Indifference in difference

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Just as there had been a flourishing of flowers that brought colour and shape of all manner throughout the forests of planet Earth, so too was there a burst of humans reflecting the diverse landscapes and climates across the great continents, grand brush strokes of language, song and dance, creed and shade, all speaking to their lands and their lands through them. No much more so than in India where diversity is of a scale only comparable to the densest of rain forests where we still remain uncertain of the depth of species, flora and fauna, that we have yet to know and learn from.

Between Alwar and Baran (Rajasthan, India) we passed a forest from which trees emerged, penetrating the early morning mist as broken arms clutching at the air, a landscape rent and torn by illegal sand-mining. Three camel drawn carts were loaded up with sand quarried by hand. We stopped to shoot this enterprise and in doing so sought permission from the villagers there. They agreed, for a small fee and we obliged.

When the villagers were done we moved deeper into the forest to capture material for my serene, reflective cutaways. Each of us found a zone of our own, documenting what we saw there either on camera or through personal reflection. I sought to walk and look deep into the mist. It was at such a moment that a shepherd emerged. His crook as tall as a small tree. We spoke through hand signs and gestures.

We were both curious about each other. Clearly I wasn’t someone he would regularly meet there, an alien on his home lands, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to chat quietly with a shepherd. We communicated without any sense of indifference.

As we spoke a member of my local crew walked towards us with an urgent stride, whipped out his smart phone, remarked on the length of the shepherd’s crook and prepared to take photos. I asked would he mind requesting permission first, to which he replied, “Here we don’t ask.” “With all due respect,” I responded,  “on my shoot we ask.” To which my request was ignored and photos merrily taken.

Communication that had been found in silence and respect, in mere moments, was extinguished.

Indifference and disregard were themes that I would find a constant challenge throughout the shoot, described to me as commonplace attitudes found throughout the country. What is commonplace is that there is nothing common between regions, states, tribes, the minutiae of lives in buried in slums and the makeshift dwellings nomads and the homeless construct on the open road, in fields, beneath freeways. If there was ever a place more deserving of suspended assumption, it is India.

It’s not so much that people are indifferent to each other, there is a learned system of responses hewn from a culture of many cultures. There is no one India. It can not be personified in any single artifact nor language. It can’t be drawn, exposed nor compared to anything. There are simply too many variances, too many nuances, too many histories and layered differences.

Indifference is a strategy. I try to be open to everyone, to all experiences, but there is a kind of madness that comes with that. Because one can not know the layers, one can not know why people say one thing to someone else and another to you, both statements contradicting each other, but to someone who does know it makes sense – it makes sense that it makes no sense! Try experiencing this a dozen or more times each day for a month.

I say to myself more than anyone else, best see India as a complex country of countless differences where every shadow cast is contoured by the dust of a millennia lives decomposed and transformed into nutrients absorbed into every single tree left standing.

Photo by: Cathy Chen (taken from a respectful and non-intrusive distance.

Right to know – Part 1

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Dense, chaotic thickets of electricity and phone cabling slung perilously over rusted scaffolding, window frames and round fragile bamboo poles. An overhead canopy woven throughout the urban fringe of Phnom Penh, Ho Chin Minh City, Hanoi, Manila, Jakarta, Beijing, Nanjing and Guangzhou. In the dark, amid the unruly mess a ragged and shadowy people would emerge from the rubble and garbage, risking their scant lives draping raw cables one over the other – an illegal maze of brazen off-grid grids, syphoning power to light their meager dwellings.

It was 1994. I had a Macintosh PowerBook 160, a Zyxel 14000 baud rate modem, a Sony Hi-8 video camera, fine tipped pens and a journal slung over my shoulder. I also carried a small tool kit and cables to literally hard wire modems into hotel room telephone sockets. In most cases it was the only way to get a line out. At that time you were only online for as long as it took to place a call to which ever server you had an account on, to make that modem connection happen, and what ever time remained to send pre-drafted emails and download any that were waiting for you. In my case I was making an international call to the Pactok1 server in Sydney. Pactok, a store-and-forward email service, collected all my Australian and international messages, mailing lists and posts to and from specialised self-published, open news groups. You had to be frugal, quick and efficient.

I travelled with Jagdish Parikh, legendary exponent of computer networking for workers lobbyist groups in South and Southeast Asia. We were researching the Indochina and Southeast Asia component of the first study of ICT use in the region. Commissioned by the International Development and Research Centre (IDRC)2 the consultancy also required us to introduce the fledgling World Wide Web to universities, governments and telecommunications providers, to gauge their interest and possible uptake. The end result was the landmark PAN Asia Report3.

Twenty two years later I find myself in rural India. You would expect such canopies of raw data and electricity in abundance here, but they barely exist. Where such an entanglement would thrive is instead progressively drawn by invisible weaves of unlicensed wireless communications, broadband internet and clusters of licensed spectrum that host today’s digital telephony. Book-ending the PAN Asia Report of sorts I find myself writing and directing a film with the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF). It is about the impact these technologies are making on communities where one is only considered literate if you can write your name, where local and traditional knowledge is undervalued and where ancient prejudices continue to undermine the lives of women, farmers and people of tribal or lower caste origins.

A rare wheelchair accessible community facility in Vijay Mandir, Alwar, Rajasthan.

