On the evening of May 16, 2010, Vijjobai Talami, the headwoman of Gumiapal village, phoned CGNet Swara, a fledgling mobile phone-based citizen journalism service. Talami provided a firsthand report about what happened that morning deep in the forests of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh: “The police came and searched our village and burnt our houses and grain. They shot dead two villagers, saying they are Maoists. But they were defenseless people who were killed for no reason.”
Since 2005, Indian security forces have been locked in a brutal civil war with Maoist insurgents in the villages and forests of Chhattisgarh. The conflict has claimed more than five thousand lives already—guerrillas and security personnel, but also scores of anonymous, unarmed villagers whom the state, often presenting little evidence, dubs insurgents. The victims overwhelmingly come from places like Gumiapal, inhabited by India’s culturally distinct and socioeconomically marginalized indigenous communities, known as Adivasis.
Their forests sit atop some of the world’s richest reserves of coal and iron ore. In the conflict zone’s epicenter in the Dantewada district in south Chhattisgarh, trains ferry out iron ore for domestic and international markets, but villages have little access to quality public schools, health care, potable water, or public transport. Industrialization and extraction have brought state-backed dispossession of Adivasis, whose protests are crushed and lands taken under a colonial-era acquisition law.
Official neglect and contempt toward the Adivasis eased the Maoists’ establishment of a “liberated zone” in the forests. The territorial struggle has intensified since 2009, when the central government launched Operation Green Hunt and sent in additional paramilitary troops. “Seven more of our villagers have been killed by forces in the past few months. One young girl is in prison. We live in constant fear, never knowing what might happen to us,” Talami told me when we met in late July, as she challenged the official line that the victims were insurgents. But narratives like that are impossible to find in Chhattisgarh’s expanding media, made up of more than a dozen newspapers and half a dozen television news channels.
There are multiple reasons for this vacuum: Adivasi villages can be isolated and located in the conflict zone, making them hard for journalists to reach; the Adivasis’ millennia-old languages lack a written script and are spoken by few outsiders; and newsrooms rarely hire Adivasi journalists due to their marginalization and low levels of literacy. But more damaging are individual journalists’ fear of retribution, and the mainstream media’s news values, shaped by a deepening alignment with Chhattisgarh’s political and economic elite.
When Shubranshu Choudhary, a former BBC producer, returned to his home state of Chhattisgarh in the midst of the civil war, he was troubled by the absence of the Adivasi in the state’s media. “I thought the Maoist rebellion was in many ways a failure of communication, since there were no spaces which truly reflected the Adivasi’s problems and concerns,” Choudhary says.
As a Knight International Journalism Fellow in 2009, Choudhary began scouting for inexpensive technologies that might support a grassroots platform where the Adivasis could share their own stories. In the forested villages, where there are few televisions and newspapers aren’t distributed, Choudhary reasoned that the outlet would have to be voice-based, which would allow universal access and build on Adivasi traditions of oral expression. Villagers who contributed would not encounter editorial gatekeepers; there would only be a set of trained moderators charged with fact-checking postings to the extent possible.
India’s cellular boom—and continuing restrictions on news content on private FM radio stations—drew Choudhary to a phone-based platform. In February 2010, he launched CGNet Swara, a word that means “voice” in many Indian languages. Today, villagers use cell phones (available in rural India for 1,000 rupees—about $20) to call Swara and post their news, and listen to others’ contributions. The content is also posted on Swara’s website. “The idea was to make the medium as simple as possible, so that the villagers could use it, own and define it for themselves,” says Bill Theis, a Microsoft researcher based in Bangalore who helped develop the service’s technology.