Khabar Lahariya News via Deccan Herald

Rural women with a nose for news

Against all odds, an eight-member team of women drawn from Dalit and Kol tribal communities in UP have started a newspaper that is all set to give mainstream publications a run for their money, says Geeta Seshu.

“Mainstream papers don't talk to everyone. Usually, they talk to the 'sarpanch' (village head) and a few other important people. But we talk to everyone. We are interested in everyone," said Shanti, 45, ace reporter of 'Khabar Lahariya', the country's first and only newspaper brought out by women in Bundeli, a dialect of Hindi spoken in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh (UP).

Against all odds, an eight-member team of women drawn from Dalit and the Kol tribal communities of Chitrakoot and Banda districts of UP began 'Khabar Lahariya' in Chitrakoot in 2002 and, consequently, launched an edition in November 2006 in Banda. The paper is supported and funded by Nirantar, a Delhi-based centre for gender and education. The eight-page broadsheet that is full of news, photographs and illustrations covers the gamut of local to national and global issues with a special focus on local concerns.

With a print run of 3,500 copies, and an estimated 10 people who read each copy, priced at Rs 2, 'Khabhar Lahariya', or KL, as its team calls it, is all set to give mainstream newspapers a run for their money. Especially when it will shortly turn into a weekly from the fortnightly it is at present.

Fully living up to its name — which translated reads 'waves of news and information' — the publication is managed by feisty women who take on the roles of reporters, editors, illustrators, proof-readers, print production workers, marketing executives and distributors. 'Tazaa Khabar', a documentary on these women, made by Bishakha Datta, captures wonderfully, an amusing scene of reporter Shanti making her way through a crowded train, hawking copies of the newspaper.

"Yahan bhi taash khel rahe hain (Even here they are playing cards)," she says, as she comes upon a group of men playing cards. One of them says the card game is 'time pass'. In a flash, Shanti fishes out a copy of 'KL' from her bag and tells the group to read the newspaper, saying it is the best way to be entertained and informed.

Kavita, 28, who, along with Kiran, Meera and Nazneen, looks after the Banda edition is proud of the fact that sometimes, reporters of the major mainstream newspaper 'Amar Ujala' have picked up stories that appeared first in KL. Interestingly, the Chitrakoot edition, looked after by Meera, 37, who is the editor-in-chief, Shanti, Mithilesh and Tabassum, carries reports in Bundeli too, but the language of the reports is in the dialect spoken in this district, slightly different from the version of Bundeli spoken in Banda.

Its news is varied but, at all times, the focus is on the 300 villages — there are at least 220 in Chitrakoot district alone. The team comes from different villages in and around Karwi, the newspaper's head office and the headquarters of Chitrakoot district. The reporters travel extensively, juggling with aplomb their duties at home and their assignments.

Moderately educated

Most of the women that are a part of the KL team are moderately educated with the exception being Meera, who has done her Bachelor of Arts in Sanskrit. Shanti learnt to read and write in a formal school only 10 years ago while Kavita had not even completed her primary education till she prevailed upon her in-laws and husband to let her go to a non-formal school and study further.

Initially, the women say, their families were skeptical and even frightened at the 'dangerous' nature of their work. But they soon gained the respect of both their families and the community. In fact, now they are approached for help, and even feared.

A clip from the documentary shows, a reporter covering a local 'panchayat' (village council) election and the seat is reserved for women. As the result is announced, guess who is adorned with garlands and heaped with congratulations? The victorious woman's husband, of course. And guess who makes it into a story? The KL reporter, but naturally.

Like all newspapers that report on controversial issues, KL has also had run-ins with the authorities on several occasions. For instance, in 2004 in Manikpur, Chitrakoot district, the death of a woman over dowry demands was not written about by any mainstream papers in the area because it involved a local 'sarpanch'. When a KL scribe reported it, she was threatened with dire consequences. More recently, in Ramjupur in February this year, when the mainstream press wrote about a woman, who was actually a victim of a rape and assault, as if she were the culprit, it was only the KL news team that broke the news as it was.

In a marked departure from the single-issue focus of most news bulletins brought out by NGOs, this newspaper has separate pages for national and international news,  development, women's issues, the 'panchayat' and a letters column. Sensitive to the needs of newly-literate readers, its font size is larger and column-width wider than regular papers. Photographs and illustrations accompany the text, again to make it visually interesting for readers.

Inspired work

It has taken a while for KL to work out all these formulae. Its precursor was 'Mahila Dakiya', a single-page broadsheet brought out by the government-sponsored Mahila Samakhya, a women's education programme.

'Mahila Dakiya' was produced between 1993 and 2000, along with Nirantar, for newly-literate women readers.

"It closed down along with the project but people continued to ask for the paper. Chitrakoot is such a remote district and people really have no access to information," said Shalini, who works with Nirantar. "'Mahila Dakiya' was, of course, for women, but when we thought of starting a newspaper, we sought feedback on the kind of newspaper we would have, the profile of its readers and whether we would only target women and women's issues. We then decided that our paper would be for general readership," she added.

Today, Nirantar funds KL as a project and pays the salaries for its reporters, though the organisation hopes to make the newspaper sustain itself with subscriptions and sales . Nirantar hopes to explore different forms of organisation like trusts or cooperatives to help the barefoot reporters ride the waves of information revolution.