They've Got Guts

BY EDWIN KOO
Apr 15, 2010
*Special to asia!

A group of low-caste women runs Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper exposing injustices forgotten by the Indian media.

The surnames of the journalists have been intentionally left out in the credits located inconspicuously at the bottom of page 8, the newspaper’s last page. A small gesture, yet it speaks volumes.

“It is a sign of equality,” said Kavita, 30, editor of Khabar Lahariya’s Banda edition.

Surnames reveal quite a bit in India – one’s caste, tribe or faith. But in this newspaper, such differences hold no meaning. In fact, the raison d’être of this rural paper is precisely to eliminate the prejudices and injustice caused by these obsolete yet prevalent social markers.

The rural weekly, which reaches deep into the heart of rural Uttar Pradesh, began publishing in May 2002. Entirely run by marginalized women from Dalit, Kol and Muslim communities, the newspaper now boasts two editions, a 5,000-print run, and a readership of 25,000-35,000.

Banda and Chitrakoot districts, where the two editions of Khabar Lahariya are based, are among India’s poorest regions. And in these forgotten corners of India, women, especially those from the lower castes and minorities, are treated with scant respect.

In the villages here, where newspaper delivery is at best irregular, a village newspaper in the local Bundeli dialect aims to bridge information gap.

“There was no newspaper reaching about 500 villages in the districts of Chitrakoot and Banda. The problems of the village here were not covered by the leading newspapers and our voices are not heard by the authorities,” said Kavita of the beginnings of the newspaper.

“Another main idea is to empower women of the downtrodden classes by bringing them into journalism,” she added.

 

334 Prema, 25, takes notes after visiting a household in the village of Badokhr, about 20km from Banda. The reporters of Khabar Lahariya cover long distances in rickshaws, tempos, jeeps and horsecarts to reach their newsmakers in Banda district. Credit: Edwi

 

Experimental roots

From seven staffers in 2002, starting with the Chitrakoot edition, the team has grown to the present 20, delivering two editions.

The creation of this rural weekly is not without its hiccups.

Khabar Lahariya’s roots can be traced back to an experimental newspaper called Mahila Dakiya in 1993. Various workshops were started to train neo-literate women in journalism, so that they can contribute stories. A one-page, handwritten broadsheet, it reached a print-run of 2,500 copies at its peak, but shut in 2000 due to a lack of sponsorship.

Its demise led to the beginning of a more viable project – Khabar Lahariya. Nirantar, a Delhi-based NGO, which was integral in the setting up of Mahila Dakiya, applied a new management model to Khabar Lahariya, with an eventual goal of an entirely independent editorial.

Despite the experience of setting up a broadsheet under its belt, conceiving Khabar Lahariya was almost like starting from scratch. Big and small decisions had to be taken: including finding an office, designing the paper, and salaries for staffers.

Contents-wise, Khabar Lahariya’s initial narrow focus on familiar issues, such as violence against women and developmental stories, failed to establish credibility for the paper. Readers saw it as a single-minded crusade for women’s rights. But what the editorial wanted was for Khabar Lahariya to become a rural newspaper that is taken seriously by everyone, men and women.

That perception changed in 2004 when the women decided to plunge into the reportage of the Panchayat elections.

Despite being unschooled in the intricacies of political reporting, the women pulled off three special editions that carried interviews with local candidates and op-ed pieces. The experience gave the women confidence to transcend into a previously untouchable realm – national-level politics – and, in the process, be seen as a credible paper.

 

Staying afloat

Selling at two rupees a copy to a relatively small readership base, Khabar Lahariya is yet to become profitable. It costs about 3 million Indian rupees (US$60,000) yearly to run the newspaper.

The bulk of costs are salaries and print costs. Each journalist is paid in the range of 3,000-7,000 rupees (US$60-140) and each copy costs about four rupees to print.

To keep it afloat, Nirantar looks for donors who identify with the village newspaper’s cause. Currently, the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, which has agreed to sponsor the project until 2010, pays for the salaries, infrastructure and print costs.

Still, the women at Khabar Lahariya understand that long-term economic viability is key to its survival. Hence, a decision was taken recently to accept advertisements into its pages.

Like everything else in Khabar Lahariya, marketing of advertisements is done with a rustic personal touch, that is, via word-of-mouth on the journalists’ distribution runs.

The rates can vary from 200 rupees for a small stamp-sized ad to 4,000 rupees for a full-colour page one. Judging by its latest issues, ads have picked up and now occupy about a three-quarter page.

 

UNESCO prize

It is difficult to get more women into the field of journalism. Most people still feel that women should work at home and not go running about reporting on stories.

Today, the paper carries news in neatly demarcated sections, including current news, national and international news, women’s issues, news from here and there, regional news, government news, and even an editorial page.

In fact, from being an unlikely survivor, Khabar Lahariya has risen to an enviable spot in the local journalism scene, winning the prestigious UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize this year. And justly so, given the rigour of their journalism, setting standards that even established local media find hard to match.

Hindi-language dailies have been caught poaching their stories without giving due credit, said its staff.

And readers seem to trust Khabar Lahariya more than most Hindi mainstreams, mainly owing to its reputation for representing the peoples’ voice, in a place where moral values are in short supply.

Said Meera, 24, Khabar Lahariya’s assistant editor: “A Hindi newspaper reporter accompanied me to a village to interview a woman whose daughter was raped and then disappeared. After the interview, he went to the perpetrator’s family and demanded money for not publishing the story. He tried to persuade me not to run the story too by offering me a share of the extortion money, but I declined. We ran the story anyway.”

 

Social constraints

Although their work is seen as a beacon of hope in an impoverished and neglected region, Khabar Lahariya still has difficulty finding new staff. Barriers to entry are low – women need only a Class 8-pass to join – but existing social norms are make it hard to recruit.

edwin kooEdwin Koo is a Singaporean photojournalist , who has been based in Nepal since September 2008. It is a labour of love to record down his experiences and fleeting thoughts , as he goes about photographing and documenting the fledgling Himalayan republic. You can also see pictures of everyday Nepal at his photoblog by the same name.