A rare wheelchair accessible community facility in Vijay Mandir, Alwar, Rajasthan.

I am still carrying a laptop, video camera, fine tipped pens and a journal. I am also carrying a smart phone which I use as a wireless hub and a tablet for my e-books, music and some research. No more need for hard-wired jacking into cable infrastructure. Just enough coin for pre-paid broadband. “Times”, as Bob Dylan famously sang4, “they are-a-changing” for the people of rural India as they have done for me.

This is a personal observation of the diversity of DEFs vision and practice; far-reaching and reflexive initiatives focused through the lens of digital exclusion within the information divide and the work the Foundation does to reach the unreachable. For theirs is a right to access the internet and the right to know how to share their stories and knowledge there.

An information divide

It was at the 11th face-to-face Association for Progressive Communications (APC)5 Council meeting that I met Osama Manzar. Held on Panglao Island in the Philippines, it was less than a fortnight since the 2011 tsunami devastated Japan’s east coast. Many of us were still uneasy about the consequences of the tragedy. Amid the concern one face stood out. Osama was setting up a small stall of saris and other fabrics from Chanderiyaan, one of DEFs many projects. DEF was at that time new to the APC. We were to find we had much in common, much to share and learn from each other.

The DEF, Osama explained, is an organisation dedicated to bridging the information divide in India.

Osama explained that India was not lacking in information richness, only the means to share it. That such an ancient culture with so many people, with such historical significance was not yet able to disseminate its information to the world India was creating its own information divide, both internally and externally. Until it has the where-with-all to do so, Osama continued, how could it expect to contribute to our planet, to perhaps influence the governance and care of it in ways that could be fruitful to all?

In January 2015 I arrived in India and would see the information divide and the consequences of it for myself, visiting rural regions where vast populations live within meagre means and with few aspirations other than surviving from one harvest season to the next. It is near incomprehensible to come to grips with the fact that over a quarter of the population, a controversial figure at best, stills lives below the poverty line. The official figures list 21.9%6 of Indians are subject to below poverty line status, however rice subsides via a national food security scheme are made to support a massive 67%7, figures that may raise the poverty line presently under review8.

Highway-Smog

Millions tolerate air pollution as urbanity and industrialisation reaches out across rural India.

Either way there are millions of people with little to no access to education with few means to know their own rights let alone their own country. Community radio stations who would otherwise reach many of these people struggle to access licenses and where there is no electricity, no one has had the foresight to provide telephony let alone internet access there.

Having grown up in the small and once remote village of Islampur in the West Champaran district of the state of Bihar, Osama recognised both the information divide and the opportunity it presented; the very few had access to everything, the many to very little. Osama established the Foundation to reach the unreachable many.

25% of India's population remains without to electricity (World Bank, 2014).

25% of India’s population remains without to electricity (World Bank, 2014).

The Foundation’s plan is to use what ever creative, strategic and entrepreneurial means to encourage, stimulate and mobilise a billion people digitally literate people by 2020. That’s one billion people presently considered illiterate, one billion unaware of their rights and least of all their right to know that they indeed have rights, a billion people to reach. Being digitally literate does not mean one needs a computer and internet connection in your home, but the means to know how to make use of the internet, where to access it from. It’s quite a vision.

1 Pactok was a low-cost electronic mail network founded in 1991 serving community groups and non-government organisations working in and / or based in the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia. It operated custom built store-and-forward software for both Pactok hubs and nodes. Nodes would dial hubs which would in-turn dial the Pactok server in Sydney, which would in turn make a UUCP connection to Pegasus Networks further up the Australian east coast. Pegasus would then transfer all international messages from Pactok to and from its partner APC (Association for Progressive Communications) networks world-wide. Much of the Pactok network was automated with calls placed at scheduled intervals. An article published in 1996 described Pactok as looking “for ways to explore cyberspace’s promise of publishing without a printing press with little more than a computer and a phone line (Fogg, 1996). The last Pactok hub, Pacific Media Watch based in Fiji, was decommissioned in 1999. http://goo.gl/G6L0DM

2 The IDRC is a Canadian based aid and development agency. The PAN Asia Network Report was commissioned by their Singapore office.

3 Garton, A. Parikh, J. Nanda, S. Fernandez, L. (1994) ‘PAN Asia Networking Report’, International Development and Research Centre, Singapore / Canada, ISBN 981006389X

4 The Times They Are A-Changin, Dylan, Bob. Released 1964 on Columbia Records.

5 The Association for Progressive Communications is an international network of organizations that was founded in 1990 to provide communication infrastructure, including Internet-based applications, to groups and individuals who work for peace, human rights, protection of the environment, and sustainability. Pioneering the use of ICTs for civil society, especially in developing countries, APC were often the first providers of Internet in their member countries. http://www.apc.org/

6 Plan commission to use Tendulkar approach for measuring poverty, Rao, Kirthi. LiveMint.com, Aug 8, 2012 http://goo.gl/NPc6w9

7 A new poverty line that shows 67% of India is poor, Kaul, Vivek. Firstpost.com, Jul 30, 2013. http://goo.gl/xtx1gU

8 New poverty line: Rs 32 in villages, Rs 47 in cities, Sing, Mahendra Kumar. The Times of India, Jul 7, 2014. http://goo.gl/mcxyWj