Let us think about the ideal state of information sharing for a moment. Let us imagine a platform through which a person from a remotely located small village can reach to the Chief Minister or even to the Prime Minister. Let us imagine a newspaper which is open for all. Anybody can come up and write about her/his concerns. In return, the newspaper promises to stand together and work towards the solution.
If we talk about the ideal state of information sharing, what could that be like? Would that be a place where there is no barrier in sharing and receiving information? Would that be a platform for every individual of the community to come up and share their concerns despite all the differences of caste, class, religion, and gender? Would that be a media organization where there is the no difference between a reader and a reporter?
What if I say, this is not imagination or ideal state of affair? This is not even a case of any developed and well-settled society. This system of journalism is being practiced in a small town of Puri district of India’s one of the under-developed states Odisha. A community newspaper Namaskar is published from Konark town in Puri district and reaches to approx 700 villages. Konark is famous for the world heritage site Sun Temple, and it has developed as a small town due to this tourism attraction. However, just beyond the boundaries of Notified Area Council (Nagar Panchayat) region, there is a wide periphery of village area which is still in extreme conditions and far from development initiatives of the government of Odisha. This is a part of the coastal region of Odisha, and many of the villages are cyclone hit, and displacement is a regular process of life for the villagers. We can easily identify the major issues of this area including problems related to livelihood, sanitation, drinking water, deforestation, coastal erosion, etc. People are in need of all sorts of help from the government and non-governmental organizations.
However, the question is, how would the residents of these far-flung areas reach to the authorities? How would the aid agencies know about the prevailing situation? There is a need for efficient communication channel in between the two ends. Fortunately, here villagers have found a helping hand Namaskar which is successfully bridging the communication gap. Namaskar is a community newspaper which is published in colloquial Odia language. It covers three blocks in Puri district which includes GOP, Kakatpur, and Astaranga. It reaches to 700 villages in the area of around 45 kilometers and caters the needs of approx a population of 3,50,000. It is a fortnightly tabloid size community newspaper and on an average 4000 to 5000 copies are published in every edition.
People of Konark and nearby villages are defying the set norms of publication with Namaskar. They are showing that publishing a newspaper is not a privilege of professionally trained hands. Anyone can write her or his concerns with little motivation and support. Community media platforms such as Namaskar are making media more democratic in India and providing voice and space to marginalized people to come out and express their worries. People of the community come together and participate in media making. They contribute to all sorts of work required for a newspaper publication including reporting, news writing, editing and distribution of the paper. Professionally trained hands only perform the role of facilitator.
The community newspaper Namaskar works under the anthem of ‘every reader is a reporter.’ This simply means that anybody from the community can contribute to the paper with news and information. Many news boxes are placed at various places in the area for that purpose. People can leave their queries, information, messages or complaints in the box which is checked by the volunteers on a regular basis and the letters are brought to the Namaskar office. These volunteers are from the community itself. People also send news through SMS and WhatsApp on the numbers provided in the newspaper. The system works as the paper mainly focuses on local issues and problems faced by the community people. At the office, the professionally trained hands perform the work of designing and prepare the print-ready copy of the newspaper. Editing of the news stories and placement of these stories are done without much interference in the essence and tone of the news report. Popular Community Media Expert & founder editor of this community newspaper N. A. Shah Ansari states that “the practice of Namaskar is to give voice to the voiceless. People write news stories in their colloquial language. We try to keep their emotions and anger intact in the final news. We respect our sources whether she/he is a farmer, laborer, fisherman student or a teacher.”
