Creating Technology for Social Change

Old School Civic Media: Newsboards in Calcutta

While growing up in Calcutta, every day, while going to school, I would see a group of people having an animated conversation near the bus stop. They would be gathered around a long board made of weaved bamboo strips, on which the day’s newspaper would be pasted – all the pages one after the other, in a horizontal line. Some would be simply silently reading the various articles, but more often than not, there will be a group of people, with tea and snacks from the roadside tea stall nearby, engaged in an active discussion around the day’s news. It was an everyday occurrence, and as I explored the city further, I realized that similar newsboards were scattered all over – near busy bus stops, tea stalls, and occasionally, near religious temples. There was something different about the newspaper that was pasted on the newsboard – it was not a standard commercial newspaper – it was “Ganashakti” (translated as “Power of the people”), the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The CPI(M) was the largest constituent party in the Left Front coalition that was in power in the state. This meant that the news items and the op-eds in the newspaper were definitely not neutral – but the fact that it was free to read, and that copies were physically situated in strategic locations throughout the city meant that it became daily reading material and a center of discourse for a wide range of people. All sorts of people – starting from the office worker going on his daily commute, to the roadside fruit seller taking a break, to the retired gentleman out on his morning walk, would read “Ganashakti” everyday.

Fast forward a decade, and the winds of political change could be felt in the city and the state. After over thirty years in power, the Left Front government seemed to be on its way out. There was widespread dissent and protests on the various policies of the government. The impending change was being reflected in the newsboards too. New newsboards began to spring up. “Jaago Bangla” (translated as “Arise from your slumber, Bengal”) – the weekly mouthpiece of the then in opposition Trinamool Congress Party started to show up on those newsboards. The Trinamool had appropriated from the CPI(M), the way of reaching out to the common people on a regular basis. The Indian Express described the process as taking a “leaf out of CPM(s) book”. Indeed, with many of the newsboards located side by side, one could see a visible shift of readers from one newsboard to the other. Soon enough, the shift made itself visible in the electoral process as well, and in the 2011 state assembly poll, the Trinamool Congress swept to power, with a massive victory over the Left Front.