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Mobile Vaani talks, on Civil Society

Chetna from Civil Society has written a fantastic article about Mobile Vaani. Original source here.

People living in urban areas may not react to “Johar! Mobile Vaani mein aapka swagat hai…” but this salutation is a comforting welcome for nearly 100,000 villagers in the remotest hamlets of Jharkhand. They connect every day to Jharkhand Mobile Vaani, a unique voice-based social platform. Rajiv Murmoo, a 41-year-old farmer from Santhal Pargana, a tribal village, has found a new friend in Jharkhand Mobile Vaani whom he can call anytime to report a corrupt practice or to find solutions to a problem.

Mobile Vaani was started by Gram Vaani (Voice of Villages), a social technology company based in Delhi to reverse the flow of information – that is, make it bottom-up instead of top-down.

Gram Vaani was co-founded by Dr Aaditeshwar Seth in 2009. The idea took shape when he participated in a competition in 2008 as a PhD student in Canada. The competition was organised by the Nike Foundation to explore the potential of community radio in India. Realising that a large chunk of the rural population could be left out of the development process if appropriate steps were not taken in time, the Government of India had started promoting community radio. The Nike Foundation competition invited young minds to devise software that first-time users of community radio could operate easily.

Dr Seth, who was at that time researching Internet connectivity in rural India, won the competition. It provided him a grant that allowed him to set up Gram Vaani. This was his first step into the world of social development.

The first product that Gram Vaani launched was GRINS (Gramin Radio Inter-Networking System), an integrated software solution for running a community radio station that allows programme 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 rural India with policy-makers, was to have 3,000-4,000 community radio stations across the country. Sadly, this has not happened. Five years on, there are only 125 radio stations, of which 35 use the GRINS platform across 12 states. Stations have used GRINS to do live broadcasts of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) 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 NREGS and the Public Distribution System, anonymous reporting of events, and other purposes.

Being a social enterprise, Gram Vaani earns revenues by licensing its technology to other non-profits to run community radio stations, helplines, data collection activities, and so on. Working with non-profits acquainted Gram Vaani with the challenges they face in doing 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 10,000 families were impacted, 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 impacted their lives?”

The team realised that even if it was a for-profit company for a social cause, it required a vision and a mission tied to objectives which could be measured in real time. This was the area where they could work to find 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 is a variety of products that can be used for conducting surveys, setting up rural call centres and so on. v-Automate attracted more clients for Gram Vaani, both non-profits and corporate.

There was another issue that the Gram Vaani team thought was important to address – the digital divide. The urban population has easy access to the Internet but in rural areas, where a family of seven survives on a meagre income of Rs 2,000, the question of Internet connectivity does not arise, leaving them behind in the contemporary model of development.

“The way social media was used in the recent election campaigns to make people aware of corrupt politicians has set an example before us. Just imagine, if this happens at the national level, thanks to the digital divide, 70 per cent of our population with no access to the Internet will be left out from being a part of the revolution,” said Tandon.

The team was aware that the Internet cannot be a solution until a certain economic level is achieved. While thinking of innovative, out-of-the-box solutions, they recognised that rural communities already have a technology which they not only possess but are very comfortable using mobile phones. Thus was born Mobile Vaani.

A Mobile Vaani user has to dial a number that connects him to the server which then provides a variety of options – to share, complain, learn or even seek the content he is interested in. At the end, users can leave their comments and participate in ongoing surveys. Unlike radio’s unidirectional bombardment of information, Mobile Vaani engages the community and gives people a platform to voice opinions.

According to Shailendra Sinha, a Dumka-based journalist, “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.”

A person sitting in Latehar can listen to someone in Ranchi who is more educated and informed. In addition, current affairs programmes are also being generated regularly, with two anchors picking up a newspaper and discussing the national and local news in an entertaining manner yet providing essential information to listeners.

Villagers are now aware of decisions being taken in New Delhi that can affect their lives, directly or indirectly. “One of the impacts of Mobile Vaani is that it changed the perception of villagers. For example, a community meant 100-odd households to an illiterate villager. They were unaware of the concept of administrative blocks that together constitute a district and so on. Listening to Mobile Vaani changed such definitions for villagers eking out a living outside the development ambit of the government,” points out Tandon.

The content of the campaigns comes from the villagers themselves, as they participate in the v-survey programme of Mobile Vaani. The most popular issues are then taken up for campaigns. The team uses creative means like theatre and debating sessions to address the issues. The content generated in one programme becomes part of future activities.

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

Now in its fifth year, Gram Vaani has faced challenges such as convincing donors about how technology could empower communities and help deliver the objectives of a project. But, with several impact stories being written on the ground, the team is confident of extending its roots across the country. According to Dr Seth, much has changed in their five-year journey. Though one thing that will never change is their vision of empowered communities.