The real strength of Namaskar is its vast reader cum reporter base. People eagerly wait for each edition to see their stories and pictures published in the paper. They also take an interest because many times news and information of their localities, local government bodies, nearby schools or colleges come as a surprise. Namaskar has disclosed various incidences of corruption in government programmes which are meant to help people in the downtrodden areas. The villagers readily share success stories of their areas and how things have changed at the ground level after their news published in Namaskar. For instance, as the impact of Namaskar, people have started getting work under MGNREGA. Many have received their long stuck pensions. Sarojini Kanungo from Siripur village happily talks about her success story. After getting published in Namaskar, she received allowance under Mamta Scheme of Women and Child Development of government of Odisha. She mentions “only when ‘Namaskar Didi’ came to our village I got to know that mothers of infant child can get financial help from government. ‘Namaskar Didi’ published one ‘Charcha’ about the scheme in the paper. Stories of many women like me were published in the news along with our pictures with children. After that, I met some government officials and got my allowance. Many women received allowance after that news”. Namaskar has brought awareness to villagers about their rights and how to claim that. One thing is observable in the conversation with community people that they take Namaskar as a community effort and consider it their paper.
The story of Namaskar community newspaper does not stop with the publication of the news story. The reason behind its effectiveness comes with the proactive work which is done after a news story is published in the paper. There is a proper grievance escalation system at Namaskar. After the publication of any issue in Namaskar a grievance letter is sent to all the concerned departments with a cutting of the newspaper. This includes Panchayat and block level offices as well as district offices and concerned ministries in the capital. The issue and its escalation are followed up until the matter is fully resolved. If the concerned departments at the local levels do not work efficiently, the matter is escalated to the chief minister and even to the prime minister if the case may be. Major issues which come up in this process are related to corruption in government schemes such as Indira Awas Yojana, Mamta Yojana, Old Age Pension Scheme, etc. Many times Namaskar team take help of RTI to extract information regarding such issues.
The community newspaper works to fill the communication gap between community people and higher authorities. It gives focus to people’s complaints and problems. However, positive stories are also given equal importance. When the matter is resolved, a success story thanking to all the helping hands is published in the paper. The positive promotion actually works as a motivation for responsible authorities to work efficiently to gain popularity among people.
The paper is well structured to accommodate all the important information for the community. There are regular columns for discussion (‘charcha)’, people’s complaints (‘sir tike sunibe’), impact (‘prabhav’) and interview with an inspiring personality (‘aagnya namaskar’). Along with that, information regarding government policies and notifications, important contact numbers, and addresses from where paper can be purchased is provided in the paper.
There is a good volunteer base of the paper in the villages. People voluntarily come up and contribute their service to the paper. Literacy level in the area is average. However, people who cannot write their news for any reason go to these volunteers or directly reach to the office and narrate their concerns. The volunteer writes down or record their story and bring it to the editorial team which transcribes it and makes a news story for the paper. Maniranjan Panda is one such volunteer who collects news in Konark NAC and also he helps in distributing the paper in the area. He opines, “What Namaskar is doing is true public service. I am involved with the paper for the service only. It gives us a sense of pride and satisfaction”. After receiving news from the volunteers the team tries to publish that in the same words of the informants. In this way, the paper uses various colloquial dialects within the Odia language. People also send pictures to the paper which are published in the photo corner ‘photo re khabar’ with a small caption and the name of the sender.
The paper is sold at Rupees three per copy and also take advertisements from small local businessmen, shopkeepers and educational institutions it also gives space to well wishes of local leaders on auspicious occasions. However, space for advertisement is strictly limited, and that is only taken to make the paper sustainable and not to make a profit.
Though the paper is running smoothly now, the editor recalls the time of initial challenges. He had to put a good sum of money and effort to bring out the paper initially. He also got some threats from unruly elements of the community. However, gradually people started noticing the impact of Namaskar and stood with the team. The strong support by the people gave Namaskar the strength to hit harder and put forward the issues more openly. The team regularly work towards improving the effectiveness of Namaskar. Ideas come from the community itself. People from all walks of life consider themselves part of this union and they stand together to bring out the best of their cooperation.
Annapurna Sinha is a Ph.D. Research Scholar at University of Hyderabad, India.