Media for Rural Voices

By Jane E. Schukoske, CEO

Hear the girls sing at a rural school in district Mewat, Haryana:

“Maa Ri Main jaungi Vidyalya O Mother, I will go to school
Beti tu mat ja Vidyalya” O Daughter, you don’t go to school

“Mat Na Rowe Meri Ladli Don’t cry my dear
Tane fir se padne bitha dungi” You will be readmitted to school

What roles are media playing in rural India? May 3, celebrated as World Press Freedom Day by the United Nations organizations since 1993, offers an occasion for reflecting on access to information and free expression in rural India. Mainstream media hardly serve the majority of India’s population in over 600,000 villages reeling under poverty and characterized by widespread illiteracy.

To address the gap, communities, NGOs and the state create grassroots media that reach out to rural villagers. School girls sing to celebrate girl child education. Paintings on exterior walls of schools and village lanes publicize Mid-Day Meals and other government schemes. Posters depict health advice and warnings. Street theatre performances support social change and lift spirits. Rural residents use cell phones to listen to community radio and to call the station to express their opinions for broadcast. Given limited access to media and written expression, community meetings are an essential medium of communication in a participatory democracy.

Alternative media clearly play important roles. But rural India needs so much more.

Especially in view of the stark division between India’s haves and have-nots, traditional print, electronic and social media should report on local issues that would help the public speed up efforts to meet basic needs through participatory democracy. Villagers need to know about the local operation of government schemes funded for rural development. So do the better-off members of the public who want to contribute to a more equitable society.

Some story leads include: How can citizens access the government schemes (employment, food, education, health and more) in the district in which they live? What are the stories of those who have succeeded? How can citizens challenge delay and denial of rights and entitlements in their district? For what purpose are funds allocated for the district being used? How can villages tap nearby expertise for planning their own development?

Both vernacular and English media can contribute more transparency to governance. Media should efficiently spread such basic, relevant information to society to build the nation! While citizens can invoke the Right to Information Act for such information, it is a slow, arduous path to dig out what should be publicly available.