By Chetna Verma, Ranchi, Feb 16 ANI | 8 months ago

"Johar! Mobile Vaani mein aapka swagat hai..." - may not sound familiar to an urban citizen but is the most comforting welcome note for nearly one lakh villagers hailing from the remotest hamlets of Jharkhand, who connect every day to the Jharkhand 'Mobile Vaani', a unique voice-based social platform, to share their grievances. Rajiv Murmoo, a forty-year old farmer from Santhal Pargana, a tribal village, has found a new friend in Jharkhand Mobile Vaani whom he can call anytime of the day to either report a corrupt practice transpiring around him or to find a solution to the problem being faced by villagers, confident that his voice will be heard.


Imparting this confidence in Rajiv and his peers is Gram Vaani (Voice of Villages), a social technology company based in Delhi that started with the intent of reversing the flow of information, that is, to make it bottom-up instead of top-down. Gram Vaani was cofounded by Dr. Aaditeshwar Seth in 2009. The idea took shape when Dr. Seth participated in a competition in 2008 while pursuing his Ph.D in Canada. The competition was organized by the Knight Foundation to explore the concept of Community Radio in India.

The Government of India, at that time, did realize that a large chunk of rural population could be left out of the development fold if appropriate steps were not taken in time. Thus it was promoting the policy of community radio. Nike Foundation, realizing the need of the hour, organized a competition where they invited young minds to devise a software that could be used easily by first time users of community radio. Dr. Seth, who was already conducting research on the topic "Internet connectivity system in rural India" took on the challenge, devised a unique software and won the competition. This victory provided him with a grant that allowed him to set up this social enterprise called Gram Vaani. This was his first step into the world of social development.

The first product that Gram Vaani launched was called GRINS (Gramin Radio Inter-Networking System), an integrated software solution for running a community radio station that allows program scheduling and play-out, full telephony and SMS integration, Internet streaming, content management and statistical analysis of play-out history.

The initial plan, to connect the rural India to the policy makers, was to have 3000-4000 community radio stations dotted all across the country. This, sadly, was not to be. Five years down the line, there are only a hundred and twenty five radio stations of which thirty five use the GRINS platform across twelve states. Stations have used GRINS to do live broadcasts of NREGA (Rural Employment Guarantee scheme) and Panchayat meetings. Schools have played Antakshari over the phone and broadcast it on radio, via GRINS. A station has even run a reality show on folk music similar to 'Indian Idol', and used GRINS to track votes by listeners. Other stations have used the IVR (phone-based menu) feature of GRINS to record answers to quizzes, comments on problems with NREGA and PDS, anonymous reporting of events, and other purposes.

Being a social enterprise, Gram Vaani earns revenues by licensing its technology to other non-profit organizations to run community radio stations, helplines, data collection activities, etc. Working with the non-profit organizations acquainted them with their challenges regarding impact assessment and social audit reports. According to Ashish Tandon, Vice President, Business Development and Strategy, "Often there is bickering between the donors and the executing agencies regarding impact assessment reports. Donors do not want hand-written reports saying ten thousand families impacted; in fact, they want to know each and every touch point - have you actually met the family? Do you have details of the beneficiaries in these reports? Have they said that you have impacted their lives? This was not going anywhere."

The team realized that even if it was a for-profit company for a social cause, it required a vision and a mission tied down to objectives which could be measured in real time. This was the area, the team realized, where they could work to find really interesting solutions to address the needs of the non-profits. The challenge gave Dr. Seth the motivation to start working on what is now known as v-Automate Voice Solutions. Under v-Automate, there are a variety of products that can be used for conducting surveys, setting up rural call centers etc. v-Automate attracted more clients for Gram Vaani, both non-profits and corporate.

Even as Community radio was working well with the v-Automate solutions, there was an issue that the Gram Vaani team thought important to address - the issue of the digital divide.

The Urban population has easy access to the internet but in rural areas, where a family of seven members survives on a meagre income of two thousand rupees, the question of internet connectivity does not arise, leaving them way behind in the contemporary model of development.

"The way social media was used in the recent election campaigns to make people aware of the corrupt politicians has set an example before us. Just imagine, if this happens at the national level thanks to the digital divide, seventy percent of our population with no access to the internet will be left out from being a part of the revolution," said Mr. Tandon.

The team was well aware of the fact that the internet cannot be a solution till a certain economic level is achieved. While the entire team was thinking of innovative, out of the box solutions, they recognized that the rural communities who are the "have not's" with no economic means to access the internet, already have a technology at their disposal which they not only possess but are very comfortable using- Mobile phones. Thus was born "Mobile Vaani".

In Mobile Vaani, as a user, you have to dial a number that connects you to the server that provides a variety of options to share, complain, learn and even have the facility of asking for content of one's interest. At the end, users can leave their comments and also participate in the ongoing surveys. Unlike radio's unidirectional bombardment of information, it engages the community and gives them a platform to voice their opinions.

According to Shailendra Sinha, a local journalist based in Dumka, "Mobile Vaani has become the voice of the rural people. Villagers, long neglected by the Government and media alike, have finally got a platform where they can discuss issues regarding health, unemployment and education without fear and be reasonably confident of receiving a reply from the concerned authorities."

Today, a person sitting in Latehar can listen to a person from Ranchi who is more educated and well informed. in addition, current affair programs are also being generated on a regular basis, where two anchors pick up a newspaper and discuss the national and local news in an entertaining manner, providing essential information to the villagers.

Villagers are now aware of the decisions being taken in the National Capital that can affect their lives, directly or indirectly. "One of the impacts of Mobile Vaani is that it changed the perception of the villagers. For example, a community meant a hundred odd households to an illiterate villager. They were not aware of the concept of administrative blocks that together constitute a district and so on. Listening to Mobile Vaani changed the definitions for the villagers eking out a living outside the development ambit of the Government," shared Mr. Tandon.

The content of the campaigns being run by the team comes from the villagers themselves who participate in the v- survey programme of Mobile Vaani. The most popularissues are then transformed into a campaign. The team uses creative means like theatre and debating sessions to address those issues. The content generated in one programme becomes part of their future activities.

In addition to the interactions using voice technology, Mobile Vaani has 22 community representatives working in the field in various districts of Jharkhand. They reach out to the villagers, organize meetings where they not only discuss social issues but get a chance to sing folk songs or fables. However, there is less participation from womenfolk in meetings and in surveys. "That is a challenge we are facing in our initiatives. Though the situation has become better with programmes being designed specifically for women, we need greater participation of women," said Mr. Tandon.

Now in its fifth year, Gram Vaani has faced challenges of a third world where it was difficult to convince the donors who had less understanding of how technology could empower the communities and help deliver the objectives of a project. But with several impact stories being written on the ground, the team is confident enough to expand its roots across the country. According to Dr. Seth, a lot of things have changed in their journey of five years. One thing that will never change is their vision of empowered communities.

(Posted on 16-02-2014)

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