Desert Video: Using Media To Address Water Issue In Rajasthan

A Video Trainer for Video Volunteers, Tara Misra spent a year at the Jal Chitran  - the Community Video Unit (CVU) launched in partnership with Jal Bhagirathi Foundation NGO in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. During her yearlong stay, Tara trained at least twenty people into video production some of whom had succeeded in finding work in the local market as photographers, cameramen and wedding video makers. In this blog she gives a vivid account of the CVU, its producers and their work.

To an outsider, the Thar Desert is as alluring as it is barren, bleak and hostile.  And if you are here in the sweltering summer months, the inhospitable climate might make you want to never come back. But, if you decide to linger a little longer than you think you possibly can - stretching your tolerance for temperatures that threaten to touch 50 degree Celsius - and take that time to understand a little of what the desert is all about, then you might learn a thing or two about, who in my scope of understanding, are some of the world’s most thirsty people.

Almost a year later, I’m still an outsider to this region, but my knowledge of this place and its people has grown proportionately to the time I have spent here. I joined Video Volunteers last October to begin work as a Video Trainer at the Community Video Unit at Jal Bhagirathi Foundation in Jodhpur, an NGO that works towards finding solutions to water problems in rural Marwar. The community video unit here had been set up in 2008 in collaboration with Video Volunteers and had trained at least twenty producers so far, some of whom had succeeded in attracting work in the local market as photographers, cameramen and wedding video makers. At the time I arrived here, there were five producers at Jal Bhagirathi’s CVU - three women and two men, who had recently completed their first film; a video magazine on the benefits of safe drinking water which they were in the process of screening in the many desert villages around Jodhpur.

The CVU at JBF was set up with the intention of generating awareness through community based media amongst some of the poorest and most remote people of the desert where JBF carries out its water and sanitation projects. In its beginnings, the CVU worked on subjects ranging from water conservation and sanitation, to gender and women’s education and JBF used these films or video magazines as they are called, to mobilise people who were or would be the direct recipients of their projects. In places where literacy is very low (48% in Marwar), the audio visual experience of films is an easy, effective and sometimes the fastest way to drive home a message. That is not to belittle other methods like the print form, awareness camps or even theatre, but at the same time one cannot under estimate the persuasive power of a good film, which when projected before a large gathering, will never be unsuccessful in stirring the minds of even the most illiterate and uneducated people.

As I began to travel into the desert with the producers, I started to learn about the work that JBF did. Rain water harvesting structures, shallow open wells, community water storage tanks and household toilets were some of the structures JBF assisted villagers to renovate or build. All this work was done by gathering community support and any work carried out needed their full acceptance and the assurance that they would collectively maintain the structures on a regular basis. This method of working, I felt, ran parallel to how Video Volunteers had envisioned a CVU to work in collaboration with the community - community producers make films on problems pertaining to the community and then go back to the community to screen the films with the intention of getting people to take some form of action against the problem. In both cases initial help comes from outside, but the onus of bringing about change lies within the community. Hence the partnership between the two organisations; Jal Bhagirathi Foundation and Video Volunteers made ample sense.

As we made progress, trainer and trainees, producing more and more films, I realised that the objectives of both organisations with regard to the community video unit were not quite the same. In the process of making films and screening them, JBF had realised the potential that films held for them as an organisation, and had increasingly begun to use them to draw attention to the work they carried our. Of course the work they did did address water related issues in the surrounding rural districts, but the audience these English voice over films were being made for were the urban educated - JBF’s evaluators, funders and potential funding agencies. Community video, as Video Volunteers intended it to be, is by and for the community.

Ten months later the community producers at JBF have produced seven films, amongst which is one video magazine that is finally nearing completion. The film is about Rain Water Harvesting and delivers a simple but urgent message about how the use and timely maintenance of traditional rain water harvesting structures of the Thar Desert and Jodhpur city, can take care of drinking water needs for months to come. In this water starved region, where almost every third year is a drought year (sometimes occurring consecutively) the people are constantly being set back in any progress they try to make. On an average a women in Marwar spends six hours each day walking back and forth to bring home water. During the hot summer months, in the village of Bhatinda, I have met women who wake up at two in the morning and begin their long wait at the beris or recharge wells, waiting for four to five hours for a single pot to fill up. On one such occasion, a woman grabbed me by the arm and begged me to do something. In less than ten seconds I was surrounded by ten of them. They dragged me to a well, scraped out some black liquid with a glass and handed it to me. “Drink this”, she said, thrusting the glass into my hand. “I can’t”, I said sheepishly, imagining all the possibilities it held in making me sick. “No problem”, she said reading my thoughts. “Just taste it and spit it out.” Reluctantly I did. It’s the least I could do. The taste was a mix of salt and mud and maybe even ash. It was so brackish. How could it possibly quench anyone’s thirst? Yet these people drank it every day in the summer months and it explained why they slept and woke up thirsty.

I hoped then that the advocacy films we were making would work their influence in the right places and bring some relief to these people. Likewise, the about-to-be completed Video Magazine on Rain Water Harvesting had many lessons in it for the people of Bhatinda – from community lead water management to household roof top rain water harvesting (neither of these practices exist here).

The scope of work for a community video unit in Marwar is illimitable and even though water is the one big issue, it’s not the only one. Education (especially for the girl child), child marriage, unemployment, poverty lead migration, health care, gender bias and a skewed sex ratio are a few pressing issues that community video could confront here. Moreover, many of these issues are linked to one another, such as water is to livelihood, health, gender and education and even though the subject matter of films made at Jal Bhagirathi Foundation are limited to its area of work, I believe that addressing a mix of issues holds the key to a more sustainable way of bringing about change in the mindsets of people – a method that has been successfully implemented in other CVUs across the country.

However, JBF has found its films to have tremendous convincing powers amongst both the rural and the urban audience and has started producing films with greater frequency. Consequently, as the training programme at JBF comes to a close there is still hope that amidst all the fund raising and advocacy work that is being produced, educational and awareness films will continue to find their way to the rural audience.

- Tara Misra

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