CAMCORDERS FOR JUSTICE

In rich countries, the Flip camera was a short-lived fad along the road to shooting video on phones. But in India it lives on as a lifeline for ordinary people trying to get things done. James Scudamore meets some of them

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2014

IT TAKES AN hour and a quarter by train to get from Mumbai to the town of Vangani. I had hoped to spend the journey getting to know my companion, Amol, but there was barely room to stand, let alone talk. The Mumbai Suburban Railway is the world’s most overcrowded network, and at rush hour the crush-load on each local, as the trains are called, is said to be 14-16 people per square metre. Thankfully we were travelling later in the morning, but each new station nonetheless brought a fresh surge of passengers through the sunlit doorway of the carriage, agitating and repacking its contents. I had come to India to research community video—powerful social change effected by grassroots activists with digital cameras—and heard that a visit to Vangani would provide the perfect introduction. I just hadn't yet been told why. As we left the centre of Mumbai and the carriage thinned out, it became possible to chat through the forest of arms gripping overhead handles, and Amol filled me in.

In 1998 a philanthropist announced his intention to build a community for the blind in Vangani. When word got around, people began arriving from all over the state of Maharashtra. The philanthropist died before he could make good on his announcement, but the blind came anyway. Now there are more than 350 families here with at least one visually impaired member. The railway is the best place to earn money, and blind hawkers peddle their wares up and down the carriages. Which is a dangerous enough situation, given the overcrowding. But it is made lethal by the fact that Vangani is the one station for miles around with no pedestrian crossing.

We alighted and stepped over snoozing dogs on the platform to see throngs of people crossing the tracks at either end of the train: uniformed schoolchildren, fruit-and-veg sellers, commuters—and blind hawkers. The hawkers go out in pairs, carrying everything from cutlery to socks to soap to playing cards. They rely on the help of the sighted should they fall, risk arrest if they run into the police, and have to cross the track several times a day. A girl of 14 had died here the week before; Amol was now running a campaign to secure a written commitment from the minister for railways that a footbridge would be constructed. I was here to watch him work.

A blind man met us at the station and led us into town. As we followed him from sunlight to shadow, passing cows and pigs that browsed smouldering rubbish, he talked about his coping strategies, such as navigating the town through changes in smell and temperature, and programming his phone with different ringtones for different callers.

We reached the home of a hawker, Mr Santosh. He and his wife are both blind, though his wife could see until she was five. "There's a lot of superstitious belief in the countryside," he said. "Conjunctivitis is often seen as a curse, so it goes untreated." I looked around at the two-room hut where a blind couple were bringing up two sighted children unassisted. I was struck by how immaculate the place was, and by the deadly looking ceiling fan that whirled at head height, which Mr Santosh neatly sidestepped as he moved to settle us on the floor and offer refreshment. Amol took out his Flip camera.

Mr Santosh sat cross-legged in a white vest and blue sarong, his milky eyes raised upwards, and took us through his day. "I take the train into the city, carrying about 15 kilos. It’s hard work: sighted hawkers make a lot more money, which means they can bribe the police more. And a blind person going from carriage to carriage is vulnerable." He described how he had badly fractured his leg crossing the tracks a few months before, and was unable to work while it healed. Amol filmed on, keeping a steady hand on the camera, offering only gentle prompts, letting Mr Santosh's story play out in his own words.

Amol Lalzare is 27, grew up in the Mumbai slums, and makes films on everything from education to slum clearances. His work is distinguished by its simplicity and by the emphasis he places on not putting words in anybody's mouth. "We need to voice our problems by ourselves," he says on his profile page. "Or we will always be misrepresented…mainstream media write that we still defecate in the street."

Above At the pictures: rapt faces of the villagers in Maranghada watching a video made by Amita Tute

The Vangani story is just the latest in a line of campaigns, and Amol is one of 206 community correspondents across 23 states whose work is pooled by India Unheard, the news service of Video Volunteers, an NGO founded in 2003 to empower poor and marginalised communities by teaching the skills of video journalism.

