The rural areas of India have plenty of intriguing sights and stories that are waiting for their fair share of appreciation. The coronavirus pandemic, however, created an impact on India’s tourism industry, and its impact was felt in the rural areas too. Many communities situated in these areas that were reliant on the tourist footfall had lost their livelihoods. Industry experts believe that the full impact of COVID-19 on tourism will last for another year. In the meantime, how are these communities and cottage industries expected to survive? The Voices of Rural India steps into this scenario, a nonprofit media platform that is using digital channels to remedy this gap.
What is the “Voices of Rural India”?
Voices of Rural India is a digital media platform created to deal with the unprecedented crisis, to find opportunities that can facilitate alternate livelihoods through the upgrading of digital skills. This is public outreach digitization in tourism initiative created by a travel blogger called Shivya Nath in collaboration with Malika Virdi, who is the founder-director of community-based tourism organization Himalayan Ark, and Osama Manzar who heads the Digital Empowerment Foundation.
Malika Virdi is a part of a rural community, living in the Sarmoli village, and operates her own tourism organization the Himalayan Ark out of the neighboring village of Munsiari. Virdi and Nath have previously created the voices of Munsiari in 2016 which was a content creation and digital communication tools initiative. At the same time, Nath also has this basic Instagram and photography workshop – even since then, both have been leveraging digital communication tools to showcase their local culture.
Nath says that a majority of rural communities are excluded or simply don’t have easier access to the digital world or digital media; and that Voices of Rural India would be a way to promote digital storytelling by empowering these rural storytellers. Nath feels that while urban dwellers leverage several digital communication tools when studying or working, rural India is held back due to inadequate or a lack of opportunities and digital skills.
In simpler words, Voices of Rural India is a digital journalism nonprofit media platform to be utilized with the aim of creating revenue via digitization in tourism. It is also intended to be a repository of culture, the knowledge that is documented in local voices and aids the development of digital storytelling skills at a foundational level.
How this portal works
Voices of Rural India is currently active in areas like Kerala, Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. They are carrying out community-based tourism programs like the Himalayan Ecotourism, Grassroutes Journeys, and Global Himalayan Expedition. The company that runs the nonprofit media platform identifies the storytellers to be highlighted on the platform; these are usually the tour guides, tour operators, homestay owners, and people that make up the neighboring community.
Volunteers also contribute to the storytelling modules by sharing them with community organizations. Rural storytellers submit their stories in text, video, or audio/visual formats filled with ideas rooted in human experiences. These volunteers remunerate those storytellers and promote their media after its accepted for publishing. Manzar says that there are approximately 6,50,000 villages, and even just one story from each of those villages could lead to three-quarters of a million such stories.
In order to first launch the initiative, the founders had received digital Empowerment Foundation funding; this is a nonprofit organization that helps build the solutions that address the digital media gap In India.
Later on,Virdi and Nathplan on carrying on funding the initiative via crowdfunding and donors, and that all revenues earned through this business model will be used as payments for thecommunity storytellers. Storytellers receive payment of INR 1,000 for their first story produced by the community members. They are paid INR 1,500 for the second story but are encouraged to enrich the narrative with auditory, digital media, and visual elements.
From thethird story, creators are expected to meethigher standards and are renumerated with INR 2,000 for every story published afterward. So far, the Voices of Rural India organization has shared nineteen such stories. Their bigger goal is to publish ten stories on a monthly basis.
The nonprofit media platform has been successful and is gaining traction online; it already has a steady travel enthusiast readership audience with 12,900 views, another 112 email subscribers, and over 1,800 Instagram followers. Readers have been doing their part to promote and support this platform using digital communication tools by sharing what they read on social media feeds to garner more focus on the initiative and have even reached out as volunteers.
Advantages of the storytelling platform concept
The communities and the landscapes that make up the rural destinations that tourists like to visit are embedded in their own particular stories, their cultures. Virdi adds that the platform provides opportunities to the community folks, guides who love their folklore and are happy about re-telling them to the rest of the world.
The initiative comes at a time when physical travel has been put on hold; Virdi adds that it’s a clever way to stay connected during the discontinuity and helps the storytellers to own their narratives on this virtual medium, even if it is exciting and challenging digitization in tourism effort.
The contribution via theVoices of Rural India platform doesn’t stop there. The operators of the platform also provide the virtual training that is necessary for these rural storytellers to be able to use such technology. They also focus on providing them basic storytelling techniques, brainstorming ideas, and how they can add apersonal perspective in the story they develop, aided with smartphones for recording video, digital communication tools, images, and audio. In fact, some of those storytellers are even learning how to type in Hindi.
Eventually, Voices of Rural India plans on bringing these storytellers to social media, and leverage popular online digital communication tools that could support tourism activities and their own businesses. The organization is keen on working with volunteers that possess this social media, or editing expertise or that have an online digital channel with a reasonable viewer count.