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TBI Blogs: How Grassroots Journalism Helped a Drought-Hit Village in Rural UP Get a Public Water Cooler

Grassroots journalism is about more than just highlighting stories from neglected communities; sometimes, it can also be the catalyst for major positive change in these areas.

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Rajjo works as a barber in the Kulpahad kasba of Mahoba district. Last month, he came home to a shock, literally. A whopping electricity bill awaited him, to the tune of close to ₹4 lakhs. Rajjo lives with his wife Bela and kids in a house with meagre facilities. There are only the bare minimum of lights and fans, and the estimated monthly electricity bill comes to about ₹300-400.

Assuming the best-case scenario – that this was an error – Rajjo went to the electricity department, but was turned away. A few times.

He was informed that this was a cumulative bill and was the total for two months. Rajjo was aghast, “This was a bill I wouldn’t be able to raise in two years!” Bela broke it down, “First they sent a bill for ₹1,70, 000 and then in the next month, a cumulative figure of ₹2,80,070!” She added that it was impossible for them to ever be able to pay it, “Do we live, or do we pay this bill?”

Swaying between anxiety, frustration, and depression, Rajjo was on the verge of giving up. He had knocked on the doors of all sarkari departments possible, after the bijli vibhaag had turned him away so many times. There had been endless rounds of requests to the village pradhan and other authorities, but to absolutely no avail.

With the deadline looming close, Rajjo and Bela had run out of ideas. The “lakh rupaiyya bijli bill”, meanwhile, had buzzed through the local Mahoba grapevine and set the ball rolling for some media intervention by Shyamkali, a Khabar Lahariya reporter.

Inviting herself inside Rajjo’s home – women reporters working in rural Bundelkhand are quite rare  – Shyamkali documented visual evidence of the state of Rajjo’s house, in terms of their consumption of electricity, which rendered the bill even more ridiculous than it already was. The story, published on April 17, gained traction and caused sufficient embarrassment to the concerned authorities, who heard of people watching Rajjo’s tale of woe on their phones.

Cut to late April this year. The reporter was called back for a thank-you and greeted with cheers and smiles – the bill had been corrected.

The thrill of grassroots reporting is embedded in this very aspect – its ability to affect grassroots impact. This month gave us a double whammy in this department!

Once again in Kulpahad, in the blistering heat – Bundelkhand is on the brink of what’s likely to be another unrelenting summer – at the local market, also the congregation point for residents, a water cooler was being sorely missed, and demanded.

“The public needs one,” said Anil Kumar Namdev, “A sip of water in this heat is like man ki tassalli (peace of mind).” Sarman Lal agreed, terming it a no-brainer, while Beti Bai cited the inefficiency of the nagar palika in the matter and rattled off the uses of a pyaau. “Besides being able to quench your thirst, you can fill up bottles for later. Thande paani ki zaroorat toh lagi rehti hai is mausam mein. (There is continuous need for cold water in such weather.)”

Just as the Delhi heat wave took over, the newsroom got a call from Mahoba. An excited Shyamkali told us how the story went viral in and around Mahoba, causing considerable pressure to be built, which granted the locals what they’d been asking for. There is finally respite from “Chilchilati garmi”, as the locals refer to it.

The water cooler takes pride of place in the market area now, and a few young ‘uns even pose for selfies with it!

A khabar ka asar (journalism impact) is still rare enough for it to really feel special. Government apathy blended with living lives in severely neglected areas of the hinterland often leaves the kasba dweller helpless and hopeless. When endless amounts of tweets and tags and social media campaigns to government after government seem to collect in a black hole, we are glad for the on-ground calls to action that translate into real-time impact and real-time change. When it happens in the span of a lunar cycle, there truly is nothing like it.

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Written by Khabar Lahariya

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Khabar Lahariya is a rural, video-first digital news organisation, with an all-women network of reporters in eight districts of Uttar Pradesh.