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Government Officials! Check WhatsApp, Your People Have Problems to Share


By Rosemary Marandi

In remote districts of India, some citizens are making it hard for local authorities to ignore their problems by openly talking about and sharing videos on the issues they are facing in these COVID19 pandemic times through WhatsApp groups.

These WhatsApp groups, being run by the correspondents of Goa-based community media organisation Video Volunteers since May this year, are formed to connect villagers to communicate and bring forth their problems before Police personnel, block-level and village level officers, as well a pool of social workers.

Video Volunteers’ community correspondents normally make videos on hyper-local issues and visit officials to get them resolved. They also organise screenings for members of the community in order to rally them to take actions. However, due to the lockdown, correspondents have not been able to meet officials in person. This affected their earnings as well as their ability to create an impact on their videos.

The WhatsApp group were created as ‘work-from-home’ projects that brought all stakeholders online. As many as 141 such groups are operating currently across the length and breadth of India.

The idea of the WhatsApp Group was to essentially help people talk about social issues, find access to authorities who can solve it, get educated with new information on social issues and get their perspectives changed, break the chain of fake news, hold government officials accountable on the group, and come together for offline and online activism.

Tanju Devi from Bihar’s West Champaran district worked tirelessly during the Bihar floods in late 2019 to reach voices of her people to authorities concerned. One of her stories on disabled people’s requests for a pension they were entitled to prompted the authorities to act. She wishes she could venture out to shoot many such videos in these times but lockdown and commute related issues have brought her activism to a standstill for now. She is grateful, though, that access to the internet, as well as a common platform like her WhatsApp Group, is connecting not just her but fellow villagers to people who matter.

When not shooting videos and discussing local problems, she chats from her home’s courtyard with her neighbours who peek from theirs. Other times, her people are busy hunting for work, which is becoming rarer in these times.

For Sunita Kasera of Karauli district in Rajasthan, her videos on the pain of migrants workers in her district have opened up a channel of communication between her and the district’s administration. She has been invited by the District Magistrate to shoot videos on the administration’s relief work in the district and guide them toward people
facing problems.

“Most members of my WhatsApp group are social workers who are genuinely interested and look into problems seriously,” she said.

Sunita is among the few lucky ones who have enthusiastic officials on their side. Otherwise, one of the common experiences that Video Volunteers’ community correspondents have faced in running these groups was government officials getting uncomfortable about issues coming to the fore from their respective jurisdictions.

Tanju, for instance, has been having a tough time getting government officials to respond on the WhatsApp Group. She compares the effectiveness of reaching officials via a group, to the direct engagement in person that she usually does, and which has enabled her to resolve more than 41 community challenges over the last 5 years.

Once when she brought it up with an official in a direct message, she was told: “How can I respond to these videos that are against us? If you bring the issues to us directly, we can still resolve it.” She adds that to be fair, they do help sometimes but not without pointing out the fact that these videos are against them. None of the government officials have quit her group though. She laughingly attributes the reason to her stern and persuasive personality.

Raeesh Ahmed, a social worker as well as a community correspondent from Uttar Pradesh’s Shrawasti district too has been struggling to get the attention of local authorities to the problems of his fellow villagers.

“We only get assurance, no resolution. They refuse to meet us because of the coronavirus. If I call them, they disconnect if the conversation takes more than a minute. Authorities behave badly. If you put it in the group, they don’t pay attention, they don’t even react if we call,” said Raeesh.

He had shot a news capsule on farmers of Lalpur Prahlad village having incurred average losses to the tune of 70,000 rupees as they could not sell muskmelons in the local market because of unseasonal rain and lockdown enforced as a result of Coronavirus infections. Farmers complain that the government knows everything yet it does not support them in such difficult times.

Raeesh personally reached out to the district magistrate with this video, who in turn assured compensation to the farmers but nothing has worked out on that front yet. “We try to take videos and share it with the authorities so that they take action. We can only do that much. To react is completely up to them, but we are trying our best to bring out issues and grab their attention,” Raaesh said.

Though it might make authorities uncomfortable, the very fact that they do watch videos and sometimes take up issues after learning about them in the WhatsApp groups could be read as a sign of progress made.

Zafar Iqbal reckons that it takes time for government officials to really warm up to groups such as these. It is about constant nudging and perseverance. He has been running a WhatsApp Group since 2017, after Video Volunteers floated the idea in its national meet in 2017. It was also the first time he had used the internet.

