To counter the mainstream media's obsession with glamour and gore; online initiatives are working quietly to bring to the forefront, issues dealing with social and cultural change.At an age where cynicism and a sense of futility set in, 61-year-old DV Sridharan stands apart. As the publisher and one-man team behind goodnewsindia.com (GNI), Sridharan started the site to highlight positive issues that do not get fair coverage in mainstream media.
GNI aggregates positive stories from different media and then serves them to readers. Sridharan has also penned 65 of the 70 odd stories currently online. The idea for the site was born in 1996 when Sridharan noticed that many Indians doing good work, were going unnoticed by the public.
To redistribute these stories, a magazine format would be too expensive. "Two things happened at that time," narrates Sridharan. As success stories featuring Indians began to increase, the Internet also started growing in power.
"Its costs were affordable and one man working alone could begin a publishing enterprise that makes a swift debut, and grows over time," write Sridharan. In 1999, the site was conceived and GNI went online with 3 pages of content.
Infochangeindia.org is a one-stop shop database of information and analysis on Indian/South Asian social issues like the environment, women, public health and poverty. The site is a project of the Centre for Communication and Development Studies (CCDS), a public education initiative to disseminate information intended to inspire and initiate social change.
"We must find new ways to communicate the message of sustainable development. We must be able to show the average citizen how her health, environment, value system, livelihood etc is being impacted by lop-sided and short-sighted development policies," says Hutokshi Doctor, editor, Infochangeindia.org.
On a slightly different mission is the US-based Corpwatchindia.org whose aim is to support and strengthen social movements in India, by mobilising people in the US, EU and other areas who will take action in support.
According to CWI, foreign corporations such as Enron, Dow and AES are very dismissive of local people's concerns about their projects' impacts in India. The site's focus is to take stories of the corporation's abuses to their home countries, where they are most susceptible to public pressure.
The site covers local struggles against globalisation, including campaigns against corporations and financial institutions. CWI feels that foreign investment in the country is only making things worse and it aims to questions these cases and bring it into public focus. They work with local and national groups in India directly to help decide what to highlight.
The Internet has been a boon for these sites. The big advantage of being online, and not print, is that the material can be accessed by anyone who has Net access, according to the publishers of CWI.
Several print publications with the best intentions struggle to survive, die or else reach a limited audience, within the tight circle of academics/journalists/development workers, according to Doctor. "The Internet offers much greater access globally and there's also scope for linkage from other online journals and initiatives."
Doctor adds that the Net brings together people from all corners of the world who are working towards sustainable development of human rights. Sridharan agrees that whatever reach his site has today has been possible because of the Net.
Dr Srinivasa of IISC, Bangalore discovered the process of creating fuel out of edible oils (biodiesel) and it was GNI that highlighted his cause. When the government announced a programme to invest in non-edible oils, Dr Srinivasa gave credit to GNI for playing a great part in the decision, as apparent in this letter: "We in wish to thank you for your whole-hearted support to our cause in the past five years and we hope we will continue to receive this support from you to further our efforts to make India self-sufficient in fuel oils."
S Gopalakrishnan's auto emission controller had the potential to bring down air pollution. But his struggle since 1996 to get his idea accepted is an example of the odds that Indians face against the system. GNI spearheaded a campaign to help. The inventor says he received much business interest from China, Philippines and the US. Ironically, the Indian government and industry continues to be lukewarm.
CWI's 2002 campaign included an effort to hold Dow Chemicals (Union Carbide's owner) responsible for the continued suffering as a result of the Bhopal tragedy. In addition to using the site for stories, they also ran a fax campaign, where anyone could send a letter to the CEO of DOW. They also took 2 people from Bhopal to the US, organised a national tour, demonstrations outside the shareholders meeting and placed stories in the Washington Post.
In 2002, they also worked with local groups in Plachimeda, Kerela, where the Coke plant has allegedly been sucking the aquifiers dry. Working with a local group, they ran a fax campaign and sent a response to the Coke office in Atlanta, USA.
Public feedback has been encouraging. Sridharan says 40 per cent of his readership is from India and the rest from elsewhere. Without spending a dime on advertising or promotion the site receives about 1500 page views daily.
Similarly, Infochange receives about 50 per cent visits from India and registers 3.5-4 lakh hits a month. It also receives requests for reprints both from print and online publications. Infochange has been showcased by global development organisations such as oneworld.net and BBC News (South Asia) for development news about India.
When CWI was launched in March 2002, their primary targeted audience was based outside India and consisted mainly of students, journalists, researchers and activists. They were pleasantly surprised to see that many Indians (residing in India) visited and used the site. At this point, they estimate a 50-50 ratio between Indian vs non-Indians.
Working with limited budgets and small teams are probably the biggest challenge for these sites, where the advertising revenues is almost non-existent. Sridharan also admits to being hindered by his lack of marketing expertise. CWI is a 3-member team, with one representative in India and says that campaigning makes the effort even more time-consuming.
Infochange has been luckier since it has received funding from commercial sponsors who support in development. Along with their network of journalists, development workers and activists, they have an in-house team of writers and editors who document and source information for each of the 13 categories they currently feature. News stories are sourced from mainstream publications nationwide, international publications, niche and specialised journals, NGOs and institutions, mainstream media and uploaded everyday.
CWI, which will soon be seen in a different avatar (India Resource Center), faces another challenge: "We do not have much support from the policy makers in India and elsewhere, and we find ourselves fighting massive odds in almost all issues we take on."
Some sites, like Altindia.net, have not been able to sustain their efforts. Except for a couple of sections, the site has been in a comatose state. Admits the site's publisher, A Mehta, "A lack of time and attention on my part despite the initial round of enthusiasm and the lack of follow-up volunteer action lead to the current state."
Inspite of these challenges, the good news will keep rolling in. Putting in 60 hours every week, GNI's researcher, reporter, writer, designer, techie and financier Sridharan is optimistic, "In a few months GNI may have a network of online workers to help grow the idea."
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