A newspaper devoted exclusively to rural news appeared in north India last month. Here's why this was such a big deal.
The most significant development in India in the last two decades has been the rapid (and often messy) urbanization of a society that for all of recorded history has been predominantly rural. The last census, in 2010, showed that, for the first time since 1921, the population of urban areas grew faster than that of rural ones. This demographic shift can be attributed not just to urbanization (which has its good and bad sides) but also to rural distress, which causes the migration of great numbers of people from villages to cities in search of employment.
That said, it's going to take a few more decades before India becomes predominantly urban. Even today, of the country's 1.2 billion people, more than 830 million live in rural areas.
The people of India's villages were left behind by the first wave of post-liberalization economic growth. That boom resulted in vastly improved opportunities mainly for better-educated, highly skilled or English-speaking urban citizens, who profited from capital inflows into information technology, real estate, the services sector and the media.
But as economic growth trickles down to the villages, there are signs that, even if agriculture continues to be stuck in a rut, rural Indians are gradually entering the consumer revolution, helped in part by greater purchasing power derived from government-sponsored employment programs. Consumption is now growing at a faster rate in rural India than in urban India, and manufacturers are getting to households that governments haven't.
The terrible thing, though, is that urban Indians don't know enough about the advances made, or obstacles suffered, or technological and economic revolutions experienced in rural areas.
This is partly because rural India is so fragmented by languages, so vast, and much of it so remote. But it is mostly because India's newspapers are run mainly by members of its upper and middle classes, cater overwhelmingly to urban readers and are influenced to a great degree by the agenda of advertisers, who supply the revenue that grease the vast machine of one of the world's fastest-growing newspaper markets.
At a recent symposium on the media's structural problems in New Delhi, I had the opportunity to listen to the media analyst Vipul Mudgal speak on the dismal coverage of rural India in the major newspapers in English and Hindi, the country's most widely spoken languages.
Mudgal's research -- written up recently in the Economic and Political Weekly, and backed by a revealing graphic, was summarized on the excellent Indian media blog Churumuri as "Everybody only just loves a good farmer suicide." (That's an allusion to the sarcastic title of the journalist P. Sainath's hard-hitting book about rural distress in India, "Everybody Loves a Good Drought.") The blog said:
An analysis of the news items in the six top-circulation dailies found that, on average, the papers devoted 2% editorial space for their flagship editions to the issues and concerns of two-thirds of India.
Out of between 100 and 200 items a day, just over three items had a rural theme.
The biggest portion (36%) of even this meagre news coverage was to non-agrarian issues such as crime, general or political (Naxalite-related) violence, accidents and disasters.
That's why it was heartening to see the Hindi journalist Neelesh Misra pick up the gauntlet with his new weekly newspaper in Hindi, Gaon Connection (Village Connection). Published in Uttar Pradesh, India's largest and most populous state (if it were a country, it would be the fifth most populous in the world), the newspaper is an eye-catching attempt to reinvent journalism from and about rural India, and to present the hinterland as something more than a market or as a site of distress. The newspaper lays down its agenda on its website:
Although 70% of India still lives in villages, there is no platform or medium focused entirely on them. Not only will the newspaper focus on the problems agitating the ordinary people like unemployment and scarcity of agricultural inputs, it will also be a mouthpiece of success stories, best practices in farming and other rural businesses innovations and interventions. In an era where India's media industry is booming but increasingly reflects only urban concerns, we strive to give rural citizens a voice of their own.
Did you know that the purchase of VCRs and washing machines in villages has increased by 200% year on year? Or that rural India accounts for 49% of motorcycle sales? Where the next wave of growth is expected to come from India's villages, GaonConnection aspires to provide rural market intelligence to urban businesses that will help them understand the changing trends and needs of rural India.
Among the newspaper's innovations is a mentoring project that allows young people in Uttar Pradesh to write about the worlds they know intimately, as Sanjukta Sharma wrote in Mint.
"The key to engagement with India is rural India because 70 per cent people still live in villages. But we Indians have never taken our rural heartland seriously. While the media is busy covering urban news, a fascinating change is taking place in our villages. Though we are not an activist voice, this is what we want to document." ...
"The highly urban mainstream media still looks at rural news stereotypically. They typically report ghastly things, crime, floods…." But the aspiration level in small town India is growing as much as in urban India and going pretty much unreported. "Lovers in villages are texting each other like in urban areas, are eating chowmein and momos, the youth are buying motorcycles, …the rural income level is rising too. But they hardly shape public opinion. I would say, we should not undermine this change."
This week, the Gaon Connection's front page features a picture of a Kashmiri child at school, accompanied by a caption that stresses the cracks in primary education in rural India. Inside, there's a full-page story about how rising investment costs in agriculture aren't being matched by proceeds from sales. And the lead article, chosen perhaps in the wake of the terrible sexual violence that took the life of a 23-year-old girl in Delhi last month, was about a new "Woman Power Helpline" in the state, managed entirely by female constables. Here's my rough translation of the opening paragraphs of the story from Manish Mishra's Hindi:
"Hello, how can I help you?" After she speaks on the phone, Snehlata Dwivedi begins to feed some information into her computer. Like Snehlata, several other women in this room can be seen attending to phone calls. And they only take calls that are made by women.
This isn't the call center of a multinational company, but rather one started recently by the Uttar Pradesh Police: one that calls itself the "Woman Power Helpline." Now any woman in the state can call 1090 and lodge a complaint. At this call center, the employees are constables who belong for most part to the villages of Uttar Pradesh. On their shoulders lies the responsibility of ensuring the security of Uttar Pradesh's 80 million women. An increasing number of calls to this helpline, based out of the city of Lucknow, come from women in rural areas.
Perhaps the next step for Gaon Connection could be to have an edition in English translation every week, so that people from all over the world could tune in to the news from rural India -- about one-eighth of all humanity.
Meanwhile, you can follow the newspaper on Twitter.
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