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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Janavani: A reporter in every village

The problems, needs and experiences of the rural masses and the marginalised rarely find a voice in the mainstream national and local media. Few people realise that information can be an effective instrument in ensuring the participation of rural people in the development process.

Recognising the need for an exclusive platform for the rural poor, the newspaper Janavani (People's Voice) was launched in Orissa in January this year. During the last three months of publication, the social daily has highlighted the issues and problems of the rural poor, dalits and adivasis in villages in Orissa. "Such people make up the majority of the state's population and, over the years, we came to feel that rural issues were not getting the space they deserved in the local and national media," says the paper's editor-in-chief Dr Radhakant Nayak.

A fact also proved in a media monitoring survey conducted by the Orissa-based Centre for Youth and Social Development (CYSD). According to the survey's findings, Oriya and English-language dailies in the state devoted less than 4% and 2%, respectively of their total coverage to social issues. The survey also noted that social development issues were no longer a priority with newspapers that give substantial space to advertisements, business, sports, entertainment, crime, politics, etc.

"Our focus is the development of those who are underdeveloped and deprived of the benefits of development. They will be our target readers and will also be the source of news based on their problems and experiences," explains Professor Krushna Charan Behera, a former academician and editor of Janavani . "Besides giving various kinds of information to the people, the daily will also highlight positive stories like people's participation in development works."

Priced at Re 1, the four-page daily's aim is to establish its presence across the 50,000-odd villages in Orissa, though it only has a 50% presence so far.

Says Dayanidhi Behera, a farmer from Khandapada village, near Bhubaneswar: "The newspaper has not only provided information on a number of issues about which we were unaware, but it has also provided an opportunity to poor people across the state to voice their problems and needs." "We also come to know about the problems faced by people in other parts of Orissa," says Susama Sahoo from Jagatsinghpur district.

According to the CYSD survey, even when pro-poor issues such as poverty alleviation, health and sanitation issues, lack of infrastructure facilities, gender equity etc are carried by the mainstream papers, they are relegated to less important pages. Interestingly, the vernacular Oriya dailies showed relatively greater concern for social issues than did their English counterparts.

The survey on coverage of development issues focused on five major themes -- social development and poverty alleviation, women and development, child rights, dalits and tribal/indigenous people and human rights.

Says Nayak: "Since the newspaper is pro-poor and is specifically based on development issues, there is no clash of interest." The newspaper has so far covered a range of issues from adequate and safe drinking water supplies, health and infrastructure facilities, sanitation, firewood, forests, housing, electrification, vocational training programmes, people's demands and aspirations, population growth, corruption, primary school education, primary health centres, education for girls, the status of women, etc.

Janavani was also started up to activate and motivate people to fight for their rights and entitlements, says 54-year-old Nayak, a former IAS officer and founder-coordinator of the Bhubaneswar-based National Institute of Social Work and Social Science (NISWASS) that provides training to students in social communications. "People often remain passive just because they are uninformed or ill-informed. Our job is to empower them by giving them adequate and necessary information." The paper's long-term objective is to build information societies in the villages of Orissa. Although the newspaper is currently being distributed on a customer basis, there are plans to initiate readers' circles in every village.

The Janavani Charitable Trust that runs Janavani on a purely voluntary basis has been developing this idea for the past five years. "During that time, we ensured that around 800 young men and women from rural and tribal-dominated areas were trained and equipped with the necessary reporting skills," says Behera. Besides providing training to field reporters, staff and journalists from NISWASS also train panchayati raj officials. Reporters positioned in every village and block headquarters report on development in their village and the villagers' problems.

For the Janavani team, bringing out the edition every day is a challenge. Not only do they have to keep development issues alive through their newspaper, they also work with limited resources. Only a few thousand copies are currently being distributed, but the publishers hope that Janavani's readership will grow in the coming years.

By Elisa Patnaik,a freelance journalist based in Orissa.


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