Kavita Devi is not your usual means to access news on the television. The Editor-in-Chief of Khabar Lahariya, Kavita Devi, is all about the field. Starting as a field reporter she has ventured into the kaccha roads of remote villages that might not even appear on your maps. That’s what Devi’s journalism is about. Khabar Lahariya is an all-women media house that brings into forefront rural journalism. It works with an indigenous team of reporters who hail from rural backgrounds and belong to the marginalised community. As KL itself says, “Our rural journalism follows the everyday stories of everyday people in areas that are completely out of the spotlight of media attention.”

With her first-ever appearance in TED Talks India on November 9th, we talked with Kavita Devi about her journey and the challenges she faced. She gave us an insight into what goes into the making of Kavita Devi who stands proud today.

Nivedita Hazra: How has your childhood been growing up as a woman in Bundelkhand? 

Kavita Devi: I was born in a village. My parents were farmers and to this day are. It wasn’t a very education-centric society back them, none of our elders were educated. While I was growing only a bunch of children would go to school and even then girls weren’t allowed to receive a formal education. I, along with the other girls would spend time either playing or doing chores. By the time girls turned seven or eight they were expected to learn household chores which began with brooming. It went on to other chores like cleaning and cooking. I too underwent a similar training. But the atmosphere we were raised in was very unconfined where we could play on until late at night without any fear of getting raped or abducted. But when I see today’s children, they seem to have a smothering childhood.

Of course, education wasn’t valued enough; girls weren’t allowed to receive schooling and hence we ignored it too. By the age of 12, I was married off. I just knew ‘marriage’ as a term and most parts of it appeared to be a fun sport so I was excited back then. I never understood the importance of it or the efforts that went into maintaining such relations because there was no medium to educate ourselves on these subjects. There were no phones not even bar phones, let alone social media. The only medium of communication was exchanging letters.

Nivedita Hazra: What challenges did you face to get an education after marriage?

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Kavita Devi: About a few months into my marriage I heard that there was some center set up for educating older women. I was intrigued and wanted to attend it. Oftentimes, I would go and stand outside observing. Although I felt like going inside I didn’t. This one time the tutor called me inside and I attended my first session. I expressed my interest in joining for the full-time course.

Post this I asked my father for permission, he didn’t approve of it but I kept insisting. Being the eldest in the family I had a lot on my plate. I would finish all my chores in the morning and rush to the center in the afternoon and in the evening I would get back before my father returned from work. 

On completing the course, I wanted to join their full-time programme. But since it was a residential programme nobody permitted me. In the absence of my father, I convinced my mother and two other friends. I draped her sarees to look older and I left. We faced a lot of flak from society but I didn’t leave. The families of the two other women had them leave the center. Back in my village the criticism still went on and I struggled to stay. The NGO also held counselling sessions to convince my father and in-laws.

After this, I wanted to get admission in the 5th grade, which has its share of struggle. They objected to my schooling but I was persistent in my demands. Thereon, beginning from a government school I went on to pursue a master’s degree.

From its genesis, the objective of Khabar Lahariya was to set up an all-female platform. In a male-dominated sector, we sensed a severe need for a paradigm shift. We aimed at erasing the boundaries that almost served as the Line of Control restricting the women to go out in the public sphere.

Nivedita Hazra: How did journalism happen to you?

Kavita Devi: The NGO where I completed my studies from used to run a newsletter by the name of Mahila Dakiya. I developed an interest in working with them. It used to be handwritten and had handmade sketches. It was run in local Bundeli language hence it was prevalent amongst the villagers. Later, due to some unforeseen situations, it had to be shut down but the demand amongst the people was still there. I felt the need for readable material, some medium of communication was very necessary. It is then when we began talks and discussions with NGO Nirantar. After a lot of deliberation, we came out with the objectives and the vision of an organisation which eventually came to be known as Khabar Lahariya.

Nivedita Hazra: Please tell us more about the birth of Khabar Lahariya

Kavita Devi: From its genesis, the objective of Khabar Lahariya was to set up an all-female platform. In a male-dominated sector, we sensed a severe need for a paradigm shift. We aimed at erasing the boundaries that almost served as the Line of Control restricting the women to go out in the public sphere.

An all-female platform, especially employing people from marginalised backgrounds was a daring move to make in a society like ours. They are ever ready to put down women and restrict their existence within confinement. Let alone the public sphere, the mentality is reflective in households too.

In the beginning, people did not take us seriously. They couldn’t process the idea of Dalit women working in such positions. But when we came out with our first edition of printed newspapers, people were elated to read relevant reports of their village printed in their dialect. That’s when we gradually started garnering praises as the demand kept increasing. By and by, Khabar Lahariya became our heart and soul. However, challenges still exist. People have often tried to shut down the organisation when they felt threatened. But we had a vision and we kept growing.

