Some years ago, Stephen Lang, an American actor best known for his role of colonel Quaritch in Avatar, commented, “Video Volunteers is creating a kind of grassroots Reuters. They have created an alternative media in places that don’t have cinemas or TV or even regular electricity.” Lang’s remarks were made recognising the efforts of the organisation in giving a voice to the disadvantaged, one video at a time.
Members of Video Volunteers (VV), a grassroots monitoring movement with an office headquartered in Goa, do what journalists are paid to do: report news. But unlike the mainstream Indian media, these ‘community correspondents’ as they are called, who come from the most rural and marginalised sections of the society, report systemic issues that otherwise fall through the gaps of daily reportage. They do not belong in the traditional media space; these correspondents are victims of discrimination, bureaucracy, gender issues, corruption and repression from the State. But driven by the willpower to tackle problems and preempt any wrong, they share their struggles with the world. These stories, published through Video Volunteers, are “news by those who live it”.
Says Jessica Mayberry, the Co-Founder of the organisation, “A large percentage of media coverage caters to the urban and middle class population. But a majority of the Indian populace is not urban or middle class. Only two per cent of the news is actually about these rural citizens. We felt a need to create a network where their stories are also told and heard. We wanted to democratise media.”
Jessica, who is from New York, US, studied Arts and History at Oxford University, UK. Driven by the belief that media should be a democratic space, she visited India as a WJ Clinton Fellow of the American India Foundation, and after a year of interacting with rural women in filmmaking, she decided to start VV in 2006, along with Stalin K, a documentary filmmaker.
Exactly four years later, to create larger awareness about marginalised communities, be it dalits, tribals, religious or sexual minorities, they launched their initiative, IndiaUnheard. This project opened a window to the world of millions of Indians whose problems are as real as any other but are under-reported. About the journey so far, she says, “We started with just two volunteers. This year, as we celebrate our fifth anniversary, we are 170 correspondents strong.”
Here’s how these news producers work: the correspondents identify an issue that they feel should be highlighted, they get advice from their mentor (each correspondent has a mentor either on the field or in the Goa headquarters) before interviewing and shooting the video story. Once filmed, the video goes to the editorial board. Finally, the videos are uploaded on the website and YouTube and some are even distributed to media platforms like Headlines Today and CNN-IBN and other online platforms like Youth Ki Awaz, Oximity, Global Voices.
At the heart of it all is a commitment to create an impetus for social change, in their own way. In January this year, community correspondent Mangnuram showcased how the Dalits in the village of Gangapatti in Bihar had no access to the Public Distribution System because they did not have ration cards. Mangnuram, a victim himself, put together a video describing the plight of the community. This resulted in 125 families receiving ration cards. In another instance, Mangnuram’s video helped the colony get a new drainage system. Another correspondent, Amita Tuti from Jharkhand helped in rehabilitating 15-year-old Magdalene Mundu from Mailpidi village who was wrongly jailed and ill-treated for being a Maoist. On another occasion, correspondent Arti Bai Valmiki’s video catalysed the authorities in improving the quality of midday meals for 237 primary school students in the district of Batiagarh in Madhya Pradesh. There are many such success stories where the videos have created instances of change, says Jessica. Video Volunteers has records of more than 21,000 villagers and slum dwellers taking concrete action after seeing the films, impacting more than 6,28,000 lives.
The correspondents are currently documenting the effects of forced evictions across India, in both rural and urban areas. Another campaign Article 17: A Campaign to End Untouchability aims to bring cases of untouchability to light. Then in what may be the first ever video audit, VV is also documenting compliance with and violations of over 100 schools of the RTE Act.
Jessica is now working towards the goal of getting at least one volunteer who wants to make a difference to the community, in each of the 640 (according to the last Census) districts in India. “We want every village to have access to someone who can bring their stories out and accelerate the impact. We want to see that happen.” Details at www.videovolunteers.org.