CGNet Swara

Quick Look

CGNet Swara gives voice to the tribal population of Chattisgarh, India by helping them report local issues using landline or mobile phones.

Beginning Date: 
July 1, 2004
Project Scale: 
Types of Tools: 
Specific Tools: 


CGNet Swara (Chhattisgarh Net Voice) gives voice to the tribal population of Chattisgarh, India, by providing them with a voice-based portal where they can report local issues using a landline or mobile phone. The reported content is reviewed by moderators and appropriate submissions are published for playback on the audio channel.

Subscribers are alerted via SMS that new content is ready. To listen to the content, listeners send a missed call to the system, which then calls back and leads the caller through a simple interactive voice response system, allowing them to listen to the latest news and stories. The audio content can also be found on the CGNet Swara website for web browsers.

CGNet Swara primarily uses an audio-based technology — a customized version of the Audiowiki software developed by MIT-. Other online tools used to inform listeners that a new report has been published and/or to highlight the stories on the platform include a Google SMS channel, mailing list, the CGNet website, Twitter, Facebook, as well as an online discussion forum.


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Date of Audio: 
September 15, 2010


Tell me a little about your project.: 

My name is Shubhranshu Choudhary. I am a journalist and I worked all my life with the BBC. But about five years ago I decided to go back to Chattisgarh where I grew up. The main reason was that the journalism I was doing — hopping from one place to another — was providing very little understanding of the “why” of the situation. So I thought of concentrating on one place, and that’s how I moved to Chattisgarh, but when I reached Chattisgarh I understood that the place is in a complete mess and a break in communication has played a major role in whatever the situation is there now.

This is a tribal state, and when I looked at the journalistic fraternity in Chattisgarh, I did not find a single tribal journalist there. I did not find any journalist who understood any tribal language, and when I reached any tribal village myself, I was talking to somebody who spoke Hindi, but only a very small minority of that community spoke Hindi. Hindi had the same sociological connotation as English has in our mainstream society. So when you are talking to someone who knows Hindi in those villages, you are talking to someone who is from the upper class of the tribal community. As journalists we were portraying that voice as the view of the whole tribal community. We were failing in passing on information about what that community needs, and when the administration does not have that information they cannot react.

So I was looking at creating a communication system that solves these problems, and there were several issues. One problem was of language, as I said. The second problem was distance. These communities live in far-off places which are difficult to go to — you go to a village, it takes you five days of walking. The third problem was that these people were not literate and most of them do not have electricity. So we were looking for a journalistic solution with the help of technology. This was also the time when mobile phones started penetrating the rural areas. Today we have around 60% penetration of mobile phones in the whole region. In comparison, if you look at the same official figures, they say that 64% of houses do not have electricity in Chattisgarh, and those figures are higher for the tribal areas. If you add all the newspapers, the total circulation does not reach more than 20%. So it looked like the mobile phone could be a solution to break some of these barriers. On the mobile phone they can use their own language, the mobile phone reach was quite high, and it would also solve the problem of distance. But when we started looking around, there was no ready-made solution for us to copy. So that is the background story of the birth of CGNet Swara.

What's your vision for the project?: 

My vision is to create this communication or rectify this breakage of communication between the tribal community and the non-tribal community, which has caused what we call the Maoist problem. There are a few Maoists who have come from Bengal and Andhra and they have got refuge in the tribal community. What I understood as a journalist is that these tribal people are angry because we have not been able to understand or give them what they want. Because of this, they are angry. If we want to solve this problem, what we will have to do is to repair this break in communication between tribal and non-tribal people. We need to invent a communication platform between tribal and non-tribal people, and also among tribal people themselves.

CGNet Swara is a start, but it needs to be linked up with many things. The premise we are working on is that many people have mobile phones and they have something to say, i.e. they want to share something. That may be something good or maybe something bad happening to them, and their handicap is that they do not speak Hindi or English, in which all our mainstream things operate — be it journalism, information or what we call the digital world. These people are outside that digital world, so we are using mobile phones to bridge that last mile, but after that all the other work remains. Like when a person records a message saying that X is happening in my village, after that there is lots of work — for example, that message needs to go to the authority who needs to fix that, so there is translation involved, and then that authority needs to react on that — then only is this stream complete.

