This article is part of a series called Women and Media, which tries to showcase some of the innovative and unusual ways in which women represent themselves and their struggles in the media today, and the women responsible for creating these spaces of discourse and debate. The other articles in the series can be found here.
A few months ago, my university played host to a few pioneering entrepreneurs as part of an event called IDEA (Innovation, Design, and Entrepreneurship at Ashoka) 2018. One of the guest speakers invited to talk at the event was Disha Mullick, the Director of Strategy at Khabar Lahariya, India’s first digital rural news network. Mullick’s talk piqued my interest a considerable amount – it was fascinating to hear about the adventures of rural reporters in Uttar Pradesh and their dedication to bringing unbiased, well-researched news to the people of these areas.
Khabar Lahariya was founded in 2002 in Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, by Nirantar, a Delhi-based NGO that focuses on gender and education. From its inception, Khabar Lahariya has aimed to bring local news to the people living in the rural hinterlands of North India, who are far-removed from the politics of New Delhi and other big cities, in languages and dialects that these people can understand – Khabar Lahariya is primarily published in dialects of Hindi such as Bundeli and Awadhi.
What makes Khabar Lahariya different from other rural news networks, however, is that its team of journalists and reporters consists entirely of women from various economic and caste backgrounds. In fact, a significant number of the women who are part of the Khabar Lahariya team are Dalits.
Until a few years ago, Khabar Lahariya was an enterprise run solely through the distribution of its physical copies and subscriptions. According to Mullick, “Khabar Lahariya started out as a kind of literacy exercise”. The team wanted the newspaper’s primary consumers and audience to be rural women, meaning that it made the most sense to encourage women themselves to write and report on news that they wanted to see and read about. Thus, over the years, the identity of the newspaper and those associated with it became attached to the physical, printed version of Khabar Lahariya that these women produced.
When the Khabar Lahariya team decided to make the shift to digitising the newspaper in 2013, they were conscious of the identity that they had created and worked hard to maintain. After spending so long envisioning the kind of news outlet Khabar Lahariya was to be, and executing that vision over many years, Mullick mentioned in her talk at Ashoka, “We didn’t want to lose or change [it] when we migrated to digital”.
The shift to a digital platform proved fruitful; as a solely print publication, the newspaper was able to reach an audience of only about 40,000-50,000 people in rural North India. By shifting to the internet, however, the readership size expanded exponentially – Khabar Lahariya was able to reach more people, not just in rural districts, while still retaining its core message of women empowerment and literacy. This has also enabled the Khabar Lahariya team to collaborate with other popular digital news platforms such as Scroll.in, The Wire, and Huffington Post India, further expanding the number of people it was able to reach.
One of the major draws of Khabar Lahariya is that it steps in where mainstream, urban media fails – it delivers news that matter to people in rural areas and that affect them directly, and not just when a “politician visits a rural area”, as most other news networks tend to do, Mullick pointed out. This is also helped by the fact that the reporters involve people from the areas they are covering in their reportage while talking about the problems they face or civic efforts taken to improve their lives.
Khabar Lahariya reporters are great at their job – most importantly, they love doing it. In the true spirit of journalism, these women go out into the field to conduct their own research for their stories, interview people across Uttar Pradesh on tape and video cameras, and are consummate professionals when it comes to deadlines and publishing constraints. But this doesn’t come without its own dangers – Uttar Pradesh is a notoriously violent state, and the districts that Khabar Lahariya covers especially so. According to a Khabar Lahariya blog on HuffPost interviewing Meera Jatav, the Chief Reporter of the organisation, the newspaper’s journalists often faces sexism, government apathy, and threats of violence from the people they report on. It also doesn’t help that a lot of them are from “low castes” in a state where caste lines are often drawn in blood, making it difficult for them to approach a lot of the people they want to cover, along with more mundane matters such as finding a place to stay. But Meera encourages other rural, low caste women who aspire to a career in journalism to “Use only your own voice, it matters” and “Tell the stories you want to tell” – a valuable lesson to keep in mind for all women who want to make a difference in the world of Indian journalism.
By Rutvi Zamre
Rutvi Zamre is an English major who knows that she doesn’t know much.