It goes like this: find someone with something important to say. Put a camera in their hand and teach them to use it. Ensure that the resulting films are screened in relevant communities, be they urban slums or rural villages, and that the audience is suitably galvanised. And be sure to document any change with a second film, the "impact video". These are some of the most compelling films made by Video Volunteers. Correspondents get hold of government officials and show them, on camera, some injustice that they have the power to undo—their discomfort growing as they become more accountable and realise that denial is no longer an option.

Amol had made a strikingly good impact video. He had shot a film about the Christian cemetery near where he lived. Its water supply was cut off and the bones of the dead were scattered around the footpaths. He got into the office of his local councillor and showed him the video on his laptop, while another correspondent filmed the man squirming. On camera, the councillor picked up the phone to sort out the problem. Which led to the ultimate goal of any Video Volunteers campaign: "closure".

"It was at that moment", Amol told me, "that I realised how powerful I was with a camera in my hand. I’d never even thought of meeting my local councillor. Now within minutes he was calling the water board to get the cemetery reconnected, and arranging for special boxes to be built to put the bones of the dead somewhere more dignified."

Campaigns are mounted on every conceivable issue: discrimination based on sex or caste, local government corruption, threats from deforestation or mining. The films are often raw and emotive. In one, a man from a so-called untouchable caste is sent down into the sewers to unblock them by hand with no protective clothing. In another, tribal men and women show their wounds following savage beatings by the police. In a third, teachers weep as they describe their conflicted emotions at not wanting to abandon their pupils by going on strike, after working for years without pay.

Many of the correspondents have activism in their blood. Some are veterans of other NGOs or religious foundations; others have been working for years with their own organisations. What they have in common is a desire to change things where they live. And for the moment, their most powerful weapon is a little digital video camera.

Activism of this kind isn’t new, but affordable cameras have turbocharged its potential. In the past, the best tool an NGO like Video Volunteers had at its disposal was a magazine article or a radio broadcast. Then, in 2006, a small San Francisco-based firm called Pure Digital Technologies launched the low-budget Flip camera. The product was so successful that Pure Digital was bought out in 2009 by the data and networking company Cisco Systems, and its arrival in India changed things completely. Once recruited by Video Volunteers, each correspondent is given in-depth training. They are lent a camera of their own, and receive 1,500 rupees (about £15) per video, with the promise of 5,000 rupees for an impact film. The rise of smartphones and its own move away from consumer products led Cisco to discontinue the Flip in 2011. Video Volunteers petitioned Cisco to donate all its remaining stock and emerged with 583 cameras to keep themselves going until an affordable device with file-sharing capabilities becomes available in India—at which point things will snowball even more. You don't have to wait for universal web access, it seems, to achieve some of its positive effects: the analogue internet is up and running, and networks are in place for when things go digital.

Above A helping hand from the sighted: Amol Lalzare, a correspondent from Video Volunteers, shoots his film about blind hawkers in Vangani

ZULEIKA SAYED IS a softly spoken 26-year-old with a ring in her left nostril. She grew up in a relatively small, insular Muslim community in the Mumbai slum where she still lives. When I first met her in a shopping-centre coffee shop in the district of Ghatkopar, she was shy. My attempts to ask about her involvement with Video Volunteers elicited only modest and self-effacing answers. But after we jumped in a rickshaw to visit the slum, she opened up as soon as we started climbing the steep, teeming lane to her home. Fruit and vegetables were heaped on roadside barrows. Washing hung in the doorways of concrete-block shacks with corrugated-iron roofs. Tethered calves fed from bags of food waste. Seeing me reach for my phone, Zuleikha let out a husky, infectious laugh. "Foreigners", she said, "always want to take pictures of the cows."

