MUMBAI — Laxmi Panda is nearly 80 years old and lives in a low-income settlement in a small village in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. She enlisted in the Indian National Army, formed to secure the country’s independence from the British, at the age of 19 and is the only living woman freedom fighter from her state. Panda has a photo of herself in uniform, kneeling on the ground and aiming a gun, that she proudly shows off to visiting journalists. The government, however, refuses to recognize her service. “They said in Delhi I haven’t been in jail,” she says. “And it’s true, I haven’t. But, then, many fighters of the INA did not go to jail. Does that mean we didn’t fight for freedom? Why should I lie for my pension?” she asks.
And then there is P.V. Chinnathambi, who runs a lending library in a remote forest in Idukki district in Kerala, in south India. Chinnathambi keeps his 160 books in a sack and spreads them out every day in a shack that doubles as a tea shop. The 25 families in the hamlet he serves have borrowed 37 books. He keeps a meticulous record.
This is just a whiff of two of the more than 300 stories on a newly launched, volunteer-run rural journalism platform in India, People’s Archive of Rural India, founded by India’s best-known rural reporter, P. Sainath. Winner of the “Asian Nobel,” as the Ramon Magsaysay Prize is often called, Sainath was also recently awarded the World Media Summit Global Award for Excellence in Public Welfare Reporting. Others contributing to the website include a team of 300-plus volunteers — young journalism-school graduates and experienced reporters, editors and photographers.
There are few places on earth more complex or diverse than Panda or Chinnathambi’s rural India. It is a tapestry of 833 million people, nearly 800 living languages and an unrivaled variety of livelihoods. It is home to some occupations that exist nowhere else, such as the toddy tappers of Tamil Nadu, who climb trees and tap sap that is later boiled and drunk, or the traditional Koya villagers in Orissa who make almost everything in bamboo. Very little of this makes its way into mainstream Indian media and to a national audience, but PARI is attempting to change that. Meant to be “both a living journal and an archive aimed at recording the everyday lives of everyday people,” PARI will host a resources section with searchable reports on rural India and, in time, thousands of video and audio clips, of interviews but also songs and poetry in a multitude of languages, a photo archive and much more.
Some of that diversity is captured in the section Faces, which aims to feature photos of a woman, man and child from every district in India — 629 in all. A map of India with geographically tagged stories that is currently somewhat bare and buggy could become a useful search and sort tool to find stories by state and issue.
Having walked, motored and sweated through rural India for 22 years, Sainath explains the genesis of the project: “For me, there’s no place more magical and inspiring — and also more frustrating and maddening — than rural India. It is home to the beautiful, a million things to cherish. It is also host to the brutal and the sometimes barbaric [like] caste atrocities. There is always something new, brilliant, baffling, bewildering … and insane.”
PARI has one overarching goal: to begin to fill an enormous void of information and understanding about two-thirds of India. To do so successfully, it needs to recruit as many storytellers and volunteers as possible and to raise funds. (It is a nonprofit and is currently funded by a handful of well-wishers.)
As one volunteer, Jaideep Hardikar, special correspondent for the Kolkata-based newspaper The Telegraph, puts it, “Paradoxically, while journalism in India is getting more decentralized, [rural] reportage is on the decline.” India currently has six national dailies, with 15 to 20 editions across metros (cities with a population over 1 million) and semi-urban (population around 10,000) cities, but their coverage is very similar. In addition, few — if any — media outlets cover all of rural India.
This is where the collaboration model of this website has the potential to be path-breaking. Apart from journalists, the volunteers include filmmakers, lawyers and even accountants. The goal of PARI — to be an archive — sets it apart from other journalism endeavors. Contributors are thus inclined to think about research not just reportage. The focus might then become how migration or urbanization will be studied 10 years from now, as opposed to just documenting the way it is now. Speaking of an important paddy cultivator in central India, Dadaji Khobragade, Hardikar says, “On an acre and a half he has developed 11 unique varieties of paddy through years of farming. He is a local scientist! Isn’t it interesting to hear how he does that directly from him, for now and the future?”
Himanshu (he only goes by one name), a development economist and assistant professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, underlines the importance of PARI as an academic resource. Students from elite institutions need a window into the complexity of rural India. Caste, politics, power, governance — everything is different from what they know, he explains. “When a person is studying in an elite Delhi university, where do they start? Why is paddy cultivation different from rice? How does the tenancy or credit market operate in rural India? PARI is a perfect first step that will bridge the gap.”
Sainath’s vision is of a noncommercial, nonprofit enterprise that should not take government funds or advertising or be dependent on corporate largesse. All the content will be licensed under Creative Commons, making it available for noncommercial use.
Currently, PARI is very much a showcase of Sainath’s work, along with that of about 10 other bylined contributors. To be an effective collaboration, it will need to set up systems that enable the volunteers to participate effectively in the platform as well as attract the most useful, rather than just the well-meaning. “On the 20th, we will launch our fundraising drive. I see it being a crowd-funded platform,” says Sainath. The money raised will be used to cover travel costs, and pay for fellowships and site improvement.
PARI’s strength is the idea that there can be a role for anyone located anywhere — the site welcomes contributors from all over the world — and the moral argument it makes that this is something India not only can but must have.
As Himanshu says, “It is necessary for the mainstream to engage with rural India. The rural reporter who does well gets promoted to the urban bureau. So the urban reporter has to engage with the class that is aloof to make India understand that rural India” is much more complex than the sanitized, romanticized world that Bollywood portrays. “And Sainath is enabling that.”
First published on Aljazeera America