Postcard from Chitrakoot

In a remote part of India, female reporters crusade for rural journalism

On a scorching afternoon in Chitrakoot, a woman named Tabassum walks into a small, sticky government hospital and sits poised with her notebook listening to the doctor. A reporter for Khabar Lahariya, a weekly rural newspaper that reaches 400 villages, Tabassum is investigating a story based on reports that villagers suffering from tuberculosis are not being treated. “We don’t send health personnel,” the doctor explains. “The sick person should come to be examined.”

Tabassum insists that physicians have previously been sent for check-ups to other distant villages where the necessary facilities are not available. The thirty-two-year-old reporter leaves with a promise that two medical officers will be quickly dispatched. “I’ll see what happens and discuss the next step at our editorial meeting,” she says.

Khabar Lahariya—the name means “news waves”—is run entirely by underprivileged women in Chitrakoot, a remote corner of India’s deep hinterland. Desperately poor, the region’s arid expanse overflows with social and economic strife. Train passengers on their way from Delhi talk about the drought-plagued, barren fields that line their fifteen-hour journey. The crops have failed for the past four years, and farmers are frantic for rain.

The journalists that work at the biweekly newspaper have become a relentless force in the rural communities they cover. This year, the paper won the King Sejong Literacy Prize, awarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. “Two years ago, I was scared to question strangers, but not anymore,” says Tabassum. “If the doctor refuses to respond, I’ll write that.”

Khabar Lahariya was founded in 2002, the brainchild of a gender education organization called Nirantar, which initiated the project as a way of sustaining literacy in rural communities. The idea originally was to create a “print rich environment” by teaching local women to produce locally relevant reading material that could be used by the local population. This took the form of a full-fledged newspaper printed in the local language of Bundeli.

The publication initially floundered in a society where journalism is a monopoly of “upper-caste” men. Caste-based discrimination is entrenched in Chitrakoot. The banned practice of “untouchability” is rampant. Married off at an early-age, women are victims of illiteracy. Incidents of dowry deaths, where brides are killed for not bringing sufficient gifts and money into their husband’s home, also crop up in these parts. This practice, which usually takes the form of burning, is prohibited by law.

The twenty reporters of Khabar Lahariya belong to the most oppressed groups in the region. They are Dalits, Muslim, or Kohl—a tribe whose livelihood is traditionally sustained by the forests. “The concept of women coming out in the public sphere did not really exist,” says Disha Mullick, who heads the program for Nirantar. “It’s been a real challenge to get them to collect information, ask questions, and write about it.”

Initial training involved countless “rural journalism workshops” planned by the Delhi-based group. Professionals accompanied aspiring reporters into the field to instruct them on news-gathering, interviewing techniques as well as writing, editing and distribution.

Today, after seven years in the making, the newspaper has a readership of about 35,000 and costs two rupees (about four cents). After receiving an international literacy award from the United Nations this year, the newspaper has become a source of pride in the Chitrakoot and Banda districts. Politicians, government officials, and the police think twice before ignoring the paper’s reporters, as they did in the past. “Many more people are reading their paper and taking them seriously,” says a local government administrator, suddenly pointing at a dilapidated jeep that whizzes past with two cops in battered khaki uniforms clasping copies of Khabar Lahariya, the thin sheets being tugged by the strong breeze.

With Nirantar’s supervision gradually ebbing, the reins are now in the hands of the Khabar Lahariya women, who organize the workshops to train the new recruits. The editorial board invites applications from the neighboring villages and picks out around eight or nine for training from the fifty or so they receive. The minimal requirement for applicants is to have passed the eighth grade.

While the senior reporters have high school or college degrees, the fresh entrants are less educated. “We also see how willing they are to learn,” says Meera, the thirty-eight-year-old chief editor of the paper. (The women do not use their last names, which they view as symbolizing generations of subjugation.) “Being a woman journalist here takes a lot of guts.”

“Local news” is their battle cry. The team covers stories in the interiors of the countryside that are ignored by mainstream papers. Meera reminisces about a story on a village deep in the forest, which was being held captive by bandits. “None of the bigger newspapers dared to go,” she says. “We two women walked through the jungle to tell their tale.”

They reported that the town constabulary was sleeping in the children’s school of the village instead of protecting its inhabitants. In another piece, the team reported on a local politician whose family member had occupied a public landholding. “We may not have been able to solve the problem but we brought a lot of attention to it,” says Shanti, a reporter who was married when she was five years old.

Shanti’s parents were woodcutters who could not afford to send her to school. In her thirties, she met social activists who were running literacy camps near her village. Since then, it’s taken nearly a decade for her to become a full-fledged reporter.

The forty-year-old journalist recalls her favorite story, one she did on a hospital that had made it a practice to refuse rural women care in the emergency ward.

When her pregnant friend was asked to leave, Shanti refused to budge and managed to pry open the doors of the ER a few minutes before delivery. “I know my rights,” she says, matter-of-factly. Next week, an article on the hospital appeared in the paper.

Such pieces have garnered much respect for Khabar Lahariya and made it into a local brand. “First when we went for reporting, people would not let us enter their homes or sit with us because of our caste. But now they know these are the reporters from Khabar Lahariya,” says Shanti.

Despite the recognition and accolades, the reporters still battle several obstacles. Their families still consider it scandalous and dangerous to traverse the countryside at odd hours and talk to men. “Women in journalism are considered a sin,” says correspondent Kavita, who was a bride at age twelve.

Although the friction persists, Kavita, now thirty-two, has convinced her in-laws to support her decision. But now, outsiders scoff at her kin. “My neighbors saw my husband making dinner so now they call him my servant,” she sighs. “It never ends.” To keep the peace, journalism must coexist with cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children.

The rigid caste structure also hampers their job. In the beginning, people refused to talk to these women because of their low caste. “The first step was to make them get over their own fears because they had lived with discrimination for so long,” says Mullick.

Another reporter, also named Meera, recalls her childhood experience. “I will never forget when my teacher refused to take water from my hands,” she says. Now, the twenty-three-year-old is doing a story about a teacher facing pressure from “upper-caste” parents who want their children to be seated separately from the “low-caste” students.

Although journalism hasn’t solved all their problems, it has empowered the women to claim an identity. “For centuries we have only been known as someone’s mother, wife or daughter,” says Kavita. “Today we’re journalists.”

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Betwa Sharma is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India. She also blogs for the Huffington Post and is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in, The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, and The Daily Beast.