Solving hyperlocal issues can resolve India’s most pressing problems at a national scale.
If media is the fourth pillar of democracy, community media is the foundation of that pillar. It’s a tall claim to make, but not inaccurate given the medium’s potential to let citizens speak for themselves, and ask questions. For over a decade, Community Correspondents (CCs) at VV have used videos as a means for social change. These videos are the evidence they show to local officials in order to get a problem fixed. CCs largely document the challenges people face in accessing fundamental rights such as water, education, housing and cash transfer schemes for poverty alleviation.
Individual cases like the inadequate number of teachers in a school or the lack of electricity in a village often provide clues to larger problems such as insufficient planning to execute schemes or widespread corruption. Over the past few years, VV has been trying out new methods to bring these cases to government officials at the state or country level, and demonstrate that the individual cases often represent a pattern.
VV’s multi-layered advocacy approach escalates the concerns of communities from the panchayat level (grassroots governance) to the state and national levels. By solving individual cases, our Community Correspondents are working towards creating better systems.
Platforms for Dialogue between Communities and Officials
Community Correspondents in West Bengal and Jharkhand have been holding events where they invite Block and District level officials to introduce their work to them. The events help build a rapport with the officials and get help in solving community issues quickly, all while watching videos on issues that affect the community. Some events are specifically to thank officials who have proactively fixed the issues that CCs highlight.
15 such events have been held in West Bengal and 27 in Jharkhand. The events also build a network with NGOs and community members (often from 5-6 neighboring villages) in attendance. With communities and officials talking to each other and finding solutions together, the events have renewed enthusiasm about grassroots governance in the community.
“It was very empowering to watch locals holding a mic for the first time, and speak directly to the Block Development Officer (BDO) and other block officials present… The community members are also more supportive [of my work as a Correspondent] now,” said Correspondent Sadi Hansda from Birbhum District, West Bengal. 50 people attended the event she organised in September 2018. Sadi feels that her event resulted in the community pledging their support to her while she produces videos, and accompany her to visit officials to solve problems.
At an event in Murhu Block, Jharkhand the officials present spoke about how innovative they found the use of video to solve local issues. The Junior Engineer had already worked with Correspondent Basanti Hunni Purti to make sure people have access to drinking water. The BDO and her Deputy emphasised the need to work together and welcomed the community to raise their concerns. In some instances officials who had been skeptical of a CC’s work, or were reluctant to attend the event showed a change of heart; they publicly declared their support following the event.
Correspondents report that these events have helped them solve issues. Emiliya Hansda our Correspondent from Pakur District, Jharkhand had showed officials a video at an event in 2016. It documented the life-threatening situation for residents, especially children, of three village councils because there was no bridge over the local Balsoi river.
Officials, including a Member of Legislative Assembly later visited the spot and sanctioned money for a bridge to be constructed over the river. Emiliya reported that this has made the lives of people easier as they no longer have to take a 10 km long detour or a risky boat ride to get to the other side.
Apart from such concrete changes communities are also using these events as opportunities to make collaborative strategies. Many people asked Annapurna, a CC from Purulia district, West Bengal if she could train them to make videos. They also discussed creating a WhatsApp group to alert Annapurna to local issues. This will help her cover stories from a wider geographical area than she currently does. This will also expand her network of contacts greatly.
Creating Allies in Government Departments
Another strategy has been for members of our advocacy team to meet officials in different State Commissions and Ministries to establish working relationships with them. In these meetings, they present or follow up on petitions that compile information from multiple cases on a similar issue. These meetings and letters enable large-scale impact. 16 meetings have been held and 20 letters sent to various departments between 2017 and 2019.
Specifically we worked with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Delhi (NCPCR) and its regional counterparts in Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal to highlight the poor condition of schools. Reports on 42 cases from Bihar and 7 from Jharkhand and West Bengal were filed. This has resolved three cases each in Bihar and Jharkhand, one in West Bengal and several others are underway.
In Jharkhand, Mary Nisha Hansda’s video and subsequent application got the District Education Superintendent to take action. Two teachers were appointed at the Tashgentu Middle school.
In another case from Uttar Pradesh, the NCPCR directed all District Commissioners and Chief Medical Officers to stop the use of the banned two finger test for rape survivors, after a Correspondent identified six young girls who had been subjected to the procedure. We are awaiting further information on what action was taken by hospitals.
It is heartening to see that the efforts to build bridges with the administration are working. In 2018 the Bihar Minister for Food & Civil supplies heard about a survey VV had conducted in 10 districts of the state monitoring the Public Distribution System, which guarantees the most disenfranchised communities right to food through subsidised rations. The survey had found that 54% of 208 respondents didn’t get the rations they should have; 76% paid more than they needed to.
He called us for a meeting and requested for an even more detailed report - a month-wise break up of grains received by the card-holders. So, we conducted the second survey between July-August 2018 where we studied the food grain distribution for the months of March, April, May and June. We are now following up with the Ministry to ensure that the distributions scheme works without corruption in the state.
Monitoring Accountability in Systems
Since 2017 the current Bihar Government has taken many steps to encourage transparency in the state. The Public Grievance Redressal System (PGRS) is one such mechanism that enables anyone to file a complaint or query about entitlement violations. This is a shift from the lackadaisical way things work. Earlier, Correspondents had to wait for weeks or months to make sure their community’s problems were heard by the official in charge. If the meeting did happen there was no guarantee that the authority would take action or resolve the situation.
With the PGRS they are guaranteed a hearing, and a time-bound enquiry process. Community Correspondents in Bihar were trained to use it in all cases that haven’t been resolved by meeting the official in charge.
Surendra Sharma, a Correspondent from Aurangabad district, Bihar found that since 2013 the primary school in Devibigha village had only one teacher for its 80 students. Both Surendra and the teacher had tried different routes to get a second teacher appointed. This finally happened in May 2018 just three months after filing an application.
42 such cases were filed by Correspondents between 2017-19. 15 cases have been resolved resulting in improved access to water, appointment of staff at health centres, people getting their pensions, villages getting electricity, etc.
In doing so we’re also evaluating the effectiveness of the system. Our evaluation entails keeping a track of each complaint that we file, analysing time taken to solve it, assessing ease of follow up and the quality of final order. A preliminary evaluation of the PGRS shows that there are still some problems with it. Citizens have to travel very far to file an initial complaint and for the hearing; budget constraints often limit the final implementation of a judgement, despite best intentions. However, the neutrality of the presiding officers ensures that they hear a case properly. It is one of the most accountable resolution systems we’ve worked with.
“We wanted to tell these officers that though we are the ones naming corrupt contractors, they are the ones who’ve hired these contractors to implement the development work in the village. We wanted to tell them that we can question the officials’ integrity,” said Shikha Paharin, a CC from Jharkhand after a meeting attended by officials and 150 people from 12 villages. Shikha’s videos have created a public outcry in the past. One resulted in the rescue of a trafficked girl, and another made it to prime time news, encouraging top officials to investigate corruption in mid-day meal schemes.
The different interventions demonstrate that the accountability and transparency of a system eventually rests on the individuals in it. On one hand, it takes individuals with courage and conviction to call out inefficiency and corruption. On the other hand, it takes responsible officials who are willing to take criticism and actively solve problems. Community media can ensure that enough voices are raised against the daily injustices people in India face. Simultaneously, it creates a body of evidence that is very difficult to ignore.
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