Towards a news website

By Rajiv Shah
Nobel laureate Mohamman Yunus, the Grameen Bank man from Bangladesh, believes that information and communication technology (ICT) is going to “change the world in the immediate future far more rapidly and fundamentally than any other technology so far in human history.” Writing in the article “Poverty Free World: How and When”, he says, “Internet … is spreading at an exponential rate. At its present speed, it is doubling its worldwide use every nine months.”
An economist of the highest order, he underlines, “The most attractive aspect of this spread of ICT is that it is not in anyone’s control. Neither government, nor big business, nor anyone of any authority can restrict the flow of information through the Internet. The next best aspect of it is that it is becoming cheaper every day.”
Further, he says, “ICT is raising the hope that we are approaching the world which is free from power brokers, and knowledge brokers. Each individual’s likes and dislikes count. Individuals will be in command. There will be no screening authority to get to centre-stage.”
Pointing out that this is particularly exciting for all disadvantaged groups, voiceless groups, and minority groups, he adds, “Any power based on exclusive access to information will disintegrate. Any common citizen will have almost as much access to information as the head of government. Leadership will have to be based on vision and integrity, rather than on manipulation of information.”
It is not fashionable to quote Karl Marx, as was in 1970s. But what Yunus says is only a reflection of Marx’s views enunciated way back in 1859 in “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”: “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”
Established Communist parties have, unfortunately, never paid heed to the above truth. Marx clearly points towards how social orders are not destroyed unless the productive forces are sufficiently developed to change the social order. Yunus’ views on ICT only go to show the correctness of Marx’s views. It is time civil society heeds the voice of reason of Yunus and Marx and considers ICT as a means to change.

Information and civil society

One of the major problems civil society faces is how to communicate with the outside world. The problem is not new, but in Gujarat it is particularly strong, given the fact that civil society is under attack from the powerful ruling establishment with a clear bias towards those who do not toe its ideology. Not that attempts were not made in the past to ensure that civil society is able to start a dialogue with the outside world, and gain in strength as a result. One important attempt was formation of Gujarat Institute of Development Research (GIDR). The GIDR's aim was to use the data base available with civil society and use it for research purposes. However, with the passage of time, these attempts appear to have petered down, and little is being done to develop an alternative model of advocacy.
Not that the GIDR failed in the initial period. It was formed with the active support of the civil society. I remember how Hanif Lakdawala of Sanchetna proudly mentioned way back in early 1990s the manner in which then GIDR scholar Abusaleh Shariff was using his data for an important research work. Shariff is now a noted economist. Shariff. I was told, used the primary data to understand the health situation among the Muslims, seeking general conclusions of what exactly was happening on the ground. There were attempts elsewhere, too, to use civil society data for scholarly use. Prof Indira Hirway has done it in close association with Nafisa Barot's Utthan – she has written on water-related issues with information from the NGO. Unfortunately, however, these attempts by scholars remained confined to the four walls of the institutes which they represented.
Today, there is a clear deterioration in both the attempt to collect data and to disseminate them. Many researchers and NGOs, while analyzing latest situations, use only secondary data to come to "convenient" conclusions, which shows how far away they are from the latest situation on the ground. For instance, they would often use government data, which are generally very old and often failing to reflect the real situation. They do not understand that it is possible to reach the general from the particular -- they are unable to find what is happening on the ground by keeping touch with social and human rights workers. Old government data may, of course, serve to expand a particular viewpoint, but it just cannot supplement what exactly happens on the ground. The result is, civil society often finds itself in a situation where it does not have enough information on the ground. In fact, there is no means to disseminate information.
Not there civil society lacks information; it does not know its strength, or fails to share what it has. I am aware of the huge primary data available with Janpath based on the "yatra" by Harinesh Pandya and others on salinity ingress in the coastal areas. It has been documented; but strangely the data has not been properly put to use to understand the situation along the sea coast. While Janpath’s developmental work may tell its own separate story, the information with it of the sea coast should have been properly put to use in order to trigger a public debate, which in turn would help the civil society develop and expand. Janpath's work with the economically most backward sections of society, the denotified tribe, also has a similar potential, which has still not been put to use.

