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A Voice of Hope for India's Unprivileged

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MUMBAI -- Popular narratives about India typically divide the country into two neat halves. An aspirational urban middle class, whose command of English has seen the country surge as an IT superpower, and a wretched underclass, living in poverty, in remote rural expanses, cut-off from the very technologies that has India making the headlines from Bangalore to the Bay Area.

Reality though is very different from convenient news bytes, as voice-based news and issues platform CGNet Swara has been demonstrating since being founded in 2010. Using the power of mobile phones, call centers, and the Internet, CGNet Swara aims to give voice to one of the most backward regions of India--the tribal heartlands of central India.

Now, the rest of the world seems to have woken up to its good work, with CGNet Swara winning the 2014 Freedom of Expression award from the UK-based Index of Censorship, who had the likes of Ed Snowden on their shortlist as well.

From Punch lines to Helplines

Paikrai Deogam, resident of Jamkundia village in West Singhbhum district of the Indian state of Jharkhand has a problem. Every large state-owned and private industrial conglomerate is camped in his state for its rich mineral wealth but they won't give locals jobs. Exploitation and abuse is the order of the day.

His world is miles away from his city cousins who can flip open their laptops and start a petition on Change.org. TV crews would hesitate to venture into his area which is a hotbed of violent left-wing insurgents, and supervising government officials are either corrupt, or apathetic, if not both. Luckily for him, all he needs is a basic mobile phone, to call into the CGNet Swara helpline, and record his message.

Once his message is received at CGNet Swara's call center, located in Bhopal, capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, a team starts to follow-up on the message (including translating it if required). A recording is posted on the portal, along with not only Deogam's contact number but also the concerned official's phone number, which the team has dug out.

Through this simple mix of mobile telephony and the internet, CGNet Swara has taken citizen activism to a new level, far beyond mere news headlines, or shows of empathy on social media.

Guerilla Journalist

The man behind the movement that is CGNet Swara is Shubhranshu Choudhary--who spent his early career news gathering for the BBC and The Guardian in South Asia, before embarking on a journey that would make him a newsmaker.

Researching a book on tribals--Adivasis in local parlance--at the turn of the millenium brought Choudhary face-to-face with the reality that people in these remote areas had no voice. Literacy levels poor, and the native languages they spoke, like Gondi, had no connect with the modern world, until recently.

A chance encounter with Microsoft researcher Peter Thies in 2009 allowed Choudhary to enlist his help in creating the actual software to realize his simple idea of linking voice recordings through mobiles to the internet. Today, Choudhary has leveraged telepresence to the extent that he sits in his office in a town near the capital Delhi, coordinates with his back office team in Bhopal, who in turn are in contact with an army of rural activists deeper in the tribal areas.

Choudhary may work with some of India's most unprivileged, but he is a global citizen, educated about the power of global networks. The primary funding for his program comes from the International Center for Journalists, through their Knight International Journalism Fellowships. Indians, educated in top US universities form part of his advisory board. As social entrepreneurship projects go, Choudhary has putdown a benchmark for his peers not just in India, but also internationally.

CGNet Swara 2.0

You don't get to wear the badge of a successful entrepreneur, even in the social sector, if you cannot scale your organization and expand the product offerings. Choudhary is extremely aware that CGNet Swara has currently been in pilot mode, and needs to expand to be relevant.

Expansion has to be addressed across all parameters. The technology team behind CGNet Swara, Hackergram is experimenting with radio, to reach parts where even the mobile phone cannot. The platform also needs to support more languages and cover topics apart from purely local issues. The Adivasis too must be connected to the world around them, if they are to become true global citizens.

Money is a constant constraint in such initiatives and Choudhary is open about the need for donations--an INR 10,000 ($160) contribution can pay one month's salary for his back office staff, or buy a citizen band radio transmitter. Alternatively, people can volunteer as well to join the back office.

The Freedom of Expression Award should also give the organization increased visibility on social media--a front where they have been noticeably lagging. Though each local issue is shared on their twitter feed, the CGNet Swara handle only has 600 followers or so.

Interestingly, the future of CGNet Swara may be secured by the success of spin-offs like Swasthya Swara--a forum for health-related topics that shares the existing infrastructure. The plan is for people anywhere in the world to be able to dial a number on the website and connect to natural medicine specialists from these tribal areas for a consultation.

That should have CNN's Sanjay Gupta interested!