We reached the two-room shack Zuleikha shares with her mother and grandmother just as the water supply arrived. It is on for three hours a day. Water cascaded down the hill, filling open drains and freshening the air. People emerged from their homes with plastic containers to fill up. Zuleikha busied herself with canteens and bottles, scrubbing dishes in her doorway and replenishing supplies. It was the perfect introduction to her story: not only did Zuleikha become an activist following a devastating flood here in 2005, but her most effective video since she became a community correspondent was made in protest at plans to privatise the water supply. Trading jokes with her grandmother, Zuleikha described how she had got involved with Video Volunteers, how she was soon to complete a BA in media studies, and how she was now training others how to use the video equipment. "Things used to change slowly," she said. "The media would come and do stories about our problems, but we never saw what happened afterwards, if anything did. It’s different with video. When I first realised I’d be appearing on camera, I was nervous. But as soon as we started filming, you could see the difference it made—how people changed in front of the lens."

I would find this time and time again—how the mere fact of a camera gets people excited. It is partly because of its air of Bollywood celebrity, but also because there is no intermediary. Speaking direct to camera, people know that nobody will moderate their views (as I cannot help but do now). Zuleikha’s message has never been taken out of her hands. 

Screenings of her water film led to impassioned public meetings that halted the privatisation plan for good. Her latest film, featuring covert footage of illegal slum clearances, had sparked a huge public demonstration, and looked set to have similar consequences, for Zuleikha as much as her community.

"Doing this work has changed me," she said. "I lacked confidence before. I always had my head covered, I never met anybody's eye. Now I see myself outside the community I was born into. Some of my friends have stopped wearing full hijab since I did. It’s not a religious statement—just a sign that they’re getting more confident."

How has that gone down in the community? 

She shrugged. "People say things about it to my grandmother sometimes, but they never have to me."

And what does the rest of the family think?

"There’s no man in my family to boss me around," she said, with a glance at her grandmother and a glint in her eye. "So it hasn't been an issue for me as much as it has for others."

Suddenly the hose came free of its supply, spraying the room and sending four newborn kittens scattering under the bed. Atul the photographer, Tania the translator and I all got a soaking, much to Zuleikha’s amusement.

"Would you say that in general things are changing for the better?" I asked, when things had died down.

Zuleikha pointed at her grandmother, who sat serenely on the bed watching her at work. "Life is much better than it was when she first moved here: we have water, toilets, electricity. And change feels more possible. People used to feel threatened by the kind of work I do, but now they've seen what it can achieve."

And what would she most like to change next?

She smiled. "I'll tell you something I don't like: when men come and stare at women through the toilet windows."

They do that?

"They're like tomcats coming to people’s homes to pester their cats." That laugh again, tumbling out like water. "Typical men, sticking their noses in where they're not wanted."

Above Home movie: Zuleikha, a Video Volunteer, with her grandmother at her small house in the Mumbai slums

A KEY STRENGTH of Video Volunteers is its shapelessness: its only goal is to give a voice to people who go unheard within traditional media. With that in mind, I left Mumbai and flew to the eastern city of Ranchi, to hear a story that was both completely different and exactly the same.

The state of Jharkhand is the perfect test area in which to study the effects of community video. Its land is densely forested and inhabited by tribal people, the Adivasi, whose rights are under constant threat from the advance of corporations seeking to plunder the rich natural resources. Activism is in Jharkhand's DNA: the state only came into existence on November 15th 2000, and tribal rights were a vital independence issue. And there's another, more hazardous complication.

Tania, Atul and I drove out from Ranchi at dusk, heading for the village of Maranghada, in the district of Khunti—part of the area known as the Red Corridor, where there is a violent Maoist insurgency led by groups known collectively as the Naxalites. A screening was to happen in the village, and on the way we were picking up the correspondents whose work would feature. The festival of Saraswati was in progress. We rattled through small towns and villages, passing cobbled-together sound systems that pumped out deafening music from megaphones lashed to the backs of trucks. Boys danced frenetically, their faces coated in pink and green paint.

