An American Indian proverb says, "It takes a thousand voices to tell one story." And if the majority in a nation find no voice, the story must necessarily remain untold. This is where Chala Ho Gaon Mein (Let's Go to the Village) steps in - to fill in the gaps where voices from the Palamau district in Jharkhand were absent.
Chala Ho is a community radio initiative that has been running successfully since 2001. It is run by the National Foundation for India (NFI) and its NGO partner, Alternative for India Development (AID), which works in Bihar and Jharkhand. Manthan Yuva Sangathan, a media activist group from Ranchi was invited to act as the technical partner.
Says Nandita Roy, Senior Programme Officer, NFI, "Although both broadcasting and narrowcasting (airing within a small area) are used for community radio programs, we opted for broadcasting. The reach is much wider. We now reach over a million households."
The AID team initially got together 16 volunteers - including four women - from Lesliganj and Panki blocks of Palamau who had been associated with AID projects in the past. These volunteers chose two or three villages, and the key issues in their communities: adult illiteracy, education for the girl child, child marriage, dowry, domestic violence, health and hygiene, and information on rural development and livelihood schemes.
The volunteers went about their village with portable cassette recorders, which they were trained by Manthan to use optimally. Instead of jumping straight into the production phase, AID used the initial material these reporters collected to conduct a training and assessment workshop. At the end of this, four half-hour tapes were prepared and taken to some areas for narrowcasting. This helped judge community interest, acceptability and impact, and, of course, garnered some advance publicity for Chala Ho.
Most villages in Palamau district have no electricity, poor roads and little infrastructure. Widespread illiteracy means that newspapers hardly play a role. Television has negligible presence. So, radio becomes the only link to the outside world for the poor and deprived communities.
Next, NFI requested All India Radio (AIR) Daltonganj - a local AIR station in Jharkhand - for a 30-minute commercial slot on Sundays at 7.20 pm for Chala Ho. The first episode went on air on August 5, 2001. Says Sudhir Pal of Manthan, "The structure of the programme was based on the feedback we received during the narrowcasting sessions. The people rejected professional presenters from AIR, and instead devised the characters of 'Phulwa behen' and 'Raju bhaiya' as presenters. They are so popular now that children actually playact these roles."
Says Moturam, 60, a tribal from Rajhara village: "There is a big difference between programs broadcast from Patna and Delhi and Chala Ho. Those programs are in khari (pure) Hindi, while Chalo Ho uses the language of the village, understood even by every child in the village."
Surender Kumar, 18, of village Harsangra, emphatically agrees: "Our people are able to participate in the programme because it is in our dehati (local), tooti phooti (broken) language."
The community reporters of AID travel in and around the villages, carrying back with them reports of local problems and developments, folk songs and folk tales from the region, and record plays on local issues with performers from the villages. When broadcast, these issues strike a chord with the listener, invoking instant recognition of familiar names and places.
Akanksha Rani, 14, of Nawadih village, believes in community radio's potential for change: "When people listen to a programme about problems in the village, they are inspired to do something about it. They can then sit together and come up with a plan to tackle the problem."
The programme has firmly put the question of the deep-rooted practice of dowry, and of women's rights, on the family agenda. Says Chintamani, 19, from village Cheri: "Before Chala Ho, we were never even allowed to go outside our homes, leave alone participating in meetings. But after the programme, we got together and formed a young women's group. Now, we all sing together, attend meetings and discuss issues."
Surendra Thakur, one of the community reporters, agrees: "Earlier, people sent only their sons to school, making their daughters work at home. Now, many people have sought our help to enroll their daughters in school. And the teachers - who usually expect to be paid for these things - did not demand any money because of our presence."
The pathetic condition of government-run schools, in fact, was a frequent topic in the focus group discussions that AID planned around Chala Ho. One teacher, for example, used to siphon off grain meant to children's mid-day meals. But when Rajmani Yadav, a community reporter, threatened to broadcast his misdemeanor on radio, the teacher pleaded with him not to and promised to stop pilfering school supplies.
One group that Chala Ho did not reach effectively in the beginning is women. Women are busy with their domestic work, and do not have unfettered access to the radio. If the men in the house wish to take the radio out of the house, the women miss that week's episode. Roy says, "We have made a concerted effort to engage with the women's self-help groups (SHGs) in the programme. We have gifted them radios, so women can listen to the programme in a group. We have also recruited reporters from the SHGs."
The programme is now bi-weekly - on both Wednesdays and Sundays - and the people of Palamau have found a frequency that resonates with their hearts.