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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A new initiative promoting citizen journalism through mobile phones in central India's remote forests is giving a voice to poor and marginalised tribes, whose plight has long been overlooked by the state and media.
Trapped between Maoist insurgents and security forces for decades, tribal communities living in the mineral-rich, yet impoverished state of Chhattisgarh, have eked out a meagre living from the forests - farming, collecting firewood and wild fruits.
Due to low literacy levels, lack of infrastructure and poverty, they have lived a relatively isolated life - unable to read newspapers or afford a television set, let alone have access to a power supply to run such devices.
As a result, the communities - made up mainly of the Gond and Oraon tribes who comprise about a third of the state's 21 million people - have had little voice to publicly express issues that concern them as most can only communicate in their own tribal dialect.
But now, CGNet Swara or Chhattisgarh Net Voice - a platform where villagers can call a local number (08066932500) to hear local news affecting them and also record their own news - is spreading through remote villages buried in the dense forests.
"Tribals have been disconnected from the rest of India and even amongst themselves for years, but mobile penetration has now increased and I realised this was the only way to get their news to them," said Shubranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist, who began the service.
"People just have to call up and they can hear news in four different languages - Gondi, Kurruk, Chhattisgarhi and Hindi. It's helped to bridge the information gap for tribals who are on the other side of the digital divide."
Choudhary, who started the initiative in February, has gained support from Microsoft, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and, most recently, the International Centre for Journalism.
CGNet Swara currently receives around 50 calls a day - with some callers just wanting to listen to the latest news, while others record messages.
Reports are vast and varied: teachers not being paid at local schools, police brutality against tribals, protests by villagers displaced by the insurgency, arsenic poisoning in village water sources.
There are also poems and tribal songs, appeals by local NGOs for funds, and even information on the All India tribal football tournament.
All messages are verified by Choudhary and his team of volunteers who confirms the reports with tribal communities on the ground, before translating the messages and posting them on the system.
The recorded messages are also sent by email to a group of 1,700 people - including activists, environmentalists, police officers and journalists - who are provided with the names and numbers of responsible officials and are invited to lobby them.
For example, a man called Kushal from Bijapur district reported that the head of the district had ordered the removal of a liquor shop in front of a school after hearing concerns about it on CGNet Swara.
In another case, a school worker called Mangal Kunjam in Dantewada district reported that school workers at an ashram had not been paid for more than a year. A week later, after the concerned official was flooded with calls, all the school workers were paid.
CGNet Swara also hopes to start broadcasting weather reports for farmers, public health messages on hygiene and sanitation as well as on malaria prevention.
The service is also open to aid agencies, which can send out information such as when they are running an eye camp or mobile hospital in a certain village.
According to a Delhi-based media research agency, Charkha, only 2 percent of space in Chhattisgarh's mainstream media is dedicated to covering the livelihood issues of indigenous people. India's tribals number some 80 million people, and most of them live below the poverty line.
Newspapers and radio stations in the tribal belt of the country - Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa - do not publish or broadcast in tribal languages.
Private radio stations are not permitted to broadcast news and are resigned to chat, music and phone-ins. The only radio station which can broadcast news is the state-run All India Radio - seen by many as being pro-government.
Televisions and internet services do not exist and activists say even if they did, more than 50 percent of rural households in Chhattisgarh do not have electricity.
But mobile phone usage is gaining ground amongst India's indigenous people.
"There is at least one mobile in every village," said Choudhary, "so I thought there must be a way to take advantage of this to get news to the people."
With help from the Microsoft Research Laboratory in Bangalore and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the service is now spreading.
Recent funding from the International Centre for Journalism will soon be used to make calls toll free (they currently cost one rupee per minute) and UNICEF has provided funds to train tribals in citizen journalism.
Aid workers say the service is already showing results and helps bring accountability in public service delivery.
"We think this is a fantastic medium to give a voice to people in these remote areas," said Shaheen Nilofar, head of UNICEF's office in Chhattisgarh's capital, Raipur.
"It flags up social sector issues in areas where information is hard to come by and gives a space to social sector issues affecting tribal communities which the mainstream media do not address."
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