Existing potential

Such potential exists everywhere, including with Sukhdev Patel, who worked on child education, Ayesha Khan on Muslim women, Vipul Pandya on migrant workers' plight in cities, Gagan Sethi on state of the minorities after the riots, Martin Macwan on the state of tje Dalits, and Chetna on malnutrition in Gujarat -- the list is endless. Then, there are environment-related NGOs with data on tribals, forests, afforestation, social forestry, industrial pollution, its impact on the local people, and so on. There may be differences between NGOs on the way they work, their approach, their development activity. For instance, SEWA does not take up human rights issues like Navsarjan does, but the data with it on street vendors is mind boggling. But it has never been put to use. Same is the case with Rajesh Shah's Vikas and Achyut Yagnik's Setu. Both are ideologically far apart, but their data are extremely important and complementary.
In fact, the data with civil society exists independent of the approach a particular NGO adopts. I used whatever I could catch hold on for my articles between 1993 and 1997, before I was shifted by the Times of India to Gandhinagar to do political reporting, and got somewhat out of touch with what NGOs have thereafter. I would never talk of developmental activities of NGOs, but focused primarily on the their data to show how the evil practice of carrying nightsoil on head head remained intact in Gujarat towns despite manual scavenging having been banned, how agate workers in Khambhat lived a life of slow death, how remnants of bonded labour existed in kampas of North Gujarat, how women were exploited in Jambusar, how mining activities were creating havoc around Gir, and so on.
How to take this forward? One can train NGO workers to start writing on these issues in a newspaper or a journal which they think belongs to them. Then, one can train existing journalists in newspapers to be more sensitive towards what is happening in Gujarat. However, my experience with journalism in Gujarat since 1993 suggests that the second option is an extremely difficult task, as it involves a huge amount of convincing, which one cannot easily do given civil society's abilities and resources. In fact, owners of established newspapers openly say, they do not believe in pursuing social agenda, but as for news they wouldn’t mind. So, why not make use of this huge newsy potential?
Not that the material with civil society cannot be used by existing papers, even if they are controlled by powerful business interests. Each newspaper is interested in coming up with new facts and figures, and civil society has a huge data base which can satisfy the hunger for news. Had this not been so, I would not have been able to publish my pieces in the Times of India based on data with civil society. More recently, The Times of India carried a series on untouchability in Gujarat villages, based on survey by Navsarjan – again showing what can be done.
The only precaution one should take is not to indulge in propagating what a particular NGO is doing -- had I done it, my editor in the Times of India would have not have published even one piece. Once in a while propagating NGO development is all right, for instance during an award ceremony, but it should be news-based. My experience in journalism for above three decades, whether as special correspondent in Moscow for Patriot and Link between 1986 and 1993, or my stint in Gujarat since 1993 with the Times of India, Ahmedabad, suggests there is a significant gap between the information available with civil society and scholars, on one hand, and the media, both print and electronics, on the other. Media being what it is, controlled by powerful business interests, there is a definite perception among journalists that the civil society is foreign funded and its social welfare activities have little local base.
What is forgotten in the process is that most NGOs who work in the field are armed with a huge information base -- on how people live, what they do, how to they interact, and what are their relationships with the strong and the powerful in society. NGOs have their own network on the ground, which is socially more aware than other sections of population, including political workers, and it usually understands local social issues better than others. At least my interaction with local workers suggests this. The need is to provide local issues a dynamic perspective.
Even while taking up a project, NGOs are often found to study the area they want to operate upon in order to submit details to the funding agency. The details include impact of what the state considers “development” on the local population. It can be displacement because of the construction of an industrial project, setting up a special economic zone, or building a dam. It can also be impact on environment because of this. The data collected often remains dormant, as those running NGOs have little idea as to what use the information.
One can easily use lots of research works being done on issues related with poorer sections of society. This can include NSS reports, which give data based on primary survey, suggesting how things are in different states. One latest example is the NSS survey on slum-dwellers, which suggests how Gujarat's slums are worse compared to most other states. One can indeed prepare not one but several articles on it, which can be of use to NGOs, professional journalists and even researchers, who would like to pick threads.
Even if the scope in TOI is limited, I have used NSS data suggesting expenditure pattern, literacy rate, earnings, health condition, employment opportunities, education, etc. Stories clicked quite well, though from the civil society viewpoint it can give a totally different perspective. Generally, few go deep into NSS data, or even analyse them, which is quite unfortunate. This despite the fact that the data are available on the web on NSS website. Contents of what should be there can be decided, though focus should be trigger as much discussion as possible, with different views interacting -- I'm always reminded of what Antonio Grasmci said, that every major change precedes discussions and more discussions.

Identifiable options

Options on how to go ahead are easily identifiable. While it does require some interaction with NGOs who are ready to fund the project, information can be easily disseminated by coming up with a News Portal. First of all, establishing the News Portal would not cost much. It will require a few tech-savvy English knowing researchers (two or three, depending on requirement) who have the ability to analyse issues and put them in a perspective. Once established, anyone -- NGOs, journalists or researchers -- can use the material available on the portal by just clicking the mouse. Even those abroad can use it for research purpose and interact with those who know things here, as the information can be of great help to them.
Once things take shape, it would be possible to train activists in how to interact with media persons, how to write simple press notes, and provide training to a selected activists on how to dot down and what to dot down selected facts on ground-level realities. These facts, put on the news portal, could be used by professional journalists for developing news stories. Of course, it is possible to start a periodical, but that would require considerable activity other than working on newspaper on the web, including making pages, printing, proof reading, and so on. It would considerably increase the cost. "Global Gujarat" is one news portal already being brought out in Gujarat, but it clearly lacks content and vision.
The news portal at a later stage can have a parallel Gujarati click, with persons who can type out things in Unicode controlling it. One can see Urvish Kothari’s blog to see that it can be done. Of course, Urvish’s are generally well-written comments, which a news portal should not pursue. No doubt, there can be a separate column on the type of comments he makes. The column can attract experts to write on different subjects, even as triggering a debate on contentious issues. There can be separate columns on environment, Dalits, tribals, Muslims, slums, forests, and so on, where these experts can be asked to comment.
However, the most important thing to remember is to ensure that the News Portal is updated almost daily. Apart from providing ground reality data, it can simultaneously jot down different types of programmes involving civil society coming up in the next few days, so that people can see the portal and participate in them. There can be a column on political controversies, but it is advisable to remain away from politicians of all hues, except of course while using them as sources of information for jotting down news items.
The researchers with the portal will have to cull out the inputs which we can receive from different voluntary agencies. These researchers can also collect research papers, scan web for studies done by Planning Commission, Human Resources Ministry, NSS, other sources, to prepare small, say 400 to 500 word articles. We can also have articles by those who have been writing on different issues, but would like their views to be known widely, even as triggering discussion on them. It can be by Martin, Achyut, Ghanshyam Shah, Sudarshan, others who understand issues well and communicate views strongly.

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