12 years in the life of a rural women’s media collective. In some ways, it feels like 12 dog years, and we’re wiser and older and a little breathless on stairs. In other ways, we are full of teenage energy – some bravado, some angst – and cannot wait for the adventure ahead.
The journey of this rural newspaper – rooted in areas which do not come to mind, as you picture a shining and developed India, pockets that have stayed much the same, as governments and times
have changed – is a thick rope of many colourful threads. People, voices, villages and towns have thickened it over time; it has coiled through districts of the most populous and amongst the hairiest places, ever, to be reporting from, and to. Beginning from the feudal badlands of Bundelkhand, and reaching into hoary Awadh and Banaras, even the aromatic north Bihar-Nepal border at Sitamarhi – Khabar Lahariya proved that aapki khabar, aapki bhasha mei (your news, in your language) was an offer that had many, many takers. Especially those to whom no media channel had ever considered worth trekking into the hinterland for.
The staying power of a newspaper that is built on the unique voice and knowledge – strengthened by information and professional skills – of a woman in your village, is something quite unprecedented. And so, despite its primary location and focus being areas that are media and technology dark, the newspaper and its journalists now traverse the worlds of print and new media, their voice and quality of news making its imprint on both. And as Shalini, founder member and driving force, holds, the imprint comes in no small measure from the ‘dynamic group of professional women journalists that we have in Khabar Lahariya: women who have upgraded their own skills and information over time – moving from being farmers, activists, to women reporters, reporting on women’s issues and community-specific problems, to professional journalists reporting on crime, politics, development and women’s issues from a distinct standpoint. And beyond that to leading, and creating new and ambitious visions for this media collective in the present.’
Kavita, regional editor and founder member says, in Khabar Lahariya’s 12 year journey, the milestones are uncountable. ‘We went from monthly to fortnightly to weekly. We went from black and white to colour. Then we moved from one district to another, and another, and more. We set up 40 women to report and edit for their own editions of the newspaper: we trained them in everything from reporting, to politics, writing, photography and new media. We went online, we reached our news to people far beyond our villages and towns. We were the first to explore and write about the experience of other women reporting in rural India. Each time we have grown, we have heard from readers – bring this newspaper to our village, our tehsil, our district. This demand has fuelled our journey.’
For Laxmi, leading the edition in Bihar, ‘At moments in the last 4 years, I have felt like the things I never thought could happen, are happening to me. I went for a meeting of South Asian Women Journalists in Patna, where for the first time in my life, a TV channel interviewed me. I met the Chief Minister, I went to his house. As a reporter, I went from people scoffing and taunting me when I would ask them questions, to holding Khabar Lahariya as the icon for truthful, accurate reporting. Readers see us coming back again and again. They see roads being built, health centres activated, mid-day meals being cooked. They tell me, this would not have happened if you had not reported on it. And they recognise the value of Khabar Lahariya.’
But where to now, and what could this model of newsmaking – by and for those furthest from power centres – hold for a wider audience? We have plans to grow, to double our editions and reach a larger fraction of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 million rural readers, whom newspapers don’t reach. We also want the power of Khabar Lahariya’s rural reporting voice to travel through digital channels to reach readers off and online – because the most local of issues have a resonance beyond their locations.
But Meera, founder member, editor-at-large, and anchor extraordinaire for Khabar Lahariya, puts this all in perspective. ‘Back in 2003, when we reported on police complicity in a case of violence towards a Dalit woman, no other newspaper reported on it, and we were under tremendous pressure to withdraw the story. We didn’t, and ultimately the story and its impact forced the Superindent of Police to apologise to the entire community. Last year  when we went to the District Magistrate with critical reporting on the government literacy mission, he said, I would have never known these things if it wasn’t for Khabar Lahariya. I think the biggest thing we’ve been able to do is establish, locally and beyond – administration, police, our own peers in the media world, and women themselves – that we are reporters to be reckoned with.’
In 12 years, working as a group of women from very different backgrounds, with a circle of well-wishers across geographies – we have felt that Khabar Lahariya is a breakthrough both in terms of being an independent voice on rural matters as well as providing women’s voices on these matters. Publishing these voices has been incredibly strenuous, exciting, empowering. We have been able to survive on generous grants, and today, the newspaper and its journalists want it to be a self-sustaining enterprise that is powered by people’s belief, especially those people
who recognise the value of a free and fair press in today’s times.
So, today, Khabar Lahariya, the country’s only truly rural newspaper, is inviting you to be a stakeholder in its story. So that it can continue doing what it does, in better ways, with more reach, employing more rural women journalists, connecting the many Indias that exist in a deep and needed way.