Khabar Lahariya: Tale of India’s Only All-Women Newsroom in 2022 Oscars Race

'Writing with Fire', which traces Khabar Lahariya’s journey, is among the top 15 films in the Docu Feature category.

6 min read
Hindi Female

(This story was first published on 25 December 2021. It has been republished from The Quint's archives after 'Writing With Fire' made it to the final nomination list for Oscars 2022.)

Farmers in Naugawan village in Uttar Pradesh's Banda district struggled without canal water for the last 20 years. They failed to irrigate their crops, suffered massive losses – all while media and the administration turned a blind eye to it. Until the all women-run news organisation – Khabar Lahariya – decided to tell their story.

Armed with a mobile phone, mic and a small tripod, reporter Geeta Devi visited their village and produced a video that was uploaded on their YouTube page. Within days, the district administration fixed the canal – and water flowed, bringing life and prosperity to the farmers of the region.

A documentary film on Khabar Lahariya’s journey 'Writing with Fire' has made it to the Oscars race as one of the top 15 films that could win the Documentary Feature category.

Made by Delhi-based filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, the documentary drew attention when it won Special Jury (Impact for Change) and Audience Awards at Sundance Film Festival in January. The duo have picked 28 international awards for their storytelling since then.

But more impressive than the film is the story of how the women, all from marginalised communities, run the news organisation in rural Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.


When Reporters Doubled as Salespersons

Khabar Lahariya was launched as a fortnightly in 2002 by Nirantar Trust, a New Delhi-based NGO, and co-founded by Kavita – who was from the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. A small team of six women wrote produced the newspaper in Bundeli and Hindi languages – covering local issues.

In the first few years, the reporters doubled as salespersons for the newspaper. While the edition was printed in the then Allahabad (nearest city), they would collect the copies and distribute it across Chitrakoot and Banda districts, where the newspaper had its roots.

In March 2004, just two years after the newspaper was first launched, it won the Chameli Devi Jain Award – an annual honour for outstanding women journalists in the country – one of the first-of-its-kind recognitions for the women who stood out in male-dominated rural districts of UP.

During the initial years, support for the newspaper came from Dorabji Tata Trust and United Nations Democracy and Equity Fund – with the former helping them transition into digital.

'Writing with Fire', which traces Khabar Lahariya’s journey, is among the top 15 films in the Docu Feature category.
“News is not just the headlines of what is there on big newspapers, but a hand-pump which is broken in a village that is 50 km away from the district headquarters. That’s an equally important news too,” Disha, co-founder of Chambal Media, the umbrella company of which Khabar Lahariya is a part of, explains in a video.

True to that, their reporters focus on micro-issues in the regions it operates, stories of violence against women and marginalised communities, and exposing administrative inadequacies.


The Women Behind the Newspaper

One of the reporters who has been an integral part of the newsroom is Meera – who joined the newspaper as a local reporter around 2003, to help fund her education.

"What kind of job is this that means you have to stay out so late? You can’t do this work – tell them you won’t be coming back tomorrow. What will the other villagers say if they hear that you are out on your own at this time?” Meera told The Guardian in 2016, recalling what her parents said.

Meera and fellow reporter Kavita were returning after interviewing their subjects in a village 70 km away.

“I couldn’t speak back then, the way I’m speaking to you now. I was quiet, used to doing what I was told. Kavita was the one who spoke to my family, and convinced them to let me keep working,” she told The Guardian in 2016.

Today, Meera is the Managing Editor at Khabar Lahariya, with more than 18 years of experience as a journalist and the protagonist in the Oscar-shortlisted documentary. She specialises in investigative journalism and policy reporting, and has her own show Rajneeti, Ras, Raay.

A Banda local, Kavita is also the region's first Dalit woman anchor to host her own news and views weekly – The Kavita Show. Today, she is the Editor-in-Chief, and the only Dalit member of the Editors Guild of India.

The newspaper has since its inception drawn staff from historically marginalised communities, including Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims – with many of them considered 'illiterate' before they started working for the newspaper.

Battling Gender, Caste Stereotypes

Apart from battling and convincing their families to pursue journalism, these journalists from Khabar Lahariya are also fighting every day sexism and caste bias.

Speaking to The Quint in 2018, Kavita explained how even being in WhatsApp groups meant for news, was a task for these women.

“For every 200 to 250 men only Khabar Lahariya reporters are the ladies. Media waale mard bohut line maarne ki koshish karte hain, bolna padhta hain ki humaari shaadi ho chuki hain, bachche hain. Nahin to maante nahi hain.” (Men from the media keep hitting on women. Have to keep telling them we are married and have kids. Otherwise they do not back off.)

Porn clips, naked and morphed photos of women are sent on ‘news groups,’ both Kavita and Meera told The Quint, adding that these men often download their DPs and send it back to them after ‘beautifying’ it.

“There are male reporters who are very capable of pulling this off considering how little they think of us. They don’t think of us as reporters but as women,” Kavita said.

In the trailer of the documentary, Meera echoes their general mindset when she says – “A Dalit woman as a journalist is unimaginable.” Taunts about how women cannot be journalists is almost an everyday battle for these women.

“Navratres were on... so one of the men said that Durga Ma has eight hands and not even one has a mobile phone. Aadmi mazza lete hain. (Men derive pleasure out of this) They think they can talk to women in anyway and we will not react to them,” Meera said.

The Digital Way

In 2013, Khabar Lahariya launched their website. In 2015, they switched to being a digital-first organisation, working under the umbrella of Chambal Media.

"Our revenue at the moment comes from being commissioned to create rural content, programmatic advertising and subscription to exclusive content. We actively solicit content and brand partnerships with like-minded agencies which support the idea of independent, local media," the organisation has declared on their website.

The entire management – from strategy to communication – all still headed by women. Being one of the early adapters, Khabar Lahariya benefitted from the digital revolution.

“If we don’t adapt, we don’t survive,” also says Meera, in the film’s trailer, where she is seen training journalists on using mobile phones for shooting.

From having 80,000 readers from 8,000 copies printed, according to a Medium report, Khabar Lahariya now boasts of reaching 10 million people – through various social media platforms.

The news organisation has more than 4.5 million subscribers on YouTube – where 60 percent of audience are from the 14 districts they function in and about another 20 percent from the region’s diaspora in India’s capital cities, the Medium report added.

With reporters spread in the remotest parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, Khabar Lahariya focusses on bringing multimedia stories that are reported, shot, and produced – all by women belonging to marginalised communities.

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Topics:  Journalism   Women   Dalit Activism 

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