Soon we were in open countryside. Just as the forests were thickening out and the roads were getting bumpier, I noticed that we were skirting the perimeter fence of a serious-looking military installation: the training camp of COBRA ("Commando Battalion For Resolute Action")—the anti-Naxalite brigade of Special Police Officers, or SPOS. This elite task force is permanently stationed in the region, and ordinary villagers are often caught in the crossfire. On one hand they are intimidated into sheltering Naxalites who want to go into hiding; on the other they can be beaten or imprisoned by SPOS on suspicion of sympathising with the cause. "If a Maoist finds an SPO," I was told, "he kills him. And if an SPO finds a Maoist, he kills him. If you're an ordinary tribal villager trying to get on with your life, it's quite hard to stay out of everybody’s way." I was cheerily informed that the murder rate of the area we were in had until recently been about one a week.

We picked up our last passenger after nightfall, our seven-seater people carrier now packed. The atmosphere in the car changed. Tania kept saying we were heading into a "very sensitive" area. Our driver began making complex signals with the car horn as we passed Naxalite checkpoints, invisible to me. After one final stop and a brief conversation with a man on a motorbike, our driver left the light on inside the car and switched on a second, ultraviolet bulb towards the front. The motorbike had stayed with us, like an outrider. When I asked about the interior lights I was told that we were in the most sensitive area, and the Naxalites needed to see exactly who was in the car.

We turned off the main road and the car jolted its way down an unmarked dirt track surrounded by high grasses and trees. When the engine was turned off, we were in total darkness. Just as my imagination was going to work on the situation in earnest, the car doors were opened and the night air erupted with the sound of drums and chanting: a tribal welcoming committee. Our hands were washed, and we were presented with garlands of orange palash flowers. A screening like the one planned tonight had never happened here before, and they wanted to greet us properly.

We went down the dirt track, following the drums, orbited by dancing girls. The main building in the village, a church of mud and cow dung, was packed. A generator had been hired for the evening to power the projector and supply electric light. (Our screening almost hadn't happened, I heard later, because generators were in short supply during the festival.) Villagers who couldn't cram into the church poked their heads through the windows. The correspondents hung a white sheet at the altar end and positioned the projector in the centre of the room. Kids up past their bedtime sat cross-legged in the front row, looking fascinated for a while, then nodding off on each other.

The first film shown had been made by Amita Tute, a fiercely determined young woman who grew up nearby. It documented the beating and unlawful imprisonment of a man suspected of being a Maoist sympathiser. "They almost broke my back," he said, to a hush around the church. The other films raised issues such as deforestation, displacement, sand mining. Rapt faces stared at the altar end as the beam from the projector lit up the red and brown walls.

After the screening, Amita invited us home for dinner, saying that a chicken had been slaughtered in our honour. We couldn't accept her invitation: abruptly, word reached us that the Naxalites had heard about the screening, which had been organised past curfew without their consent, and they were on their way. We got in the car and beat a hasty retreat, the community correspondents dispersing into the night.

Above Film producer: Amita Tute, a Video Volunteer from Maranghada, shows the neighbours her film

THE NEXT DAY we drove out to a village called Fakotih, to meet a community for whom video activism is a last resort in the face of a near-apocalyptic threat to their livelihood. The road was deeply rutted by enormous coal trucks. Our car was stuck behind one, so we overtook it, only to find another one in front, and another after that. Coal dust filled the air and left a fine coating on everything. Houses were stained black. I heard that if you draw a glass of water round here, it comes out tinged with dust. Breathing ailments are common. Villagers were promised a trade-off in the form of employment, but the vast majority of mine workers come from outside the state.

