Empowerment via Community Media: Through the lens of Devidas Gaonkar
Parindey: Devidas Gaonkar
Alivelihood: Community Correspondent
Region: Cotigao, Goa
In a world of globalised media networks with their central focus being on business and commerce, it becomes increasingly important to have decentralised media networks that voice the opinion of ordinary people and their everyday challenges. Community media, decentralised in its approach, can be perceived as an alternative to commercial media that empowers and enables its participants to address the issues faced by their communities locally. This facilitates the process of community development that is not the focus of mainstream media. Here is the story of Devidas Gaonkar, an indigenous journalist based in South Goa, who voices the continuing challenges of his community by facilitating public platforms for debates and discussions using media as a tool. Through his work, Devidas has been instrumental in various change-making movements.
Born in Baddem Village in Cotigao, Goa, Devidas belongs to the indigenous Velip community that traditionally resides in the hilly areas of Canacona in South Goa. His village, which is amongst the several indigenous villages in remote forest areas within the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary, is in the South end of Goa, near the border of Karnataka. Many residents in other parts of Goa, outside of Canacona and in the Northern parts of Goa, do not know that there are indigenous communities residing in the forests for generations. However, as a result of Devidas’s work with various media outlets, he is quite famous in the larger Canacona area. He happens to be the only journalist from his village who is actively voicing the challenges that are being faced by the members of his community.
Without any formal education and training in media and journalism, Devidas learnt reporting and videography with the help and support of various individuals. His interest in the field developed naturally. "From my childhood, if I witness injustice in my village or the larger block area, I will inform it to someone or try to disseminate about it locally”, shares Devidas who has been associated with the Video Volunteers since 2009, a not-for-profit initiative that promotes community media to facilitate the participation of individuals from marginalised communities across the globe. His first tryst with media started when he attended a workshop on media that was conducted in his village by a Chief Reporter. Post the completion of the event, he kept in touch with the reporter and sent him multiple letters about issues that were important in his village as part of the editorial section. His first piece was published in Sunaparant, a local Konkani language newspaper in Goa that is no longer active. “I realised this local newspaper had limited reach. Thus, I reached out to one with a good reach and asked if I could send them editorial pieces on my village’s development issues. They offered me the position of a reporter, but I said I do not know how to report. Then they asked me to meet a reporter who worked for them and that he would help me learn about media reporting. This is how I began my journey as a reporter then slowly worked towards consolidating my skills in writing and conducting research”, shares Devidas who now does local reporting as part of Goa 365 on wide-ranging issues from ecological to cultural.
Apart from making videos as part of his role as a Community Correspondent at Video Volunteers, Devidas has been simultaneously associated with both electronic and print media. “Since I began my work with Video Volunteers, I realised that development can be achieved and sustained through media. I believe that anyone from my community facing a problem is something that concerns me. Addressing the nature of this problem not only helps the larger community that I am a part of but also is an attempt towards social progress”, remarks Devidas who has been threatened multiple times while pursuing his work. Thus far, aside from his media work, he has written three books – one on poetry, one on indigenous communities in Goa, and one on an indigenous struggle for equal rights that had taken place in Goa in 2011. He writes mainly in Konkani and Marathi. He also contributes research articles on Goa's indigenous population as part of the special edition titled Manthan by the Lokmat newspaper. This gets published every Sunday.
In his journey, Devidas has faced various challenges – from powerful oppositions to finances. “Initially, when I started to write in 2007-08 in a Marathi newspaper, I would only receive a meagre amount of 300 rupees. It was not enough to sustain yet I was driven by the idea that I have to write about issues and contribute towards the development of my community”, expresses Devidas who takes a lot of pride in doing what he does and wants to continue to be the voice of the indigenous population in Goa. He believes that the bigger the problem is the bigger the success would be after eliminating the problem. For instance, in his neighbouring villages, five-six villages still do not have road connectivity. Villagers had to ride cycles and motorbikes on a dirt road at risk or had to walk for kilometres to reach the nearby water body or neighbouring villages to access the water supply. Two villages still do not have electricity, something which is completely unheard of in contemporary India. In Marlem village, the residents collectively protested and decided to boycott the elections until their demand for road construction was fulfilled. Devidas made a video on this issue, addressed the needs of the residents, and sent it to various local media platforms. Once the news made headlines, all-weather roads were sanctioned, and the construction began.
The process of development inside the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary is complex because of the Forest Act. The Forest Department has divided the forest into various categories. For instance, wildlife sanctuaries, reserve forests, research forests, parks, etc. In doing so, they inserted trenches and added stone wall compounds in the middle of forests. This impacted the movement of animals within the forests as this sort of classification restricted their freedom to move around in nature. “We humans can know which is what but how does an animal make this distinction? The Forest Department does not conduct meaningful studies to monitor and evaluate the far-reaching impact of its projects. We have witnessed animals being killed in trenches. Sometimes villagers would click photographs of the dead animal and circulate them. We even met the local MLA and filed memorandums”, asserts Devidas who argues that the Forest Department in Goa has often destroyed natural forest areas to set up plantations. He argues that this practice is unjust as this inflicts immense ecological damage. Besides, the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary was officially established in 1968, but long before its initiation, indigenous communities resided within the forest areas for generations. Thus, any request of making roads within these forests to connect villages is problematic because of the Forest Act. Aside from poor road connectivity in some villages, Devidas’s village and many of the neighbouring villages still do not have mobile phone networks. In the event of a healthcare emergency or other problems, villagers are forced to travel kilometres to access medical aid.
In the future, Devidas would like to critically engage with issues such as climate change, waste management, and decaying indigenous culture, and traditions. “There is no awareness about climate change in the village. People in my village still follow the same lifestyle as they would decades ago. But earlier there would be forests behind our houses. Nowadays there is no forest. There are various cashew plantations. Growing only cashews tolls heavily on the environment. Monoculture is proven to have a disastrous impact. There must be mixed plantations. This is an issue I would like to push in the future”, echoes Devidas who has also worked with the fisheries union in Goa aiming towards sustainable development keeping the larger environment in mind.
To conclude, Devidas’s journey illustrates the power of community media in the context of community development, enhancing local literacy and awareness, and empowering the participants to express their concerns. This form of media also allows for preserving local ways of being which are at risk of decaying with the emergence of global media. In an era of disinformation and post-truth wherein validating the nature of news is a research task, community media can effectively speak truth to power. Devidas’s journey echoes how youth from remote villages without formal training in media and journalism can step up to be leaders and represent their communities and their continuing challenges. Sustaining community media networks not only is an indicator of a healthy democratic society but is an act of asserting the local cultural landscape, community life, and its development trajectory. In Devidas’s words, “the difference between mainstream and community media is that of purpose. Any agenda can be made the news. Mainstream media may run an issue and then forget about it. However, community media would keep up with the issues, and the progress it has made, and find out appropriate solutions. Community media holds power to transform the life of a community. This, however, does not mean mainstream media is irrelevant. It has its merits”.