Feature story

All tuned in

For the tribal communities of Abujmarh in Chhattisgarh, Bultoo Radio is far more than a medium of entertainment

I

s Bluetooth difficult to pronounce? It was for the people of Abujmarh and so they improvised it to ‘Bultoo’. The improvisation has gone a long way further for Bultoo Radio, a Bluetooth-based radio platform that allows the predominantly tribal populace of the region to share stories, raise issues and bond with one another.

Bultoo Radio is broadcast by CGNet Swara, a voice-based online portal that was created to serve and connect people from across Chhattisgarh, especially the state’s remote and underserved areas (CG stands for Central Gondwana, a tribal region that encompasses portions of modern-day Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh; and swara means voice).

Abujmarh certainly can do with connecting. A forested — and barely developed — region spread over 1,500 square miles in Chhattisgarh, and covering the districts of Narayanpur, Bijapur and Dantewada, it is home to a mix of indigenous tribes, including Gonds, Muria, Abuj Maria and Halbaas. Development has barely made a dent in Abujmarh and, to make matters worse, it is the setting for a bloody Maoist insurgency that has raged for long years.

Developed as an app with grant support from the Tata Trusts, among others, Bultoo Radio aims to address the everyday challenges faced by tribal communities in Abujmarh and beyond. Poor access to the outside world and lack of education have left locals in the dark about issues that are central to their lives, not least their rights as inhabitants of forest land.

Bultoo Radio was launched in 2019 and it has since then played an unconventional role in, most importantly, spreading awareness among tribals. For all its backwardness, Abujmarh does not lack for one symbol of technological advancement, the mobile phone. That’s what the station tapped into for reach and easy access.

CGNet Swara founder Shubhranshu Choudhary (left) explains citizen journalism and its merits to Afzal Khan of Bhopalpatnam

Valued by tribals

Using technology tools such as IVR, Android apps and Bluetooth, CGNet Swara, as a whole, has grown into a community service that is deeply valued by tribals in one of India’s most backward regions. With over 1 million phone calls logged, it has helped resolve numerous longstanding community problems.

In Marmara village, for instance, the CGNet Swara platform has helped sort out issues relating to road repairs, waterlogging and teachers coming in late at government schools. When problems are reported, members of the CGNet Swara team follow up with administration officials to get the concern addressed.

CGNet Swara’s appeal lies in the fact that it can be accessed through mobile phones. Users do not have to type; they can upload their messages as voice recordings. The portal acts as a news site where people can report local happenings that the audience can listen to, as a grievance forum to report issues, and as a platform where people can record local folklore and songs. In short, it gives tribal communities a voice.

The challenge for the CGNet team, with its portal as well as the radio platform, lay in getting villagers to upload content. This was tackled through a combination of training and incentivising. The training was handled by the CGNet team with a blend of song, dance and street plays. From that has emerged a cadre of bolkars (speakers).

Bultoo Radio also helps connect tribal communities who have migrated to neighbouring states. There are as many as 55,000 such migrants in settlements in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, where they often face the wrath of locals and the police, who view them as outsiders. To address their needs, CGNet Swara operates a different Bultoo Radio service in the Dorla language (a variant of Gondi mixed with Telugu).

The impact generated by Bultoo Radio has been substantial. Within a month of deployment, there were nearly 21,000 transfers of content via Bluetooth to more than 2,400 phones. This content ranges from folk songs to community problems, such as non-functional handpumps and delayed payments in government work schemes.

The app has also enabled citizen journalism. From October 4 to December 24, 2019, a total of 528 stories were reported through the app by 117 unique users. Of these, 156 were fact-checked and published on the cgnetswara.org website, broadcast on social media, and also distributed back to the community through CGNet’s app and IVR system.

Ground-level affirmation and support from local and state government officials have strengthened the radio station and the portal. “On a larger level, this is a peace project and it is linked to development and democracy,” says CGNet Swara founder Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former television and radio producer for BBC.

Adivasi girls recording a folk song in Surajpur

Broadcasting now

For CGNet Swara, the backend team is all-important. This is the group of people that helps create the content that goes on the site and also works to resolve the problems reported by users. The portal has a process to manage these two tasks.

First, the facts of each recorded message are verified and validated through a phone call to the person who called it in. These are posted on the website by trained editors working out of multiple locations in Chhattisgarh, among them Raipur, Narayanpur, Chatti and Rewa.

Then comes the follow-up stage. The CGNet Swara team uses its phones to call concerned administration officials to get community issues resolved. “Sometimes, even saying we are calling from Raipur makes all the difference,” says Geeta Tekam, an editor based in Raipur. The team has been trained to come up with creative ways to get problems resolved. Editor Bhan Sahu, for instance, occasionally claims to be a journalist looking for an update on a specific issue. Another colleague, Ashok Kumar Kori, sometimes says he is calling from Delhi in order to get answers.

Typically, problems take days or, in some cases, months to get fully resolved. That’s par for the governmental course. All that the CGNet Swara team can do is keep up the pressure and follow up consistently to get the job done.

Mr Choudhary started CGNet in 2004 as a ‘mailing list software’ where stories from the interiors of Chhattisgarh were highlighted, stories which the mainstream media could not access or did not find important enough. “It was an early experiment in creating a democratic platform on the internet,” he says.

Voice for natives

By 2010 the idea of extending CGNet into a voice-based service was taking shape. The plan was to include those who were comfortable speaking and listening rather than reading and writing.

Another barrier was of language: most of the intended beneficiaries were comfortable only in their native language. That’s where swara, the voice component, came in, in the form of a toll-free telephone number that enabled beneficiaries to record and listen to stories in Gondi.

In 2014, Mr Choudhary decided to extend the platform to connect with tribal communities living in Maoist-controlled areas. “Communities thrive when communication flows freely,” he says, “but the flow of communication isn’t easy in an environment of violence.”

CGNet Swara aims to transform itself into a self-sustaining network. “Our business model is grant-based but over the next five years we want to make it a sustainable one,” says Mr Choudhary. That could translate into a buying-and-selling platform for farmers. The underlying vision for the portal remains clear, though: to solve problems and generate social impact for Chhattisgarh’s tribal communities.