Monday, March 29, 2010

Explaining India Unheard

India Unheard Community Correspondents Training workshop

(A new program by Video Volunteers)

India Unheard

The first thing one needs to understand about undertaking such an ambitious project is that India Unheard, in both mission and scope, is a path-breaking program. Taking into account that the mainstream media cannot adequately represent all sections and geographical regions of India, Video Volunteers decided to create an alternative media channel. Funds are always a barrier to entry, and therefore, instead of trying to launch a “channel” on TV, Video Volunteers looked to new media projects, the internet and phone based initiatives to carry video and information from small villages and towns to the cities (both nationally and internationally).

The first question that arises is why? Why are we doing this? I would offer a simple explanation, and one that I vehemently believe in. Along with the basic needs of food, water, infrastructure that communities need, there is a crucial need for creation of a media outlet which can both educate and offer a platform for carrying voices. All too often small communities are fed information from bigger cities, and to that end, this information often has no local resonance. To train local community members to become journalists helps them identity their problems and address them in constructive ways. There is a feeling in the community that ‘someone is listening to us’ which further leads to the confidence that they are too included in the democratic process (beyond election time). For individual members of community media, who are often from the most neglected parts of society – so-called lower castes, women, religious and sexual minorities – it is both a voice and also a paradigm shift in terms of professions available to them. The tag of ‘journalist’ allows their social status to rise and in turn they can help raise the profile of their community.

The next question is how. To sit in a room and plan to bring together ‘marginalized’ sections of society seems an impossible task. The first phase of the plan was simple enough: two persons from each state of India would be selected to participate in this program. We would have to ensure, to the best of our ability, that they would be equally from both genders, and also from the least represented pockets of society. For the purpose of the first phase running smoothly, a decision was taken that these ‘community correspondents’ (CCs) would have to speak either English or Hindi, which meant that immediately their economic profile was raised as they would have to be formally educated on some level. We decided to send out applications throughout the country through grassroots (and some national) NGOs, who could nominate intelligent and driven persons who wanted to explore using media for development work. Applications flooded our office, and a careful selection was made so that a diverse group would be selected. We took special care to ensure that we had adequate North East representation, as this project is pan-India.

This brings us to what. What exactly would these CCs do? Firstly, video is the mainstay of video volunteers, so therefore, video training would be imparted. Since these CCs would be individuals from different regions of the country, it is our responsibility to train them as ‘video journalists’ capable of conceptualizing, scripting and shooting a story by themselves. The second part would be to familiarize them with new media – sms updates, twitter, facebook – so that people could not just follow their video stories but get invested in the individual CCs themselves. On our end, we have to create an interactive website that hosts all these stories, identifiable by themes, CCs and regions, so that it could become a one-stop spot on the internet for finding out stories from the ‘real’ India. An online platform essentially means that our target audience is not necessarily an Indian audience (as broadband speeds and internet penetration levels are quite low) but it is to find and secure a large international audience. Through their interest we can show these videos on multiple websites, TV channels and so on. But for all this to happen, one needed to also create a very efficient system at the Video Volunteers headquarters that could handle the influx of these videos every month. Right now we have about 30 CCs, and if they send in the decided number of 5 videos per month, then VV will have 150 videos come to the Goa office that will then have to be edited, subtitled, uploaded and organized. For that there was a rapid expansion of staff; a program director was brought in from the US along with project managers, editors etc.

When? The program has already been officially launched by our brand ambassador, Bollywood star Abhay Deol in Gujarat. In a month the first batch of videos will come rolling in and VV will find out how well they managed to train the CCs and also the individual capacity of these CCs to produce 5 videos a month. The basis of all this was a 2 week video training bootcamp organized by VV where these 30 CCs were trained in the technical aspects of video production as well as the theoretical concepts of journalism which includes staying away from personal agendas.

So who were these people we trained? I can’t possibly go into all of their personal histories but let me try and paint some stories. A girl who grew up wanting to be a boy but was so abused at home that she tried to commit suicide many times. The clincher is that she was adopted by hijras who took her confused sexuality as an insult to them. Only when she left home and lived on the pavement did she meet her first transsexual and realize she is not alone. We had amazing women who have been victims of severe domestic violence, but have finally stood up to fight for womens rights. We have young men from communities where their peers are either manual laborers or scavengers, but they have stayed in school despite the odds, to fight for a better future. We had many from tribal communities, here to find a platform to talk about how they are being displaced around the country. We had a muslim woman who told us that this training was the first time in her entire life that she had not been forced to wear her hijab and felt free. I had the opportunity to work with all of them in creating a script for their ‘profile videos’ which will be featured on our website and was overwhelmed with their passionate stories.

Outside of the training I am also arranging partnerships for this project. People and organizations interested in supporting, working with or showcasing community media. We are finally going to become a rural newswire, so this means muchos expansion. There is a lot more to be said about the issue but I wanted to explain the many pictures I had put up on Facebook to everyone.

See the pics!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Valley Girl

You expect to see security when you land in Srinagar, but the sheer number of army personnel still takes you by surprise. I had promised myself to enjoy this break in Kashmir without getting involved in any political conversations, especially since I was totally unsure if you should strike up a conversation with the local fisherman about whether he preferred India or Pakistan. Is there any etiquette to this? Can it quickly become violent? Do I want this in the five days that I am here for some R&R?

Kashmir, you all know, is stunning. It was still winter there, so the landscape was a mix of grey and brown. One of the first things I noticed was that unlike other villages and small towns I go to, none of the houses were painted in colors. Especially in the countryside, the homes with their steel slanting roofs, remain true to their brick color. The few that were painted kept a low profile, opting for a muted green. As we drove to our hotel, the fantastic Dar-es-Salam on Nagin Lake, I couldn't help but smile at how completely different the landscape looked from all the other places I've been travelling to recently. I've become used to the Goan beaches, and the hills of Mussurie, and most small towns of India can't help but look alike with the malls, insane traffic and lack of trashcans. Kashmir felt different, special.

