As the Arab world is witnessing some long overdue political change, a tiny village in the eastern Indian state of Bihar is experiencing a smaller, much quieter revolution. This uprising isn’t destroying a regime, but is still tearing apart an archaic system.
Leading this movement are young women, most aged between 14 and 21, who have taken it upon themselves to challenge existing social norms that restrict them from moving freely and making their own choices in lives. The weapons of this revolution are cameras and microphones.
There’s no electricity in Chandkebari village, which is just 80 kilometres from Bihar’s capital of Patna. Yet despite the darkness, an exciting news project seems to be thriving. Under the leadership of Santosh Sarang, Appan Samachar, or Our News, offers a unique media platform for raising awareness over the issues affecting these women and society more broadly. A team of two dozen girls is currently involved in running this venture, for which they’ve had some training in handling small digital cameras, writing scripts and reporting. They edit their stories in a nearby town with the help of some keen volunteers, who have been involved with the project since its inception in 2007.
The girls typically head off on bikes with cameras and microphones in their front baskets to start reporting for the day. A small office is located in the centre of the village where weekly bazaars take place. After the stories are edited, the programme is shown during the weekly bazaar or market on a projector. The villagers seem to immediately connect with the stories, which have frequently prompted pressure on the local administration to make changes. These small successes have given the girls a real confidence boost and galvanized the village. The girls aren’t paid, but they seem to see the freedom and opportunity of change as reward enough.
The week I spent in Chandkebari was a real eye-opener. Ashwani, a 14-year-old girl from a particularly deprived area, lives in a small hut with her parents and three small siblings. She told me that Appan Samachar offers a way out of the grinding poverty and sense of hopelessness that previously marked her life.
Defying her parents, who had taken her out of school and were planning to marry her off, Ashwani joined the news platform after being inspired by seeing the bike riding reporters at work. Supported by other villagers and Appan Samachar founder Santosh Sarang, this Dalit girl (the lowest caste in India), has resumed her studies and is now a full-time worker with the news organization.
Appan Samachar was launched in 2007 as an experiment for bringing up village issues, but many parents were initially reluctant to allow their daughters to get involved. Over time, though, attitudes have shifted, and joining the Appan Samachar team is now seen as a prestigious move.
Still, running such a venture in a village without electricity isn’t easy. A lack of financial resources complicates their work, and screenings have sometimes had to be postponed when the group hasn’t had enough money to pay for local power generators. Usually, though, villagers manage to scrape together the funds necessary to get things back on track.
In last year’s Bihar Assembly elections, women played a major part in the thumping victory of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who a few years ago started a scheme providing bicycles to girls who pass their 8th standard test. Bandana Preyashi, a dynamic young female officer with the Indian Administrative Service, attributes this ‘awakening’ among women to the policies initiated by the present government, which are aimed at empowering women at all levels in society.
Whatever the reason behind the success of Appan Samachar, there’s no doubt it has become to the citizens of Chandkebari what the Al Jazeera network is proving to be for the Arab world—a medium of change through alternative journalism. The project demonstrates the power of the media to intervene effectively in bringing about far-reaching changes in societies across the globe.
Once people relinquish their fear, real change can take place. This nondescript village in Bihar is a fine example of that.
- Sanjay Kumar, The Diplomat