The eldest of six children – four sisters and two brothers — Kavita Devi is the editor in chief of Khabar Lahariya, a news website that focuses on rural news told from a feminist perspective. Started in 2002 as a Bundeli newspaper, KL employs Dalit, Muslim, adivasi and Other Backward Class women as reporters and editors. At one point, the paper had eight editions in five languages, and sold in eight districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. However, rising newsprint costs made it difficult to sustain the paper, and KL has reinvented itself as a digital platform, with subscription-based shows. Devi, who has been associated with KL since its early days, speaks to HT about the immense change KL has brought, not only in the lives of its journalists, but the people it reaches.
Tell us a bit about your childhood.
I was born in a small village called Kunjan Purwa in Chitrakoot district. My parents were farmers, both were unlettered. I would do all the housework, and help in the fields. Going to a school was almost like a crime for girls. There is a saying in Bundeli: “Pade likhe se kucchh na hoi, hal jothe se berra hoi” (Nothing comes of studying, grains only grow through ploughing the field). In fact, at that time, there wasn’t even a primary school in my village. No one in my family — my cousins — went to school. The main thing was to get married, so I too was married off at 12. I stayed with my mother, and only went to my in-laws’ home when I was 15. People nowadays get so excited about weddings, but I never knew that. Sometimes I wish I too had felt that excitement.
I would fetch wood from the nearby jungle. I looked after the cattle in our house, fed them, cleaned them up, collected dung. I washed the dishes, and swept the house. In Bundelkhand, the oldest girl takes care of all the housework. When my father would go to plough the field, I would accompany him. When it was time for harvesting the grain, I would help in that. Carry the grains back home. I never thought about studying.
How did you come to journalism? Wasn’t it an unusual choice for women in rural and small-town India?
A non-government organization that ran the Mahila Samakhya (a government of India programme launched in 1989 in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat) opened a centre in my village to teach girls and women who had not gone to school. I heard about it at the communal tap while filling water and I thought I must go. But when I told my family members that I wished to go regularly they said, ‘Why? You’re not going to become the DM [district magistrate]’. Nevertheless, I would finish all my work by afternoon and then go to the centre. That’s where I learnt many things, starting with how to write my name, and the village, district and town I lived in.
I got an opportunity to attend a residential camp for the good students. At first, my father flatly refused to let me attend it. I convinced two village girls, Savitri and Khullu, to go to the camp with me, and left when my father was not at home. So, in the evening he came [to the camp], with the girls’ parents. Much drama ensued. The two girls returned, but I refused to leave. The next day, the NGO workers took me home, spoke to my parents, and convinced them to let me study. I was 13 around this time.
Though I have studied till my Masters now, I have never had a similar experience to the learning I received in those six months. I learnt math, science, social science, biology, feminist thinking – we were taught so much. Even today, I derive my strength from those six months of study.
During my intermediary year, I worked in a brick kiln in Punjab to pay off a debt that I had taken for my husband’s surgery. When I returned, I gave my exams and joined Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper that Nirantar, an NGO, had started. This was in 2002. In the beginning, I was both an administrator as well as a journalist. I had know idea what journalism was. We were given basic training — how to write, how to click photos. We never received papers in our home, everyone was unlettered. Even if papers would come to our village, it was the men who would read them, not women. They wouldn’t let women read. My in-laws were unlettered too, so no papers there. I read a paper for the first time when I joined the training for Khabar Lahariya.
What was your first story about?
My first story was about the ‘Moohnochwa’ rumour. Like the recent rumours of child-lifters, where innocent, poor and vulnerable people were beaten up simply on suspicion that they may be a kidnapper, at that time, there was a rumour of some sort of beast that would take a person’s face or arm away, while they were asleep. So I wrote about how this is a suspicion, and it wasn’t possible for something to just take away a person’s arm, or face.
What sort of pieces do you do now?
We’re trying to be an independent media business, so we now sell a subscription for our exclusive reporting on rural youth. I have a show called The Kavita Show, where I share my views and opinions about various issues. I also recently did a story about how the healthy fat grains like bajra (sorghum), sawa, jowar, kakun, kodo (types of millets), which we would eat growing up are fast disappearing from the diets of farmers today. Today, they’re mostly growing rice or wheat. The children ask for Chowmein or burger, and so no one grows this anymore. In my locality, where I grew up, they don’t grow kakun or kodo anymore. People need to recall how healthy these grains were. What I am not about to do a story about, I talk about it in my show. There’s such a difference in the way that I think today. When I visited Delhi recently, I saw that people here were eating Sawa and other millets and it was being sold in expensive packages. I grew up eating this, and today, the rich are eating it, but the farmers have stopped doing that.
Nowadays there is so much violence, it’s difficult to keep track of all the stories now — violence between communities, between men and women. Compared to when I was growing up, there are so many more instances of women being raped, set on fire, hanging themselves, in the area I live in. I feel that social media has a big role to play in spreading rumours. So many innocent women were beaten up, and some were killed in the recent panic about ‘witches’ who were kidnapping children. Imagine the violence if there was social media during the Moohnochwa rumour in the early 2000s. Of course, social media has also helped immensely. It depends on how you use it.
What were the challenges that you faced as a woman journalist?
People would not think of me as a journalist — how can women become journalists? That’s not their job. They should be home, taking care of children, doing what the man of the house asks them to do. So initially people would chase us out, and not give us information. Being a Dalit and a woman journalist, that was an even greater crime! The officials wouldn’t talk to us. We would keep going back to them for comments/ quotes. And if they refused, we’d write that they refused. Now, the threats have changed. People troll us online, and make personal comments.
We never backed down. One of the stories we carried was about a woman who was killed by her in-laws, who belonged to the influential Thakur clan. The reporter, an Adivasi woman, was abused and threatened. No other media had written this piece. We did. Once, I had written a story about how a panchayat head had not utilised funds to develop a village. After it was published, the pradhan drew his knife at me. I told him, I was not a resident of his village, I had written about what people had said. I had even got the officials to comment. If he wanted to rebut, he should write in our paper. I was very scared, but I dealt with it.
We had to shut down the paper, because it was getting too expensive to publish. At one time, we printed in four languages, including Awadhi and Bhojpuri. We didn’t have agents to seek advertising the way that other local papers or channels did. We began to turn to the web. Now we are able to reach out to crores of people. Every village has smartphones, and people sit in groups and watch.