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Rural revolution

SEVANTI NINAN


The audience ... Avid rural readers

IN a vast country with a billion people, sampling is always likely to have its vagaries. So it is not terribly surprising that while the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) in March this year declared that readership of newspapers was not growing (a 1.4 per cent growth where the population had also grown by one per cent over the same period) the National Readership Survey for 2002 now comes along three months later and says that newspaper readership has in fact grown by 10 per cent over the last two years, almost half of that growth (48 per cent) in the rural areas. Newspaper readership now stands at 180 million. The figure is based on a countrywide sampling of 2.13 lakh individuals. In comparison, the same study said, magazines have lost viewers sharply, and TV has lost viewers marginally.

Much of this has to do with the growth of rural readership and circulation in Hindi newspapers. The IRS, for instance, found that much of the 1.4 per cent total growth came from 15 per cent increase each in the readership of two big papers, Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar. To venture into the Hindi belt today is to discover how well-oiled the penetration of newspapers into villages now is. Literacy has grown to the point that whether you go to Rajasthan or Chattisgarh or Jharkhand, or Uttaranchal, you discover that the literacy rate there is above the national average.

Rural advertising is growing, particularly since you can get a small display ad into the local editions for as little as Rs. 200. And thanks to a large, and growing, network of unpaid stringers, villages not only receive news, they also generate it. People from one village in Santhal Parghanas in Jharkhand however rued the fact that their best chance of making it into the big dailies there — Prabhat Khabar, or Hindustan or Ranchi Express — still comes only when there is a murder.

With the penetration of big multi-edition newspapers into the hinterland, different local editions roll out upon the hour. In the course of a night, papers intended for different parts of the State are rapidly released one after another with insertions of local news and advertising. They are timed to catch trains and taxis that will take them on to different districts where they will be dumped in bundles on the main road and ferried inward by tempos or bicycles or in hilly areas, on foot. Should you drive through the large district of Bastar along the highway, every village on that road has a board declaring the presence of a circulation agent for the three big newspapers of Chattisgarh: Dainik Bhaskar, Navbharat and Deshbandhu.

To stop and attempt to meet the people who distribute newspapers here is to discover a fascinating phenomenon. Most of them are graduates or post graduates. The man who may be running an auto repair shop, or general store, or making his living by farming, also has a side income from an agency for a newspaper. But that is not all. He is not only the circulation agent, he accepts and forwards advertising for his newspaper, and is also their stringer for his village.

If the Naxals attack a village nearby, or an outbreak of epidemic occurs, or the member of Parliament or legislature from the area does something newsworthy, the shopkeeper cum circulation and advertising agent cum correspondent, hand writes a little despatch, and hands it to the driver of a transport bus going to Jagdalpur where the local pages for the Bastar edition are made. One evening newspaper called Highway Channel in Jagdalpur even has a mailbox at the local bus stand, where such news despatches can be deposited, and are regularly collected.

A general store owner in a village called Bhanpuri had a sign up on his shop, "come and give your news here", it said. At Kondagaon, an STD booth owner had a similar sign, he was the agent for Navbharat. He said people came and gave him press releases. People like him firmly believe they are doing yeoman service in their village or town. They get paid for being a circulation cum advertising agent, the reporting they do for free. I spend on petrol for my scooter out of my pocket, more than one such "scribe" told me. And why does he do that? Because coverage of news from the village is one reason why newspapers are bought in that village, he claimed.

The more you cover local news, the more local people buy newspapers, these stringers said. Rural sales vary from 15 to 20 copies in a modest village to 50 or 100 in a kasba, which is the Hindi word for something between a village and a tiny town. Many roles get collapsed into one at this local level: at Farasgaon in Bastar, in one family one brother was the circulation agent cum stringer for Deshbandhu, his younger brother who hadn't managed to finish school was gainfully employed as a hawker for the same newspaper. Circulation, editorial, advertising and distribution all under one little roof!

And then of course one got to Raipur where the made-up local pages for Bastar are sent by modem from Jagdalpur for printing, only to be told with a snort by one resident editor, that all this was bunk, people in the villages did not buy newspapers for local news, they bought it to know what was happening in the world outside.

But the point is that everywhere in district India there is a news presence that did not exist until a few years ago. Until 1996 the Rajasthan Patrika did not print from anywhere other than Jaipur. Then the Dainik Bhaskar muscled into its territory in Jaipur and also began printing from places like Udaipur and Sikar, so the Patrika had to follow suit. Today the Patrika has nine editions with 28 different local pullouts and the Bhaskar has 32 different local pullouts inserted in six editions.

The same trend is true of Madhya Pradesh where the competing dailies are Nai Duniya, Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagran. What is local news? Crime, water shortages, school functions, politician visits. Drought? Exploitation? Atrocities on women? Less likely. The Bhaskar resident editor in Jaipur told me that if there were 500 newspapers being bought in any town or village there would be a paid stringer there with a princely salary of Rs. 750 or thereabouts, if they were 100 or more copies being bought in a village, there would be an unpaid stringer, reimbursed for fax transmissions and phone calls. In theory, at least.

In these newspapers' city headquarters they will tell you these unpaid local correspondents thrive on the acquired clout their stringer status gives them. They hint that some of them even blackmail. The correspondent/agent himself will look hurt and say that he is a honest soul simply trying to put his village on the news map, and getting pilloried by local vested interests for exposing corruption and misgovernance. Either way, the local newspaper revolution which began two decades earlier in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, is now spreading rapidly across North India.

E-mail the writer at sevantininan@vsnl.com

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