Shubhranshu Choudhary: Using arts to help rural India speak out

Volunteers put on a puppet show to teach rural people about the CGNet Swara project (Image: Purushottam Thakur)

Volunteers put on a puppet show to teach rural people about the CGNet Swara project (Image: Purushottam Thakur)

Three months after winning the Index Digital Activism Award for his work with CGNet Swara, Shubhranshu Choudhary spoke to Index about his most recent project, teaching rural villagers through performing arts how their mobile phones can be used to report incidents and issues that may otherwise be given the cold-shoulder by the authorities.

CGNet Swara (Voice of Chhattisgarh) is a mobile phone service that allows citizens to upload and listen to reports in their local language without the need for a smartphone or an internet connection.

The new experiment, as Choudhary referred to it, ran for a month, from 15 May to 15 June, and included volunteer artists performing in market places and villages in six of India’s 29 states. During this time the average number of daily reports jumped from 500 to 800, although, as Choudhary pointed out, it is too early tell if this was just an anomaly.

The team involved flipped their conventional method of teaching on its head. Previously, rural people were brought to the cities where they sat in classrooms and lectured about how to use the service. By physically going to the villagers instead, CGNet Swara has “reversed the order”, now teaching people in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

“We have made dance, we have written songs about our work, we have made a small drama, and there are characters that are puppets,” Choudhary told Index. “So in an entertaining way we try to tell them the problems with current mainstream media, which everyone should have equal access to, but unfortunately is owned and controlled by a small number of rich people.” This has resulted in a media full of information about the rich, according to Choudhary, with 80% of the population only receiving about 20% news coverage.

Between five and six million people speak Gondi in the six states CGNet Swara has visited, but they lack their own communication platform, with no radio station, newspaper or TV channel available in the Gondi language. CGNet Swara allows people to report incidents and get their voices heard when they might otherwise have been shunned.

Choudary was clear to point out that the people for whom this service is most vital are not uneducated, but rather a huge number of them live in rural areas and “feel more comfortable listening and speaking rather than reading and writing”. In a country where most Indians don’t have access to the internet but over 70% have access to a mobile phone, services like CGNet Swara play a pivotal part in giving the majority of the population a voice.

“By improving your communication platform, by improving the structure of communication within a community, by improving it from a top-down, one-way communication method to a bottom-up dialogue model of communication we are able to solve many smaller problems,” Choudhary told Index. “And maybe we will be contributing towards solving bigger problems as well.”

So how does CGNet Swara work? The programme allows people to phone in reports in their native language to the service, where they are then verified, translated and made available for playback online as well as over the phone. This is where urban activists come in to play. As Choudhary told Index, these are the people with the connections to the authorities, who speak the right language and can help getting these issues and problems solved. They complete the circle.

After the apparent success of last month’s trial period Choudhary is keen to continue with the project. “From what I gather from everyone, everyone’s pretty excited, but we will need some funding to continue it.” He told Index the project is not cheap to implement but “we are pretty convinced this is the way to reach these people.

“We feel convinced that this is the way to reach that last person of our community, because they are the ones who are left out. They are the ones whose voices are not coming out.”

Listen to the full interview with Shubhranshu Choudhary below.

This article was published on June 18, 2014 at

The Google Digital Activism Award winner Shubhranshu Choudhary

Shubhranshu Choudhary accepting his award (Photo: Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship)

Shubhranshu Choudhary accepting his award (Photo: Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship)

Journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary is the brain behind CGNet Swara (Voice of Chhattisgarh) a mobile-phone (no smartphone required) service that allows citizens to upload and listen to local reports in their local language.

Shubhranshu Choudhary acceptance remarks:

Over the last few centuries our politics, world over has got democratized, more or less.

But if you look at mass communication, media or Journalism it still remains aristocratic, top down and more power in the hands of few.

We understand that our political democracy can not mature, function well unless we have a democratic, equitable communication.

But is that possible?

That is the experiment we are trying to do in India.

I grew up in Central India amidst hills and forest with Indigeneous people, whom we also call Adivasis, the tribals.

Central India is in the middle of a bloody war between Maoist guerrillas and Indian security forces. Tribals are led by the Maoists.

My tribal classmates once told me “our smaller problems can be solved if we have a democratic communication platform where each has equal right to speak and being heard.

To create a democratic, more equitable media we are using mobile phone in this experiment. Mobile phones have reached deep interiors even in countries like India.

Everyone has a voice and can speak in their own mother tongue.They feel more comfortable speaking rather then writing as many do not know how to read and write. And even if they know they feel more comfortable as they are an oral community.

Though mobile is owned by many but it is a personal communication tool. We use internet to convert mobile phone into a mass communication tool.

Today the same people who had no voice before are picking up their mobile and are telling their stories in their own languages. The messages, songs get recorded in our computer using an Interactive Voice recorder system and people can hear the same messages on their mobiles once they are cross-checked moderarted by some volunteers.

The same messages are also available online for Urban activists to follow with officials if they are about any problem. We are seeing many problems getting solved by making this simple connectivity.

An accumulation of these unsolved simple problems create bigger problems like the one we are facing in Central India today, which our Prime Minister once called India’s biggest internal security threat.

If problems are not being heard, not being solved, they create the “future terrorists”

But to complete this experiment we need your help.

We need help to connect this experiment to Short wave radio to create a duplicatable and sustainable independent communication model which people can own.

India, though, is world’s biggest democracy, we do not allow Radio. We will need help from outside like yours who can give us space in Radio transmitters.

But it will be a different type of radio, new radio. In this democratic radio programs will not be created in studios or newsrooms but they will be created in far off forests and villages where people through their mobile phone will report. Some of us in the middle on computer/internet will work on improving/editing them.

We Journalists will also be elected by the community and not selected by the powerful few.

This way we will create news which is by the people, of the people and for the people.

If we want a better democracy, a peaceful tomorrow we can not leave Journalism in the hands of few any more. Time has come like politics, Journalism also needs to become everybody’s business.

And it is possible.

— Shubhranshu Choudhary, CGNet Swara

More about Shubhranshu Choudhary

This article was originally posted on 20 March 2014 at