Empowering The ?EUR(TM)Hood

Published Date
01 - Jan - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Jan - 2005
Empowering The ’Hood
When a non-government organisation (NGO) and a society for alternate education come together, a unique venture like the "Cybermohalla" takes form. Cybermohalla's main aims include making youngsters aged between 15 and 21 in Delhi's non-elite localities conversant with computers and helping them unleash their creativity while documenting the daily happenings in the basti.

Sarai, the NGO, is a research organisation that looks at different ways that social media and emerging technology can be used to eliminate social inequality. Ankur-the society for alternatives in education-has, for the past two decades, been experimenting with various opportunities available to youngsters. Ankur works mainly in the marginalised communities of Delhi, primarily with children, adolescents and women, and they were the ones to approach Sarai to set up Cybermohalla, a move lapped up wholeheartedly by Sarai.

The Project
The Cybermohalla project has its presence mainly in Delhi, and is now being extended to parts of Gujarat as well. Located in the Lok Nayak Jay Prakash (LNJP), Dakshinpuri and Nanglamachi areas of Delhi, the movement is slowly gathering momentum. The project works with young people in slum areas and working class neighbourhoods. It enables innovative use of computers and digital technology while remaining alert to the imperatives of social and cultural specificity and autonomy.

Started in May 2001, the project has enabled youngsters in the age group of 15 to 21 to come together and reflect on and write about everyday life as they experience it. These youngsters, or "Media Practitioners," as Prabhat, an Ankur representative, addresses them, meet regularly in self-regulated spaces called "Compughars" or Mohalla Media Labs. "We encourage young adults to come and spend their time in these labs and acquire different computer and technology-related skills," says Prabhat.

A year later, the kids are trained in basic computing and multimedia techniques using the free GNU Linux

When they started off, these media practitioners were neither proficient in English nor did they have any computer-handling experience. Today, a year later, they are trained in basic computing and multimedia techniques, using the free GNU Linux.

Tools at work
Students at the media lab use tools such as computers, dictaphones, cameras, pens and notebooks, with which they conduct interviews, record sounds of the basti, take photographs and transfer their world as words and images onto the computer. They come together to reflect upon their lives and to share their realities with each other.

The Cybermohalla diaries takes several forms including written text, images and audio fragments. There are several derivatives of the project:

The "Compughar Diaries" is a form of expression for students, and is maintained by everyone. These diaries are the starting points that help generate concepts to create a presentation, a movie or even a documentary. Sound archives include sound bytes from the city, interviews, readings from the diaries and more, while the image archives comprises photographs of the basti, their own city and even other cities.

Going techno-savvy, there are hyperlink diaries that are the conversion of the Compughar's flow of concepts and observations through hyperlinked notes, web-enabled through www.sarai.net.

The Wheels That Turn The Clock 
A typical Cybermohalla Compughar machine
Intel Celeron 1.1 GHz
128 MB RAM
Onboard Intel 810 graphics card
Onboard Intel 801 audio card
Realtek 10/100
network card
PS/2 keyboard
Optical mouse
15" colour monitor
Applications used on the machines
CD burning: k3b
Word processing: Open Office
Desktop publishing: Scribus
Email: KMail/Thunderbird
Graphics: GIMP, Inkscape, Blender
Audio playback: XMMS, AmaroK, JuK
Audio editing: Audacity, Ardour
Video playback: mPlayer, Xing
Video editing: Cinelerra, KdEnlive, Kino, JahShaka
Instant messaging: GAIM, Yahoo! Messenger, Xchat
Web browsing: Mozilla, Firefox, Konqueror, Opera
Web editing: Mozilla Composer, NVU
Games: Tuxracer, Chromium, Lbreakout2, XBill, GnuChess (Xboard)

There are also animations that are included in the projects, which are done using GNU Image Manipulation Programs (GIMP). Publications made at the Compughar include wall magazines called "Ibarat," produced every two months and displayed at over 20 places in the basti.