As journalists, our role finishes with closing the communication loop. After communication, the other pillars of democracy also need to function. Say something wrong or an injustice is happening. We can report it, but after that whether the court operates or not, the bureaucracy takes action or not, that’s their arena.

How does your work currently turn into offline change? : 

A tribal person can send in information —say there is a power plant coming up in one village and there is a public hearing, or there is a school or hospital that is not functioning properly. So if he or she can send that information in their own language, then one of our moderators who understand that language will translate that message into Hindi or English and check the veracity of the information. We have our own communication system in the digital world, our discussion forum, and we will put it out in that system that from this village, this person has sent this information and here it is in their own voice, as well as here is the translation. We will also put that the authority for this thing is Mr. X or Mrs. X, their telephone number is this, their email address is this, and can somebody be proactive and check that this happens? And we see that when they receive a phone call or email then they do react. The second way it happens is that the mainstream media picks it up and when they write about it, they do a story that puts pressure on the authorities and they act.

I can give you many examples. There was a report saying that, for one school in Dantewada district, the teachers and workers had not been paid for the last 14 months. So somebody did an interview with one of the workers there and then we put out the story. Then lots of people called the Secretary of Education. The result is that within a week those guys were paid.

What are the biggest obstacles to your success?: 

Major challenges are two-fold. One is technological. As I said in the beginning, there was not a readymade model which we could implement, so we started working on it on the technological side. We are not very technical. So we took help from technical people and we got help from MIT, who developed this software for us. But because it is very new it needs lots of technological interventions on a regular basis. Then there is the cost. Some technologies are available but we cannot use them, as it is not legal in India.

Challenge number two is the political obstacles. When this kind of information comes out, it hurts some quite powerful vested interests, and the people who are complaining are poor people. So they try to put hurdles in various ways. We are not doing anything illegal, so they cannot stop us or close us down, but they try to create problems.

Apart from that, there is the cost of calling. For technological reasons, because the technology is still new and there are teething problems, we need constant support. We have to keep the server in Bangalore, so what it implies is that a person who is in Chattisgarh needs to call Bangalore. That’s a long distance call, so the cost of the call becomes a big problem. The signals are not very good, so the call drops, and they need to call two or three times, so they spend five or ten rupees each time they call, and we are talking about the poorest of the poor of the country. Seventy-seven percent of this country spends 20 rupees a day, according to the government’s own figures, so if a person is spending five to ten rupees to use our system, that’s quite a lot of money.

The toll free number is a very new development. What we have done is that a person leaves a missed call and the server calls them back. So for each person we pay those five to 10 rupees. We have got a grant from the International Center for Journalists and that’s how we are doing this, but we will not be able to do it for too long. We are doing it on an experimental basis. At the moment it is free to use, but later we don’t know how it will go. The plan is that we would like to attract advertisers, NGOs, or government — say you want to send information about malaria, you want to sell toothpaste, you want to sell fertilizer, anything — who will use this service and subsidize the cost.

We are also working with MIT to develop a technology that will not break the Indian law [which strictly regulates Voice over Internet Protocol services like Skype] but will do the same thing as a VoIP. Once that develops, that will also solve the problem because then the calls will become only a local call.

Regarding the political obstacle, we try to overcome it. The police department —though they will not admit it, and I cannot prove it— has tried to stop us a few times, and they have managed to slow us down. So we go to the police and we try to communicate with them that what we are doing is in the process of peace-building. If you do not give justice to one person or one village, they are susceptible to go to the Maoists. If with the help of this communication system we are able to address their problems, give them their salaries, make sure that they get justice, we stop them going in the wrong path. So it is doing the same thing which you want to do and you should do more of it. We try to explain these things, but we can only explain and try.

