The Privilege Called Information : Of Hierarchy, Distance and Language

by | Jul 7, 2017

My world view of West Bengal was very limited. West Bengal was just Kolkota. There was no knowledge about the state beyond Durga Puja, fish curry and Tagore. It was my first time in Badwan, a block in the district of Purulia in West Bengal. The place contained 134 villages within it. And I had never heard of this place before – the block or the district.

We were hired by an organisation to develop a few communication materials for the farmers in this region. My job was to explore their communication ecology. The discussions conducted was to identify their specific information needs related to agriculture. Mapping their communication patterns was necessary to understand two major aspects: (1) the appropriate medium (2) the appropriate information required. It not only helps one to design appropriate materials suitable for a community, but also gives a clear picture of the socio-economic conditions of a place; different means through which they communicate with each other and the outside world; the gaps and hierarchy that exists in communication and dissemination of information.

Discovering Bandwan

Situated far away from the city headquarters, the villages were nestled within dense jungles. It was a tribal belt that harboured mostly people from the Santhal community. The villages I visited possessed a very earthy tone to them. What intrigued me more was the hammer and the sickle painted on the walls of all mud houses that I passed by. It was the first time I witnessed an ideology being more prevalent on walls than the people associated with it.

Many women here converse only in Santhali and cannot utter a word in Bengali. Smart phones, computers and internet are still unknown to many. Television exists hardly in one or two households. FM signals are hard to receive. Newspapers are not delivered to the shops here. The farmers were not familiar with latest technologies used in agriculture or the subsidies they could avail from the government.

Photo taken in Amghutu, a village in Bandwan, Purulia

The Information Maze

There are government organisations that work closely with the farmers of this district. Hundreds of brochures and flyers are stacked in their racks. What is supposed to solve their agricultural information needs were given out only on request. This meant that only ones aware of the existence of such an organization; the ones that lived close to it and the specific villages adopted by it, had more access to it.

Accessing such materials meant good literacy, transport facilities and skills to articulate the problems the crops undergo. In the case of villages in Bandwan, it is not often feasible for the farmers to travel till the head quarters often. Many were not even aware of the presence of a helpline number or an organization where they could avail help from.

On the other hand, private fertilizer and pesticide companies reach out to these small hamlets to exploit their lack of knowledge. Year after year a different company arrives to blurt out terms and facts the farmers will hardly ever remember. The farmer would now pedal his cycle with a piece of the affected crop in the hope of finding the right solution. He gets a totally different recommendation for the problem from a dealer who is concerned more about his margins. In the end, it is the unsuspecting farmer who is pushed to buy what is packaged and sold,  in a language that is unknown to him.

The Information Hierarchy

“A farmer in Telangana told me that communication patterns of his village was very similar to the surrounding villages and there are a few localities where the Adivasis live and it was negligible.”

Bandwan, the fourth state I visited for the same project was an Adivasi belt. The villages in other states had farmers that were economically well to do. They were from backgrounds that were considered to be the upper caste. There were well connected roads to the town. Public transport wasnt a necessity as atleast one motor bike was present per household. At least one member in their family owned a smart phone. Everything they had were the things not present here. Here I meet a man who is not even aware of the name of the sim card he uses.

Now that is something not negligible in a communication project that tries to be inclusive of all. If overflow of contradicting information is problematic, then receiving information in a language and a medium that one will never be able to understand or access is another. The third I feel is the most dangerous one – receiving nothing at all.

It also boils down to a single question – does the flow of communication have something to do with how we perceive communities? Clearly the problem lies in the decision making authorities. How does one decide that one community is negligible and the other isn’t? Is it even possible to come up with a homogenous medium of communication for all? Is information a privilege that is accessible only to the majority?

The temples of the Santhals is called the “Maji Than” where only the dhol is kept and worshipped. The same instrument is used by the local informant to deliver important information at every door step. He is called the “Maji Haram” by the locals

Cracking The Maze

There are apps that have been designed to help the farmers with weather forecasts, identification of pests and diseases and so on. Automated messaging systems have been implemented to send regular updates on the same.

“But the real question is what the purpose of an app is in a place where network availability is a herculean task and a smart phone is an unknown instrument, let alone the internet.”

The aim is not to stand against digitalization, but to question purpose of any form of communication. It was a relief that there are organizations thriving in regions like this to help farmers avail information. Even their limited budget for work would not allow to create customised communication solutions for various people. Here is where communication research becomes an integral part of any development program. It helps to design solutions inclusive of all. For instance, a wall painting in the place of hundred brochures or materials that include visual representations in a village that has low literacy levels.

The Larger Question 

If the intention is to make information accessible to all, then why is it still a distant luxury to some. This gap is not limited just to information related to agriculture; it exists across all sectors and the judgements that we make just based on what we see.

We dream about overnight digitalization without equipping the grassroots with the tools and capacity required for it. We talk of economic reservations while the ones who actually need it are still unaware of what reservation is. We wish for a homogenous language, when some can’t utter a word of it at all. This is what they need and this is how they need it, we decide. Negligible, we call them. Everything has changed; it’s not like before anymore, we say. Well, is it?

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