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Video volunteers from across the country have been shooting short, candid film clips on official apathy. Some of these videos have made the authorities sit up and take notice.
Ramsakhi Ahirwar, 32, of village Khamariya in Madhya Pradesh, is an unlikely activist. A Class X dropout, mother of three and a daily-wager who rolls beedis for a living, Ahirwar does not fit the bill of a crusader who takes on the administrative machinery of her village to ensure wages for workers under MGNREGA. But that is precisely what she did.
Earlier this year, Ahirwar, who was associated with Sagar Shri Mahila Mahasangh, was asked to appear for an interview for the post of a video volunteer. She was selected, and after a 10-daytraining session in Lucknow, she returned home as a professional video volunteer.
Ahirwar is one of many video volunteers across India. Working in both urban and rural areas, their job is to act as community correspondents, shooting threefour minute video clips on issues their community faces. The clips are then used as a tool to seek reparation from the authorities.
"I had never seen a camera before and this was a difficult step for me. But I was convinced that I could do it. Moreover, my husband supported me, giving me a break from household chores, and took care of our three children in my absence, " says Ahirwar, who was in Delhi recently to attend a meet of the Community Correspondents Network, an initiative created by the Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS) and Video Volunteers, an international media and human rights NGO based in the US and India. On this occasion, a debate was held on the role of social and community media in the "other India". Stalin K of Video Volunteers and a well-known documentary filmmaker, pointed out that the work was not entirely voluntary and community correspondents were paid Rs 1, 500 per video.
The issue that Ahirwar decided to pick up for her first video was the non-payment of wages for six months to workers under the MGNREGA scheme in her village. "People had requested the sarpanch, Shalak Ram, to begin work for those holding a MGNREGA job card and so, he got some work started but had it discontinued two days later. Moreover, labourers were not paid even for those two days for six months. I decided to take up this issue in my first video. The NGO that I'm associated with supported me. I went to the block CEO with the video but didn't get much of a response from him. So I decided to meet the collector in Sagar. He not only listened to me patiently but also promised to visit our village the next day. He kept his promise and ensured that the wages were distributed, " recalls Ahirwar.
In the meanwhile, the sarpanch of Ahirwar's village added drama to the story by allegedly threatening to kidnap her. Much to the sarpanch's shock, Ahirwar's husband, Laxman, challenged the village head to go ahead with his threat. But collective support for Ahirwar was so strong that the sarpanch backed down. "In fact, it was the sarpanch who went from houseto-house distributing the money, " says Ahirwar.
Not all such stories have a great ending. Shabnam, another video volunteer from Varanasi district, had managed to get truant teachers to take classes in her village middle school. But her husband and his family remain resolutely opposed to her work. In fact, she had to lie to her in-laws to make the trip to Delhi.
"My parents have always supported me and gave me enough education to teach computers. I understand the importance of selfreliance and that's what I want for my three-year-old daughter too, but given my husband's opposition, I will have to take some hard decisions, " says the 24-year-old, who is currently making two more videos, one of which is on the absence of toilets in a girl's middle school in her village.
The stories of people like Ramsakhi and Shabnam are part of Video Volunteers' India Unheard campaign. Besides showcasing what these correspondents have been able to achieve, these stories also demonstrate what such empowerment has meant to them personally. When one of the panelists, Pamela Philipose, director and editor-in-chief of Women's Feature Service, asked the video volunteers about how they had been transformed through the process, Ahirwar replied confidently, "I have learnt to talk to people in positions of authority. Earlier, I would cower at the prospect of speaking to anybody outside the community but now I can even present a video to the collector. I realise that the voice of the poor too can be heard. "
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