Youngsters associated with the project have acquired considerable skill in handling computers, digital cameras, audio recorders and scanners, and have created short animated movies and basic HTML projects using free software applications. Their writings, photographs, sound recordings and animations have been published as a Compughar book, a compilation of ten booklets, five postcards and a CD.
The People
Representatives from Ankur and Sarai were reluctant to take credit for their work. "At Sarai, we are constantly looking at ways to help eliminate creative inequality in our society.

When Ankur approached us with the Cybermohalla project, we thought it was a good way of reaching out to the non-elite, albeit important, spaces within our society," says Jeebesh Bhagchi of Sarai.

Today, there are about 60 people involved in the various projects of Cybermohalla. "Initially, what started off as a pilot project has now extended to many localities within Delhi. Peer-to-peer networking with sustained efforts from our end has resulted in the success of Cybermohalla," says Prabhat from Ankur.

The Media Practitioners here are an interesting group. Seventeen-year-old Luv Anand from the Dakshinpuri lab is here because he was initially a part of Ankur's "Balclub" project.

A student of Class XII, Luv was introduced to Cybermohalla by Vikram, another media practitioner. "I like media lab because it helps me experiment with text, images and sound. We try to see what others cannot in the regular occurrences like fights at the mohalla and present them in a creative way using computers."

Tripan Kumar alias Raju has been with the Media Lab for the past two-and-a-half years, and has enjoyed every moment of it.

He is just 19, and is also studying for his class XII exam, from an open school.

Raju, though, is not the only computer-literate member of his family. "My sister is also attending a computer course," he says. "I am here everyday from 10 am to 4 pm. I like fiddling with the computer and have also opened the CPU once," says Raju.

Of late, Raju has been training on Windows Movie Maker with the help of Emma, a Swede helping the students at the Dakshinpuri media lab. "I have made a three-minute film using some of the photos Emma gave us," he adds.

In The Lab... 
Hardware in the media labs ranges from Celeron 566 MHz machines with 128 MB of RAM to Pentium IV 2.4 GHz machines with 256 MB of RAM. A media lab typically has a few machines networked with each other, and a dial-up connection to the Internet. Extra hardware includes inkjet printers, scanners and CD writers.
Associated hardware that the labs use for their work includes digital cameras (Sony Powershots), Sony MiniDisc recorders, low-cost 35mm cameras, dictaphones, microphones and sound mixers.
In addition to the Compughars, a special R&D lab has been set up that uses a Pentium IV 3 GHz server with
1GB of RAM to provide a thin client network using Linux Terminal Server Projects. Additionally, the R&D lab has a dedicated audio workstation.
The labs run a special version of Gentoo GNU/Linux on their computer. They use KDE for their desktop environment and have the choice of working in Hindi or English. They can also choose to work in the GNOME, XFCE and icewm environments. The labs write text in Hindi using the UNICODE specification, and use a phonetic keymap called "BolNagri" developed by Sarai.

Kulwinder Kaur, or Pinky as she is known, is the co-ordinator at the Dakshinpuri media lab. At 15, she is responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the lab. "It is my duty to designate work, see who is handling what equipment and keep track of the happenings," explains Pinky. She also organises events for people within the mohalla that have eventually become projects for those at the media lab.

The Future
A common element amongst all associated with the Cybermohalla is selflessness. Everybody associated would like it to continue the way it is and for as long as possible.

As far as the program itself is concerned, Ankur now plans to extend it work to regions beyond Delhi. In August, a team of Mohalla Media Lab Practitioners (Lakhmi, Yashoda and Prabhat) visited Ahmedabad to help set up "Urja Ghar," an Oxfam project where "locality media labs" would be set up for writing about the locality.

For two weeks in September, a team comprising representatives from Ankur and Sarai spent time with a group in England to participate in the processes of their lab and share some of the practices from Compughar labs in Delhi.

The interaction resulted in the setting up of an online journal where people can post diary entries about personal experiences and hobbies to create public awareness. This was to further spread the reach of the Cybermohalla.

Although the road seems long and arduous, the first steps have been taken.  

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