Khabar Lahariya, a rural weekly run by newly literate women from backward communities, is a unique experiment in the power of the media.
As women from marginalised communities, how tough was it to establish a newspaper in the rural heartland?” I ask Meera, the 40-year-old editor-in-chief of Khabar Lahariya, an eight-page weekly in Bundeli and Bajjika languages published from Bundelkhand and north-Bihar. Run entirely by women of the Dalit, Muslim and tribal communities, the weekly has four editions published from Chitrakoot, Banda and Mahoba in Uttar Pradesh and Sitamarhi in Bihar. “As tough as it would be for any journalist anywhere in the world,” she replies matter-of-factly.
Bundelkhand, comprising seven districts in southern Uttar Pradesh and six in northern Madhya Pradesh, is one of the most backward regions in India and figures very low in human development indicators. It is a largely rural, caste-ridden society with a high incidence of crimes against women.
Bundeli for “news waves”, Khabar Lahariya was started by Nirantar, a Delhi-based gender and education centre, as an experiment in sustaining literacy. “We realised that even if women in these areas attained literacy, there was very little reading material for them to sustain it,” says Disha Mullick, project coordinator at Nirantar. They could also not relate to the regional editions of national newspapers which, besides being in a language they did not understand, did not address issues that concerned them.
What started in 2002 with a staff of eight women now comprises 29 who write, edit, proof-read, take photographs and make illustrations for the newspaper. Trained in basic computing skills, they use Adobe PageMaker and Photoshop. Once the paper goes to print, they double up as marketing agents and distribute it to their 30,000 readers in 700 villages.
The reporters must also solicit advertisements. “We are strictly against paid news and refuse ads that go against our policy,” says Kavita, regional editor of Banda. When a local goon approached Khabar Lahariya to place an ad promoting his firearms shop, the team flatly refused.
Priced at Rs 2, Khabar Lahariya gets very little advertising, even from regional brands. Village pradhans, block-level officers, small shopkeepers and businessmen put in a few ads paying between Rs 200 and Rs 5,000. This poses a challenge to Khabar Lahariya’s sustainability — each edition costs about Rs 20 lakh a year, but only about Rs 96,000 is generated in circulation and ad revenues. But its team won the Chameli Devi Jain Award for outstanding woman mediaperson in 2004. In 2008, Khabar Lahariya was registered as an independent women's media collective.
Nirantar has tied up funders — the United Nations Democracy Fund and Dorabji Tata Fund — for the next two years. But given its expansion plans — Awadhi and Bhojpuri editions in Lucknow, Faizabad and Varanasi districts — the paper will have to look at ways to be self-reliant.
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“Initially no one took us seriously,” says Kavita. Her colleague Laxmi, 25, who heads the Sitamarhi edition, has a similar story to tell: “We were literally shooed away from places. No one believed we were journalists working for a newspaper.”
Khabar Lahariya established its credibility by reporting on local issues, on implementation of schemes like MGNREGA and midday meal, corruption and excesses, and tracking the disbursement of public money for rural development. For instance, the latest (November 1-7) edition has an article chiding gram panchayats in Chitrakoot and Banda for failing to ensure the participation of Dalits and women in an “open” meet. Neither does it neglect covering the political goings-on in Delhi. The edition carried an opinion piece, “Kya yeh hai rajneeti?”, on Arvind Kejriwal’s move to start a political outfit. However, national politics is mostly relegated to the back pages. The paper also has a special page dedicated to women’s issues called Mahila Mudda.
Over the years, Khabar Lahariya has emerged as something of a local watchdog. A report that nearly all residents of Sukhrampur village were suffering from TB resulted in health officers being pulled up for negligence and villagers getting treatment. “Now, people welcome us to their villages and want to tell us about their problems so that we can highlight them,” says Kavita.
Reporters in most small publications are charged with arm-twisting people for small benefits, but senior journalists at Khabar Lahariya ensure that there’s no such complaint. Kavita and Meera often travel with cub reporters. Their rapport with local authorities and villagers helps them keep a check on their team.
Nirantar too organises a seven-day programme to train journalists and conducts workshops through the year to build their skills. Since Khabar Lahariya focuses on issues of the marginalised, it takes care to distinguish between activism and journalism. “We tell our reporters that their job is to get a story and not make promises to the villagers they interview. So no telling them ‘we’ll get your ration card made’ or ‘we’ll solve your water problem’ and so on,” says Shalini Joshi, director at Nirantar.
Whatever difference the paper may have made to the lives of marginalised communities in the region, it has definitely helped empower the Dalit women who work as journalists. Reporters get paid between Rs 4,000 and Rs 12,000. Shivdevi joined the paper two years ago, walking out of a violent marriage. Now she has bought land with her savings and hopes to build a house in which she can live with her three daughters. One of Khabar Lahariya’s youngest reporters, Suneeta (19), used to work in a stone quarry. “Talking to people and reporting on burning issues has given me a sense of confidence,” says Laxmi from Sitamarhi.
In the beginning, Nirantar had to help the women deal with angry husbands who didn’t want their wives working late hours. “But a lot of the women reporters are the only earning members in their families and most husbands welcome an earning hand,” says Disha Mullick.