In our discussion forum, there are members from all the political parties, there are members from the police, there are members from companies, and we try to meet once a year, face to face. The idea is to listen to each other and see if there is any solution possible.

Why do people use your tool?: 

That is really for a tribal person to answer, but I can give you only my understanding. If you are a tribal person and if you are a Gondi speaker, or a Kudukh speaker — two languages we are working on — just look at your situation. Gondi is spoken by 2.7 million people, according to our last census, but in Gondi, there is a neither a newspaper, nor a magazine, nor any radio news bulletin in the local language. So if you speak Gondi and no other language, your communication with the outside world is zero. This is the first platform in their language, which would be an attraction for me. The second thing is if you have a radio and you listen to radio news, it talks about Obama, it talks about British Petroleum and other such things, whereas you may want to know what happens nearby, say in your village or in a nearby village. Maybe you want to hear about what is happening around you, in you own language, reported by someone who speaks like you.

When we started for the first few months and people were paying from their own pocket, we thought that for the novelty they would call once or twice, and after that people will stop calling because it was so expensive. But if we look at our statistics, it is growing at a constant rate. What we understand is that there is a definite need for information sharing in that part of the world and this may be an appropriate tool.

What is your civic role?: 

We have created a platform where we welcome everyone. Our philosophy is that there is no untouchable. We would like to work with the government and would like to ask them to use this platform to do what they want to do. If they want to communicate with a tribal person who they are not able to reach, let them use this communication system.

What is your relationship with the private sector?: 

Corporations are part of our team. Many corporate managers are members of our discussion forum. Our role is to provide a platform where all parties can come together and listen to each other, at least agree to disagree. We always say it is better for us to talk than for our pistols to do the talking.

Has your work been replicated?: 

We have gotten many requests but we have been discouraging them, as we are facing many technological problems. We would first like to make it a robust system, which then anybody can replicate. The whole idea is that it remains an experiment which can be replicated anywhere where there are similar needs. We have got requests from Afghanistan, from Latin America, from Africa. Our code is already up on the net. All our work is open source, it’s all available to anyone who wants to use it.

Is your work a replication of another project?: 

No, because we ourselves did not initially have any understanding of what we wanted to do. Our needs have grown and so have the solutions we have found along the way. When we first started, we just started a Yahoo! group. But if you look at the percentage of people who are on the Internet it’s just 0.7% in Chattisgarh. So we understood that our reach was very limited. Then we thought that radio would be a solution, and we started thinking in terms of community radio. Community radio came, but in such a form that it was quite useless for us. Then we looked at mobile phones. Now we are looking at linking mobile phones, Internet and radio, maybe shortwave radio. So all our solutions are coming from what we find along the way.

Now we are thinking that in this mobile platform search would be useful to us. So we are working on that. Can this work as a newspaper on audio? Can it be a search engine for the poor? For example, if I don’t have a computer and I can’t go to Google, but I have this mobile phone and I can search for something that gives me information about whatever I am looking for — news about forests or news about water or whatever.

What transparency/accountability organizations do you work with?: 

The answer is none. That is because we do not determine that this week we are going to talk about corruption, next week we are going to talk about X, Y, Z. It’s community-driven. We do not have any agenda. As the moderator, our role is that there are some basic rules of journalism, that it should be factual. It should not be inflammatory, it should not be derogatory, so we will not allow those things. A group of journalists work on the moderation side, but all the agenda and content is set by the people.

We don’t want to make it a news-based platform. It should develop as people want. If they want to talk about music and poetry, let that be. For example, we find people using it with their oral traditions of storytelling or songs which go from one generation to another. People are sending their songs, so this could work as a digital archive. People are now starting to give us information about various herbs, medicines, so that kind of information also is there. Our plan is that as we grow, if there are too many diversions, then we can say press one for news, press two for songs, press three for sports. Just like in a newspaper, we’d have separate pages and sections.


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