Network News

Making news in Pastapur

By Anindita Ramaswamy



Pastapur is a nondescript, unassuming village in Andhra Pradesh's Medak district, but it creates a lot of news. Its own news. And all this is made possible by a band of "barefoot" reporters and editors who are women, poor, illiterate and dalit, but tell their unique stories through video and radio with an uncommon passion.


Medak's Zaheerabad area is home to poor farmers and landless labourers, a majority of whom are dalits and are at the bottom of India's insidious caste ladder. But many of the women here turn every single caste and gender stereotype on its head. Articulate, curious and brutally frank, they arm themselves with Canon cameras to report on issues that are important to them and their communities, with tremendous confidence and an unwavering determination.


It was through an initiative of the Deccan Development Society (DDS), that the women received the encouragement and training to report news about issues such as health, family problems, crop failure, poor rains and domestic violence.


DDS director PV Satheesh capitalised on the strong oral tradition in the community. "For me the possibility of providing video and audio technologies as a means of expression for disadvantaged rural women was an exciting idea," he is quoted as saying on the DDS website.


For more than 20 years, DDS' work has focused on regenerating rural livelihoods by combining indigenous farming knowledge, eco-friendly technology and gender justice. Its strength is its women's "sanghams" or voluntary associations of the poor in about 75 villages around Zaheerabad.

According to Satheesh, DDS conducted four-day video training workshops over a 10-month period starting in 1998 for about 10 dalit women between the ages of 16-35. Their motivation was varied. While L . Mallamma said she wanted issues that affected their lives to be known to the outside world, P. Narsamma said she would like to communicate with women in other "sanghams." Others, like B. Nagamma, said they were eager to enjoy the simple pleasure of recording important events like marriages.

The seven women who completed all the workshops learnt about the different parts of a video camcorder, how to use a tripod and shoot, the principles of composing a picture, aspects like camera distance, angle and movement, sound recording and editing on a VHS system.


One October, Narsamma did a dramatic report on the damage to crops caused by heavy rain. Shetold her story standing in ankle-deep water, surrounded by blackened, soggy crops and spoke eloquently about the destruction of "bajra" and "jowar." Her report was aired on the regional channel of the state-owned Doordarshan television network, as well as on the privately-owned ETV channel.


Not being able to read and write has not been a barrier for the women, who quickly mastered the technology for communicating over video and radio. DDS' Community Media Trust, which opened on 15 October 2001, grew out of the desire of more than 5,000 "sangham" members who wanted control over their own media.


When NWMI members visited the trust office, Narsamma told us that because none of them is literate, they can speak freely and in their own language. People who come from outside, such as city reporters, do not understand either their language or their lives. According to her, dalit women videographers could approach people in their villages easily because they had their trust and they told stories that were important and relevant to them all.

The women have made more than 100 films on issues ranging from food and seed sovereignty to urban displacement and water. Right through, they maintain a quiet sense of humour, and the ability to laugh at others. In a 9.5 minute film entitled "Sangham Shot," the women describe how they learnt to shoot videos. Narsamma explains that in mainstream films the camera looks down on rural people, in what she calls the "Patel Shot". But the dalit women have a more equitable style of filming, where the camera looks at the subject as an equal. This is called the "Sangham Shot".

Some women trained to run a radio station. The community FM radio centre began operations in 1996 with a 100-watt transmitter. It has a 30-km radius and can cover up to 100 villages. Supported by Unesco as part of its "Women Speak to Women" project, it is broadcast from an eco-friendly studio with programmes on gender, education, agriculture, health, tips for weeding and cropping.


When Unesco officials first met the women in 1996 they spoke about why the radio project was important to them and what its content would be: "If we are talking on our radio about our group's experiences, we will speak about where we bought goats, how we took care of them, what our problems were, how we solved them and how we made profits from this," said Sidddamma. Mainstream radio has no time for these details. They only talk in broad terms. For the poor this broadness has no meaning. They need (micro) experiences. Our radio can do this effectively. As we share these experiences we also get other women's support in the work that we are doing," she was quoted as saying on the DDS website.


Pushpalata said, "We are always talking about marginalised grains, marginalised people, marginalised language and marginalised issues. This is the reason we should have our own radio to allow us to discuss our issues."


NWMI goes to Pastapur
NWMI members who had attended the third national meeting of the network in Hyderabad on 21 and 22 January travelled to Pastapur on 23 January to meet and interact with rural media colleagues. The group's first stop was at Cafe Ethnic, a one-year-old restaurant in Zaheerabad run by a cooperative facilitated by the Deccan Development Society (DDS), a 20-year-old grassroots organisation working with women's Sanghams (voluntary village-level associations of women from socially and economically disadvantaged communities). The restaurant, which serves healthy, tasty food made with nutritious millets —indigenous grains —rather than rice or wheat, represents another step in the organisation's efforts to ensure both food security and food sovereignty for the poor and to work towards right to autonomy over food production.


The second stop was at Nyalkal, where the month-long Jathara (mobile biodiversity festival) initiated by DDS six years ago was underway that day.The idea of the Jathara is to enable rural communities to showcase, celebrate and promote the rich agricultural diversity of their region and the self-sufficiency it allows even in a semi-arid, drought-prone area.

The next appointment was with Gangawar Anjamma, a community seed keeper, who showed the visitors her collection of seeds and spoke about the difference that local seed banks such as hers had made to her own life and livelihood as well as those of fellow farmers in the area. Participants also visited a seed "museum" at Machnoor, where an astonishing variety of seeds are kept on display. These initiatives are part of DDS' attempt to establish people's right to autonomy over seeds, which is connected to autonomy over food production, natural resources and markets.


Then came the highlight of the day: the visit to the DDS Community Media Centre to meet the grassroots media women who have embarked on a journey towards autonomous media. The group saw three films made by the women and visited their video production centre. In the process of talking about their media work, the women provided a clear-eyed, thought-provoking critique of mainstream media. The media initiatives are meant to promote the concept of people's right to autonomy over media. Unfortunately, the NWMI team was unable to meet the women working with community radio because they were busy covering the Jathara. However it did pay a visit to their radio station in Machnoor. 


The final visit of the day was to a cooperative making organic jaggery and thereby providing life skills education, employment and income to boys and girls studying at the Pacha Saale (Green School) run by DDS in Machnoor. The freshly made molasses offered to the group brought the highly enjoyable and educative field trip to a sweet and satisfactory end.




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