Kavita Devi is on a mission: To dispel the notion that women are timid and emotional, and that they cannot become journalists as it is a challenging field. “Mahilayein komal hoti hain, turant roney lagti hain, yeh jo Laxman rekha khinchi hui hai mahilaon ke liye, hamey usey laanghna hai [we need to traverse the lines drawn for women on the assumption that they are weak and cry at the drop of a hat],” says Kavita, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Khabar Lahariya, the only women-led digital rural media network in the country.
The first Dalit to become a member of the Editor’s Guild of India, she is also the CEO of Chambal Media. Kavita also trains young women in rural India for a career in the media. “We have designed a course on mobile journalism, and want women from rural areas to become journalists, producers and filmmakers. We want to empower them to make their dreams come true,” she says, adding that they have trained approximately 270 women so far.
Born to a family of farmers in Kunjan Purwa village near Banda in Uttar Pradesh, Kavita was married at the age of 12. Despite resistance from her family and villagers, she enrolled in an adult education programme. At the end of the course, they published a two-page black-and-white broadsheet called Mahila Dakia that had articles written by women in the local Bundeli language.
Soon after, Devi, along with Meera Jatav and Shalini Joshi, who had worked together on Mahila Dakia, founded the Khabar Lahariya newspaper.
As its popularity grew, the number of pages increased from two to four to eight, and they started printing in colour. And as its reach spread to other districts, it was printed in other languages. As part of an organisational restructuring, today Khabar Lahariya is one of the verticals of Chambal Media along with Chambal Academy. Chambal Media, a digital media social enterprise, was founded in 2015 by a team of rural and urban media practitioners, making content that mainly focuses on rural women and rural landscapes.
“Having lived my life as a farmer, when we report about their issues, I can empathise better. We can use our personal experiences to make our reporting meaningful,” says Kavita, 37. “I am a Dalit and when I see crimes being committed against Dalits, I can relate to them better.” She adds that her reporters belong to farmer or labourer families, or they have worked as bonded labourers in farms. They are Adivasis, Muslims or Dalits. “When you have people working from marginalised communities, you can raise these voices and take them to the government,” she says.
In 2015, she helped lead the digital transition of Khabar Lahariya. “Khabar Lahariya is not just a job for me. It is a relationship. It is a family… we participate in each other’s joys and sorrows, both personal and professional,” says Meera, who is managing editor.
In the coming years, Meera will be involved in the expansion of Khabar Lahariya. At Chambal Academy, she is a trainer for the rural mobile journalism course and mentors alumni who have joined as stringers. “We feel we are achieving the real purpose of journalism,” she says. “Jo awaazein dafan ho jaati hain, un awazon ko buland karna aur loktantra tak jodna hi hamara uddeshya hai [some voices are being silenced; our endeavour is to take those to the government and help democracy thrive].”
The Khabar Lahariya team comprises 38 people, including 20 reporters and stringers. It has an average monthly website traffic of 25,000 apart from 570,000 subscribers on YouTube, 24,200 followers on Instagram, 21,800 on Twitter, and 11-13 million views on Facebook.
“Reporting from the rural hinterlands—in any country—is not an easy task, and certainly not in a country like India,” says Ravish Kumar, group editor NDTV India, citing the numerous risks they take. Operating in a heavily patriarchal and biased milieu and a powerful and hostile administrative and political set-up, “the threats they face (as compared to urban journalists) are far too severe, yet Meera and Kavita persevere,” he says.
“Perhaps one of their greatest contributions has been to make rural administrators and elected heads accountable, and thus strengthen the foundations of grassroots democracy,” he adds.