We arrived to find a village being consumed from both sides. Only a slender strip of countryside remained, with one or two trees, while on either side the natural contours had been gouged away. The difference was so profound that, strangely, imagining what the landscape had been like before was easy: what should have been here was visible like a ghost. Fakotih has the misfortune of sitting directly between two opencast coalmines, one owned by the Tata Corporation, the other by Central Coalfields. I was reminded of the banner ad sponsored by Central Coalfields that greeted me at Ranchi airport: "Welcome to the Land of Coal".

We parked at a distance and crept through scrubby bushes to get up to the lip and look into the disembowelled earth: a massive, stepped crater, black bites taken out of the land, with bluish water in the bottom. Trucks so huge that their wheel axles were at head height moved around in the throat of it like toys. Yellowish smoke seeped steadily from the rock, where a seam of coal had been smouldering for months—underground fires that could not be put out.

At first I didn't even notice them: tiny scraps of colour moving among the trucks—the bright saris of teenage girls carrying lumps of coal as big as their heads up the pathways. These were the jobs locals had been promised.

Back in the village, I interviewed a community correspondent, Mohan Kumar Bhuiyan. Born in 1984, he has never known his village without the mines. Resettlement campaigns have become more forceful over time, and Mohan is adamant they won’t succeed. The companies' method, he told me, is to perform what they call a "house survey", for which the occupants are given a cheque. The minute you let the surveyors in and accept their money, they have the authority to tear down your home. After which the likelihood is that you will end up in a roadside "transit camp" with no sanitation. The last serious attempt to evict people from Fakotih was in 2006, and when the villagers resisted the house survey, a fight broke out.

"There are people who moved out 20 years ago who are still in those camps," Mohan said. "All we're saying is that if we move they have to guarantee us a good, permanent location, where we can stay together. But they'll do anything to keep us quiet. If one person raises his voice, they take him aside, give him money, and remove him. Piece by piece communities are shattered, families set against one another. It goes completely against the national policy on resettlement and rehabilitation. The films I make are going to ensure that doesn't happen."

Kasiadih is a village not far from the mines but a world apart: a peaceful, charming collection of mud-and-dung huts, presided over by a mission. Kids played cricket in the streets as pigs and chickens roamed everywhere. I had come to hear the stories of Pushpa Hansda and Ramdev Soren, two teachers whose salaries were suspended for no reason for four years until a community correspondent, Chunnu Hansda, campaigned on their behalf. 

Chunnu ran an extension lead back to a home with power and set up his laptop and projector to hold a screening in the street, against the wall of a house. As the sun sank and bats flitted overhead, villagers gathered to watch the film showing how the teachers finally got paid. Finding this impromptu cinema in their lane, people stopped on their way home from work. The faces of Pushpa and Ramdev filled the screen, explaining how at the time of filming they had been without pay for 18 months, but didn't want to stop working because their pupils’ education would suffer. The footage of Pushpa was highly charged. "I feel like a walking corpse," she said, close to tears. "I don't know if I'm alive or dead."

Only two videos had been screened when the power died, sending up a groan from the crowd. But when it became clear that the electricity wasn't coming back any time soon, we muddled through. Chunnu gathered everyone around his laptop and the remaining films were shown on battery power. The faces of the viewers were every bit as engaged.

Afterwards Chunnu said he had kept trying to see the deputy commissioner, who had the power to make sure the teachers were paid, but was thwarted at every turn. When his phone calls were blocked, he went to the office. When he was told he wouldn't be seen, he sent texts to the man’s mobile to tell him he was waiting outside. Finally, they let him in. In his impact video you can see the deputy commissioner's incredulity at the sight of the Flip.

"That's the camera you use?" he says.

"Yes," says Chunnu. "This is the little thing that has caused you so much trouble."

Above Candid camera: Video Volunteers holds a screening at Kasiadih village, Hazaribagh

James Scudamore is the author of "Heliopolis", longlisted for the Man Booker prize, and "Wreaking"

Photographs Atul Loke