His village Pachkesar, which falls under the block Karpi Block of Bihar’s Arwal district, is dependent on farming for subsistence. Social distancing during these times is a luxury as farmers need food on their plates and so must go to the fields. “They are facing economic problems because they are not getting enough work,” he said.

The mobile phone and internet, however, helped them stay connected. Only 10% of his fellow villagers do not have access to the internet, he estimates. For Zafar, the WhatsApp group has acted as a catalyst for others to share their own problems. “I keep sharing old stories (videos) I have made in the past, and after watching these, people bring out issues that their villages are facing... some people have come to my home and shared their stories,” he said. He eventually realised that government officials who have
been helpful to him in the past are the ones that would stay on in this group too.

Shabnam Begum from Varanasi has had similar experience running a group of 64 members. She focussed on keeping only those people who were serious about discussing social issues. “Initially, I had faced lot of problem trying to get as many people as possible to join, but in the process even people who weren’t serious were getting added. Eventually, I focussed on having fewer, but serious members”.

“The purpose of the group,” she says,“is change”. She has used this platform to carry out relief work within her community, of course with help from officials from the block development office, Anganwadi workers, Asha workers as also Police.

Rahul Pal, a social worker and Video Volunteers Correspondent from West Bengal, has found an efficient way to get stakeholders involved. He has created a short introduction to the purpose of the group and to Video Volunteers, which he sends to officials as well as other people while seeking their permission to join in. “They are my target contact,”
he says.

Harihar Nagbansi decided to keep his WhatsApp group as ‘Admin-only’, meaning, only he can post messages in it. Although communication on this group is one-way, stakeholders from the tea garden belt of Alipurduar in West Bengal respond to issues through direct conversations with him. Three of Harihar’s videos during the pandemic have made authorities act.

In another instance of using the WhatsApp Group more efficiently and in a focussed manner, Chetan Salve from Nandurbar. Chetan, an activist with the Narmada BachaoAndolan, is fighting a long battled for the rights of over 41,000 families whose livelihoods as much as their homes are threatened by the ever-impending Sardar Sarovar Project on the river Narmada.

The project’s “Master Plan,” including government compensation of land for
land(referred to as “rehabilitation”), was meant to be completed by 1981, but three decades have passed and still thousands of people affected by the project have not been rehabilitated. He uses this platform to share information, updates, and voices of affected people directly with other activists as well as government authorities.

His videos, though, also reveal the government's disregard for the health of India’s most vulnerable on issues ranging from sanitary drainage, access to pediatricians and other health personnel, and clean drinking water.

Correspondent Anil Kumar’s WhatsApp group in Bhadoi, Uttar Pradesh, is currently invested in nudging the administration to improve healthcare infrastructure in their district. Bhadoi has no big hospitals, though construction of some are ongoing. “We provide suggestions on how block development can be improved,” Anil said. He added
ever since the introduction of WhatsApp as a medium for such discussions, impacts have come faster than on normal social media platform. ”People have become more proactive about sharing their problems because people from government, NGOs, etc are on the group and the chances of being heard are better.”

Hyper local issues such as these have formed the backbone of Video Volunteers’ community media initiative. It enables marginalised citizens to hold the government accountable, by telling their stories to the world and launching impact campaigns.

For the record, its 249 correspondents from different walks of life have so far created 6,345 videos, of which 1,688 have ensured impacts.The impacts create a zest among these correspondents, who are extremely inclined to bring about a change in the society.

Needless to say the pandemic, which has brought life to a standstill, is affecting their work too. But these correspondents are finding creative ways to make their videos.

Jahanara, a resident of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, is working on a project asking quarantined people from her block to shoot and record, their experiences with visiting government officials and the horrors of living alone, through mobile phones. She would then collate those videos and share it with authorities concerned. In normal times she would visit those people herself but she is not able to do so because of travel constraints.

Radhika Chicholokar, another community correspondent from Maharashtra’s Hingoli district, too wishes she had modes of transportation of her own to be able go out on the field. People in her WhatsApp Group have been constantly writing about the issues they are facing during the lockdown, if only she could travel.“It is frustrating that I am not able
to go and cover the issues that get share on the groups,” said Radhika. Until then, her tryst with “uncomfortable, but helpful” officials continues.


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