The road wound, seemingly endlessly, through scrubby wasteland.
Other than the track we were on, there was no sign of human habitation for
about 4km. But this was Madhya Pradesh in India, a country of 1.2 billion
people. My colleagues were even more surprised than I: where were the people?
We were on the outskirts of the Panna tiger reserve, on the way to
a village that is engaging weekly with our radio programme called Majboor
Kiska Bola! (Who are you calling helpless!).
Funded by the Google Foundation, the programme provides listeners
with information and inspiration about labour rights and bonded labour.
Indian legislation bans bondage and provides schemes to support
the very poor. However, lack of information and unsympathetic gatekeepers mean
that many of those most in need do not know their labour and land rights, or
are unable to access their entitlements.
Suddenly, as we drove around a corner, we spotted the village, a
collection of small houses. Passing the one-room school, the village also
seemed fairly empty, but as we reached the top of the road we discovered why:
most of the villagers were gathered on mats to listen to the latest episode of Majboor Kiska Bola!
'Listener groups' are a fairly well known way to deepen a
project's engagement, by bringing a group of people together to listen to a
programme and then discuss it. Plus, of course, it's the only way to reach
audiences in ‘media dark’ places like this in Madhya Pradesh, where there is no
radio and TV.
In this project, however, we have taken the concept a step
further, expanding it to 'listener villages'.
Working with local non-governmental organisations, we have trained
facilitators in each village, and provide them with a new programme each week
on a memory stick, for playing through battery powered radio.
The facilitators aim to play the programme to at least half of the
village each week, and in group discussions, encourage them to relate the
content to their own experiences.
In this weekly session, we heard a drama, based on a real story,
of a distraught woman whose husband had recently died. As she had no money to
live on, she was considering suicide. I was relieved to hear she didn't take
her own life, as she learned that she was entitled to a state pension.
As the story ended, one of the women spoke up to say that she had
been widowed over a year previously, but still hadn't received her pension.
Then another woman, widowed a year and a half, and then another,
alone for five years, were encouraged by their neighbours to speak up.
Gyanendra Tiwari, from our partner NGO Samarthan, wrote down their
details to take with them to district secretariat.
Now, enlivened by learning that their elderly neighbours' lives
didn't have to be so difficult, the villagers told us other stories.
From listening to Majboor Kiska Bola! they had learned
about self-help groups, and organised one themselves, collecting a small amount
of money from each member each month. These savings were distributed to
whomever was most in need that month.
One family told us proudly that this money had enabled them to pay
back a moneylender and get their land back, so they were no longer bonded to
Another woman whose young teenager lay on a blanket outside her
house told us that her child was disabled. After hearing a programming about
the entitlements for disabled people, the NGO had helped her to apply for the
monthly payment of 500 rupees, thus improving their quality of life.
As we prepared to leave the village, Gyanendra told me that his
NGO Samarthan had previously come to the village to tell people about their
But until they heard the radio programme, villagers hadn't
connected with the issues emotionally, and recognised that there were 'people
like me' who had both experienced bonded labour and escaped it.
They hadn't known about the minimum wage, so had worked for less
than 100 rupees a day. Now they earn the national minimum of 146 rupees,
because they demanded it.
Gyanendra told me that Majboor Kiska Bola! had given them
knowledge, evidence that it works, and the confidence to work together to
demand their rights.
But the day didn't end there. We then drove on to the Shrota
Samvad or Listener Dialogue, organised by our team with the NGO in the town
We're running a series of these listener dialogues across the
three states in which we work, to bring listeners and government
A panel of government officials sat on stage listening to the
stories of their constituents, and advising or committing to action.
Listeners from the surrounding villages arrived on trailers drawn
by tractors, some with bags sewn from cement sacks, some on crutches, others
Attending the event meant a day out, but it also meant a day
without income, as most are day labourers.
We had set out chairs for 400 people, but had to take two more
deliveries of chairs to seat the growing crowds. I was later told that 1000
people attended this listener dialogue.
Villager after villager spoke directly to the officials, watched
avidly by their colleagues and a considerable contingent of local media.
One of them was the woman from the tiger reserve village who had
been widowed for five years. An official told her he would send his staff to
the village tomorrow.
I've since heard from our team in India the applications for widow
pension cards have indeed been filed for all of the widows whom we met that
morning. They should receive them, and a new bank account (if they don’t have
one already) in 30 to 60 days.
The widow's story was also featured in two newspaper articles on
the day following the Listener Dialogue.
It was incredible to see such direct impact from listening to a
story on our radio programme a few hours earlier.
My BBC Media Action colleagues were clear that we could not do
this alone; our partnerships with Samarthan and other NGOs is fundamental to
the success of the project. A radio programme alone would not have inspired
people to take action, nor did an NGO working directly with the villagers.
Together, we are providing information and inspiration that
enables and convinces the poorest people of Madhya Pradesh to take action to
improve their own lives. Who are we calling helpless?!