Also read: In Conversation With Ammu Joseph: The #MeToo In Media Moment

Nivedita Hazra: As a reporter yourself, amongst all the stories covered so far, which is your personal favourite?

Kavita Devi: I feel any story that challenges me, becomes my favourite beat. I have covered a lot of stories on bandits and banditry. I’m specifically interested in crime stories especially because it lets me challenge the convention that women can’t do crime stories.

The recent case I want to talk about is the encounter of Babli Kol. After the encounter, various media channels ran shows, but stating the obvious and celebrating the encounter, but I wanted to add a new dimension to it. I decided to go to Kol’s village and interview people there. I asked the women and youngsters in the village about Kol. Although the police ascertained that the encounter of Kol marked an end to banditry in the area but the children were of a starkly different opinion. They said that banditry could never end in that area, the death of Kol could just be a pause but ‘normalcy’ of dacoits would soon be restored. Later, a lot of media houses reached out to us and also appreciated us.

When Sadhna Patel was in the news, a lot of media organisation ran unverified information; they used mismatching pictures of Patel. Being a feminist organisation I couldn’t take such a breach of ethics. I wanted to cover the story prima facie so I went to her village. I interviewed her family members and finally unearthed her file photo, which was extremely different from what other channels were showing.

Nivedita Hazra: How do you see journalism in today’s date? What changes has it gone through over the years?

Kavita Devi: I haven’t observed any significant changes. Recently in a talk with The Quint, I tabled the concerns of how media portray women in their stories. If there is a belief that the woman has done something wrong, as a media house the burden of proof falls on you to investigate the case. Instead of covering the various aspects of the case and voicing the different concerns most media houses print misleading and demeaning headlines. 

My comments did not go down well with the other panellists and they insisted that the media culture has now changed. Paradoxically, I came across an instance of such a headline just a month later.

It is a common understanding that in cases of rape, the identity of the victim is held private, yet I have seen numerous cases where the pictures of women were publicised. Often they are harassed and interrogated in a very ugly manner.

The only difference is, this practice was earlier prevalent in print media but with the rise of social media, it has taken over. With an expansion in its reach, social media has now started to enter the nooks and corners of the country.

Yes, there has also been a rise in the number of women in the journalism circuit. That I believe has been a constructive change.

Nivedita Hazra: Tell us about Khabar Lahariya‘s transition into new media.

Kavita Devi: I think this is a huge transition and I look at it positively. It is positive for me because when we started in print we were very small and lacked funding. We could not expand its reach or invest in its marketing. Our small team managed the process throughout from collecting news, to get it printed to even selling it. Our returns were not profitable. 

The era of the internet and social media, however, is a positive boost. It creates a visual impact on the viewers and readers that wasn’t possible earlier. The best thing is its reach; it is easily reachable to even the most difficult areas.

Before digitising the platform, we had conducted a survey. Also, post the launch of 4G, the internet is more accessible and has also become comparatively cheaper. People in the villages have started using phones and the network can also be easily accessed. The medium was available to reach a larger audience. Consequently, our reach did increase and we have a large subscriber base and I see this as a positive change.

Nivedita Hazra: What is The Kavita Show?

Kavita Devi: It has been more than an year now. I have opinions that I could not showcase while reporting. I always wanted to comment or question certain aspects of the stories I cover. This show enabled me to do that. Also, there are very few shows that are hosted by Dalit women.

This could be my show where I could express my inherent viewpoints and opinions be it prevalent topics or international affairs.

if you are to compare the reach of mainstream media with that of Khabar Lahariya, it is also necessary to compare the reader base and the target audience.

Nivedita Hazra: Are independent media houses overshadowed by mainstream media houses? Does Khabar Lahariya receive its fair share of recognition?

Kavita Devi: I feel the point of outreach is contingent upon its target audience. The readers and viewers of mainstream media are people from the city whereas the readers of Khabar Lahariya are mostly from the rural belt. Khabar Lahariya has a very niche target audience.

According to me, even though mainstream media has a wider readership I look up to our reader base. This is because we work for people who need it the most, we work for the marginalised. If I can reach the undiscovered and unreachable it means more to me than getting recognised. Otherwise, if you are to compare the reach of mainstream media with that of Khabar Lahariya, it is also necessary to compare the reader base and the target audience.

Nivedita Hazra: Tell us about your first appearance in TED Talks India

Kavita Devi: I am very excited but more than that, people in Bundelkhand are very excited. They have been sharing the news over social media channels and sending me good wishes. It is the first time that I’m witnessing the fondness the public has for me. I feel fortunate to have made Bundelkhand proud.

Also read: In Conversation With Khabar Lahariya: The First All Women Rural Media Channel

Pictures are provided by Khabar Lahariya.

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