Author: Bindi Thakka - Our producer looks at the importance of tribal language - and how it can be used to help provide life-saving advice to mothers in India.

In India an incredible 1,652 different languages are spoken. Jharkhand, a state in the country’s east is a classic example of this, with a bouquet of 19 “mother tongues” spoken there.

We’re just about to launch our life-saving mobile health (mHealth) services in this multilingual state.

Mobile Kunji (Kunji means a ‘guide’ or ‘key’ in Hindi) is an audio-visual aid used by community health workers to advise rural families about maternal health, child health, family planning and immunisation. It consists of health messages, voiced by a fictional doctor (“Dr Anita”) delivered via mobile phone and supplemented by an illustrated deck of cards.

Improving maternal health is a real priority in Jharkhand. Despite recent improvements, child mortality in certain areas of the state is shockingly high.

In Jharkhand, Hindi, as the language of instruction in schools and government, seemed to be the obvious option for Mobile Kunji. It turned out not to be so simple!

Our research told us that in addition to Hindi, Santhali is one of the most widely spoken and understood languages in the state, especially in the priority districts where the project will first start. Despite this, maternal health information in Santhali is scarce.

To reach those who needed it most, we decided that Mobile Kunji should be rolled out in two languages - Hindi as well as Santhali.

This was the first time we had set out to create an mHealth service in a tribal language - and we had a huge amount of complex information to produce. Eager to get going, we set about finding writers, studios, and most importantly, a Santhali speaking "Dr Anita", who, despite her vast knowledge of maternal health matters, spoke only Hindi.

Voice auditions

‘BBC voice auditions’ set the state capital Ranchi abuzz with excitement. A hall full of women waited patiently for the chance to become the Santhali voice of Dr Anita. We were looking for a voice that was both empathetic and authoritative with an authentic yet understandable dialect.

Our successful candidate - from a shortlist of 30 - recorded four pilot messages to test on Santhali- speaking audiences. Much work had gone into this project, so we waited anxiously for the results.

To our great relief, the majority of research participants found the information provided by the Santhali-speaking Dr Anita accessible, understandable and useful.

After listening to one pilot message on the subject of cord-cutting, a woman who was seven months pregnant told us, “I understood it all. It was about cord cutting, I learnt something new today and will take care of it.” Clearly, she not only understood the language, but also learned something valuable.

I’m excited about the launch of ‘Santhali Dr Anita’ later on in the year. By harnessing the power of language, and tailoring our Mobile Kunji service to meet the needs of the audience in Jharkhand, we’re extending the reach of our potentially life-saving advice.


Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on their work in India.

Image credit: BBC Media Action

BBC Media Action
BBC Media Centre, MC3A, 201 Wood Lane
W12 7TQ
United Kingdom (UK)
Phone: 44 (0) 20 8008 0001
Fax: 44 (0) 20 8008 5970