The art of showcasing talent online and influencing audiences is a common phenomenon now. But Arjun Pawara is not your typical Internet star. The 32-year-old is a founding member of Aadiwasi Janjagruti — a network of 45 tribal youths across 200 villages in the interiors of Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district — using just their mobile phones and the power of hyperlocal news to script, enact, shoot, edit and upload sketches, short films and documentaries that combat discrimination, promote literacy, report corruption and enable a two-way flow of information between communities and local authorities.
They’ve been especially busy during the pandemic. To sensitise people about the risks of Covid, they used a dialogue from the film Krantiveer to create a twominute video clip with Nana Patekar’s face and Pawara’s voice — and this was probably the most powerful thing going around the district at the time.
“The pandemic made us realise the significance of what we do. Nandurbar had recorded one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state with rumours that the virus and vaccines were a conspiracy against tribal way of life. We made funny skits with parody and comic elements to grab people’s attention,” explains Pawara, a proficient mobile storyteller who never had a smartphone until two years ago. “A viewer from Hyderabad was surprised that our videos were shot and produced from a single mobile phone that we collectively used so he sent me a smartphone.”
Started in 2017, Aadiwasi Janjagruti is a brainchild of Nitesh Bhardwaj from Bihar who was in Nandurbar on a fellowship. “I found that the region was entitled to a large pool of tribal development funds that were lying under-utilised simply because people didn’t know about it. The authorities were also unaware of how people were being exploited on the ground,” he recounts. “To bridge the information deficit, I decided to use my background in developmental communication and taught local college kids page making and video editing.”
Beginning as a weekly printed paper, the network soon pivoted to video and in the next two years exploded through You-Tube. “This was around the time that the film Sairat became a craze. Everyone wanted to be Nagraj Manjule. They felt if a poor boy from a small village could make a film and achieve such success, they could, too.”
Fast forward to 2021, the channel currently boasts over 7500 subscribers and 13 lakh views. “This is even though our target audience isn’t on social media,” says Bhardwaj. The films are aired on a mobile projector in self-help meetings and gram panchayats at different villages. “But not every video is for public screening. We may just transfer a video via pendrive to relevant village officials for quick resolution.”
The films — usually two to 20 minutes long — have ranged from empowering people about government schemes to the problem of child labour. Be it toilet usage, effects of tobacco, bridges in disrepair and sickle cell anaemia to exposing self-styled godmen and mini-bank correspondents fleecing villagers of a portion of their Jan Dhan credit, they’ve covered it all.
The team’s biggest hit is about Aamkhedi’s water woes with women walking for miles to fetch water every day. The 15-minute documentary logged over 3.6 lakh views. “The block development officer saw it and directed the sarpanch to dig six borewells,” says Bhardwaj, who attributes their success, in part, to the use of local languages Pawari, Bhilori and Marathi that enables locals to report their problems. “Handpumps not working in a village won’t make it to mainstream media. Our aim is to elevate those local stories that matter to the communities and make authorities accountable.”
The hilly Dhadgaon tract — that grabbed eyeballs recently when a teacher and his students were spotted sitting on a tree to get mobile network for their online classes — is a difficult terrain. So, it’s usual for volunteers to climb up a hill or a terrace to catch signals to connect with fellow members or upload their videos. “But it’s worth it because of the difference we’ve made in people’s lives. They believe us to be their eyes and ears,” says Pawara.
“We receive at least 50 videos from our volunteers in a month,” says Bhardwaj, adding that he and the other co-founders take care to weed out fake news or personal grievances.
While villagers and district authorities often pitch in with funds and phones, the project has devised a self-sustaining revenue model of running ads for local businesses — tea, sari, tent and photocopy shops — for a small sum. “They’re happy to pay Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 for a likely-to-go viral video,” smiles Bhardwaj.