I have these memories of going to Kashmir with my family when I was really little. They've been made stronger over the years because of photographs. I don't know if I actually remember playing in the snow, or the apples, or my grandmothers houses, or if I think I do because I see pictures. It doesn't matter, really. Though unfamiliar, it just felt so familiar to me. But what I didn't expect to be smacked in the face with was the overwhelming sense of poverty. Maybe it was the bleak colors of winter, or the almost uniform sense of dressing (phiran), or the lack of tourists which made the city seem sleepy, gloomy, peaceful all at the same time, but honestly, I didn't know what to make of it. Kundan, from the region, told me that his father had told him that in Kashmir, people aren't poor, they still eat two meals of meat everyday. Looking at the fat cheeks of most kids around, I hoped this is still true.

Shops had Hurriyat posters, though my mother said that might have been for the same reason that in Mumbai people have Shiv Sena signs -- to be left alone. But, while looking for walnuts and salwar kameezes, it felt unsettling. But the people took that feeling away with their charm and simplicity. It is a place stuck in time, and the sense of waste -- of resources and of energy -- is overwhelming.

Let me explain -- we drove from Srinagar to Gulmarg for a night. We started at 10:30 in the morning and reached the small village of Magam, which we had to cross to get to Gulmarg. We were told that there there had been some trouble between the Sunnis and Shias, and two houses had been burnt. Trouble over land allocated for a mosque. All the taxi drivers who were also similarly stranded with us made sure they stressed that this was a "local conflict" as opposed to terror/freedom fighter/what-have-you driven. A convoy of army trucks loaded with weapons went into the village, and after an hour we wondered how long this would take. We are busy getting calls from friends in Gulmarg that this could take a few hours. I was on bbm with Kundan who told me that sometimes the curfew lasts longer than necessary, and local hawkers selling tea, coffee, biscuits and the like, make a tiny profit. Almost on cue, food arrived.

When we finally did make it through Magam, it was an odd sight. All shops were shut down, and since all shutters had been painted by Vodafone, it seemed like we were driving through a big commercial. The army personnel and jeeps station at very regular intervals brought an sense of danger and safety at the same time. If my cab driver hadn't been happily reuniting and chatting away with other cabbies during the curfew, I think we would have been rather worried. But normalcy of it all, coupled by the rain that seemed to say 'everyone get indoors' kept the mood upbeat yet under the radar. But our task wasn't over yet. Army barricades didn't allow us to go through although for no particular reason. One friendly army man told us to tell his senior up ahead that we were just going a little further up, to our house ahead of Magam. I thanked my Kashmiri last name, cause the story could be believable! It took a lot of cajoling and pleading. Finally, I think we were let go since we had place in our taxi for two people who needed a lift to their villages on the way to Gulmarg. I suspect some of the army chaps charge for providing this transportation service to locals. Once on our way, our cabbie was muttering that all the army guys are correupt and can be bribed. I decided to keep quiet.

Gulmarg was the amazing ski town I expected it to be -- and then some. To be honest, I really had no idea how popular it was. Not a skier, I was looking forward to a Gondola ride the most. Just as we were about to hop in and get a panoramic view of Gulmarg, a three policemen got into the same Gondola. They were with a senior government official, here for a visit. I tried to make conversation. "So who's here?" (No response). "Don't worry, I come from Delhi where all the VIPs of India live" (No response).

On the way back, a special taxi with snow tires was summoned to take us down from Gulmarg. Fifteen minutes into our downhill drive, we realised that traffic was backed up. 22 army trucks were coming up the hill and needed place. One of them hit our cab at the back. While we sat in the cab for an hour, our cabbie (again having reunions) brought all the taxi drivers and assorted hangers on to show them the damage. Finally, on the way down, when we passed some officers standing on the road, our cabbie called out to them to say "you have damaged my cab .. who will pay for this?" Once out of the army area, he told us that this (and a million other reasons) is why Kashmiris hate the army.

The next cab that took us back to Srinagar was driven by a more gentler chap. His father had been a cab driver, only to have his ambassador blown up 12 years ago in an attack. A hotel owner had been kind enough to help his family buy another taxi. Finally, I succumbed to all the questions in my head and asked him what he thought about India, Pakistan, Kashmir. A focused sort of chap, he just wanted Kashmir to have more tourism so that he could have more business. "Open up Kashmir to India and remove special status?", I asked. "Yes," he said.

Potential is the word that comes to mind after you have done being astounded by Kashmir's natural beauty. While on the shikara, enjoying a peaceful boat ride, enterprising salesmen come up to you, locking their shikara with yours and offer a range of products -- paper mache products, earrings, seeds. (Yes, seeds). At the Mughal Gardens, they waste no time in dressing you up as a local Kashmiri girl (for those who know me, yes, I was a very willing participant) and start taking pictures till you realise you cannot afford to get a whole portfolio shown. Even at the foothills of Gulmarg, where you need to change into a taxi with snow tires, you are caught by locals and told that the "government doesn't allow you to go upto Gulmarg unless you rent boots and jackets from them." (Ya, right!)

In the end, there is deep sense of belonging that people have in Kashmir, more than I have experience in any other part of the country. Maybe its because they don't belong anywhere else but here. Or that they still don't know what "here" is. There were times I felt relief that I was able to say "I am Kashmiri" or "Did you know Vimla Kaul of Srinagar?" because suddenly I belonged too.

I need more time there. So, the moment the flowers bloom, I'm going back!