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The Trailblazers: Women of Substance

They are enforcers of grassroots accountability. They sniff out stories of crime and inequity in the hinterland of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. These are the gutsy all-women journalists of Khabar Lahariya, a digital news agency. Their arduous journey has been narrated through ‘Writing with Fire’, a documentary film that received rave reviews and the Sundance Award 2021. Rachna Singh writes about this trailblazing story.

A band of women journalists! Special but not unusual. A group of women scribes from the Dalit and minority communities! Unusual but not trailblazing. A bunch of Dalit women correspondents reporting from the crime-infested hinterland of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Most definitely trailblazing. 

Who am I talking about? I’m talking about Meera Jatav, Kavita Bundelkhandi, Rizavana, Sanjana, Sunita Paranjape et al. Ring any bells? I’m sure not! These are names we are not familiar with. These are names and faces we do not see on our national television nor are these names recorded in media echelons. And yet these are the women that march into the rural heartland and bring to the world stories about rural corruption, inequity (both gender and caste) and injustice. They are conscientious watchdogs who monitor local governance, implementation of schemes for benefit of rural populace and disbursement of public money. They are the enforcers of grassroot accountability.

Still clueless? I am talking about the band of 40 women journalists who run an all-women news agency called Khabar Lahariya. The fact is, I was equally ignorant of their existence. They were brought alive for me by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, whose documentary ‘Writing with Fire’, narrates the story of these brave scribes. It was this powerful documentary that introduced me to these women of substance. I realized that we, the so-called intellectuals, discuss the problems of rural women over cups of latte and shake our heads in disgust at the social conventions that fetter these women. We give ourselves a pat on the back every time we pick up subjects like gender bias or crime against women for national panel discussions. But these discussions are inconsequential because they contribute next to nothing, other than generating some sound bites. On the other hand, we have a group of gutsy women correspondents, who are pulling out all the stops to make the world a better place. It is true that they are are semi-literate and they have none of the glamorous looks or cultivated accents of our national television anchors. It is a fact that they are attired in bright colourful sarees or salwar suits and speak in the local dialects- Hindi, Bundeli, Avadhi and Bajjika. But they connect with the local populace and bring news to build awareness amongst the rural population in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. More importantly, reporting is from a feminist perspective. Its not just rape or wife beating or lynching that they cover. They cover other serious social issues as well. The other day I watched live reporting on their YouTube channel where a reporter from Khabar Lahariya talked about the remuneration inequity for women farmers and labourers. She was in the fields with women farmers reaping and binding their crop and talking to them about the problems they faced. The gruelling reality is there for all to see-unedited and raw. Another video satirically talked about the tradition of not bringing a husband’s name to their lips. This video was humorous and fun to watch. A happy mix of serious reporting and a humorous take on social taboos characterizes their reporting. 

Armed with nothing but a smart phone, these women journalists record events and informal interviews on their mobiles and connect with their viewers/readers from these phones. To start with, Khabar Lahariya was an 8-page weekly print edition from Karwi (Chitrakoot) but by 2016 it had completely reinvented itself as a digital news agency and platform. The feisty women running the agency have learnt to move with the times. They have updated themselves and are technically savvy. They have a Facebook page and are on Twitter as well. I have subscribed to their YouTube Channel which posts in-depth reports on local issues and posts interviews of women who are strong enough to depart from the tradition. (Watch the official video of Khabhar Lahariya on YouTube). I saw an interesting post entitled ‘The Caste of Water’ about Chamela, a Koli dalit from a drought prone Koilihai village of Bundelkhand, who had the gumption to break tradition and become a handpump mechanic. I was deeply impressed by the matter of fact and at times quirky reporting by these women of mettle.

Today, this digital newspaper earns 10 million views a month and files 200 reports in digital format. It has won several awards and accolades for its insightful journalism and focus on controversial subjects like sand mining mafia, Naxals and a host of other pertinent local issues. Remember these women journalists have to reach out to the victims as well as perpetrators of crime for an objective coverage. And what makes them special is that they admit to being scared, they admit to being harassed for stepping out of their households. Husbands and family are not always supportive of their effort to be independent career women. But they gather together their courage, like an impenetrable shield and trudge on. In 2004, their efforts were rewarded when they were honoured by the prestigious Chameli Devi Jain award. UNESCO awarded them the King Sejong literacy Prize in 2008. In 2012 they were given the Laadli Media award for gender-sensitive reporting and in 2014 they were awarded the Kaifi Azmi award. And now, their story documented in ‘Writing with Fire’ is making waves and has won the World Cinema Documentary Category at Sundance Festival 2021(Watch the Official Trailer on YouTube). It has also been shortlisted in the documentary section of the Academy Awards.

So, these little-known women of mettle have finally won the recognition and plaudits they deserved. Hats off to these women of Substance!!!

~ Rachna Singh

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