Reprinted from the Indian Express, March 31, 2004
New Delhi, March 30: Waiting for an interview for their latest achievement is a ''waste of time'' for this team of six women from the interiors of Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh, who would rather be out in the field investigating stories on irregularities and taking on the establishment. They are the journalists of Khabar Lahariya ? a fortnightly published from the remote, backward, feudal areas of the state ? and winners of the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Woman Mediaperson.
''None of us are literate or trained to be journalists. We have been learning on the job and educating ourselves to better our skills,'' said a 40-plus Shanti, who looks after reporting and disseminating news. A resident of Manikpur, ''Shanti patrakaar'' ? as she is fondly called by her 17-year-old son Pintoo ? now uses a dictaphone to record the many versions of the story she investigates, clicks pictures to back it up and is also learning, like her colleagues, how to transfer the information on to a computer.
''At least three of us in the team are learning how to operate a computer. It will make our work fast,'' says 25-year-old Kavita. ''We make our pages on the pagemaker and the only thing that needs more practice is the lay-out. We are unable to set the pictures in the boxes neatly,'' she adds.
Everything else for these women is easy. From walking over 40 km to find a story, travelling to Allahabad to get their newspaper printed, egging people to buy their newspaper and even resisting pressure and threats from the local power lords and goons.
Sonia, a 35-year-old Dalit reporter, also the pradhan of her panchayat, says: ''We get threatened all the time. There is little support from other gram pradhans and they find it difficult to stomach that women might be doing a job, that they usually don't...We come from a backward area where women are only expected to tend to their homes and nothing else. It becomes difficult in such circumstances to hold on to one's own.''
Shanti adds: ''In December 2003, we pulled up a Superintendent of Police in our area for negligence and apathy. A woman in the area had been beaten up by the police and the SP, Raghubir Lal, wasn't helping. We wrote against him and even distributed the newspaper in his own office.''
On another occasion, the team reported corruption cases in the ration shops and even got the shopowner suspended. '' The shopowner had been charging paise 50 more on every item. We said it was wrong and the owner was suspended,'' recalls Meera (30).
Help for the group comes from Nirantar ? a delhi-based resource group that helped start the paper.''We were conducting an education programme in collaboration with the Centre in the region. When the programme got over we decided this would be the best way to get information across the areas where there is no other way to communicate,'' said Shalini Joshi of Nirantar.
Funds for the newspaper come from the National Foundation of India, Dorabjee Tata Trust and the Dalit Foundation. Khabar Lahariya currently prints 1,300 copies.
As a precaution, the women back their stories with pictures, taped versions and even signed testimonies from those being quoted in the story. ''We must have enough proof so that we can steer clear of trouble,'' says Sonia.
Krishan, who looks after printing in Allahabad and travels the distance from her village every two weeks to get the job done, said: ''Our stories have resulted in roads being built and the chief medical officer taking notice when an entire village in the region was infected with Tuberculosis.''
''It is a tough job. Sometimes we have to walk for over a day to reach a certain place. Salaries take care of a bit of commuting but we also need to put in from our pockets. At times there is trouble at home over the long hours and no holidays. But we shall go on,'' said Kavita.