly is not.

IndiaUnheard fits with lots of efforts being made in India by the UN, the Indian government and NGOs to promote local democracy. IndiaUnheard’s role is to promote democracy by enabling marginalized communities to represent themselves and their issues. Hyperlocal media models empower people with the tools to bring attention to their own issues and to come out from the shadows. India is the world’s largest democracy; however, most people don’t know their rights as information does not reach the poor majority. Simultaneously, government and the mainstream media cannot easily access the knowledge and perspectives of the poor. IndiaUnheard enables marginalized people to influence policies, highlight gross injustices and take a stand, so a better-informed nation can better tackle issues like rural corruption or failing rural schools or health systems.

A Business Model?

IndiaUnheard is an innovative business model for democratizing the media. I’ve written about this in other posts on MediaShift Idea Lab to make the point that India and other developing countries have a very small number of stringers in rural areas and those that exist are usually not professionally trained journalists. Video Volunteers believes the poor can be winners in the changing media landscape and that some community correspondents can, in time, support themselves in the market. It’s not just that our community correspondents would be cheaper than other freelancers the mainstream could draw on. With the advent of citizen journalism and changing viewing habits thanks to the Internet, the world is hungry to see content they’ve never seen before. Our producers are in places that the mainstream media cannot or does not access so this is a window into the real India.

Mainstream journalists working in India tend to cover only a certain demographic, they do not dig deep to uncover the stories of the marginalized. Video Volunteers will be feeding IndiaUnheard stories to print and television media, giving journalists — especially local media — another source of interesting stories.

What Next?

Our ambition is to expand the program nationally to a point where there is one community correspondent in all 626 districts of India, and internationally, in partnership with NGOs, filmmakers and journalists. This is totally funding dependent, of course, but if we can find people to invest for a few years, I believe that eventually we can be earning a sizable chunk of our revenues from the mainstream media. The question is: is it 20 percent? Fifty percent? Eighty percent? We are trying to work that out now.

In the longer term, this low cost, innovative model is a way for every village in the developing world to have someone trained to use the latest technologies to advocate for their rights. There are now video-enabled cell phones in all corners of the world, and a model like IndiaUnheard can enable these technologies to be used to capture human rights violations and bring them to the attention of the world.

So, please go to IndiaUnheard and watch some of the videos. Write a comment, ask a question of the person who made the video. We’ll get on the phone to them and post you an answer. In doing this, you’ll help one isolated community in rural India feel a little bit more “heard.”

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