By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI, Jan 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Covering elections in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, seen as the country's key battleground state, is generally a test for journalists for its intrigue and drama.
No one is more prepared for the upcoming poll than the all-woman, all-Dalit team of 'Khabar Lahariya' (News Wave), a regional-language weekly that reports from some of the state's most disadvantaged areas that do not generally make the news.
It was founded in 2002 by a non-profit group, Nirantar, that works in women's literacy and with low-caste Dalits, who are on the bottom rung of India's social hierarchy and find little representation in the media.
"The mainstream media only carried stories about the big cities, and the reporters were mostly educated, English-speaking men belonging to upper castes," said co-founder Shalini Joshi.
"Dalit women are the most marginalised, so we made a conscious decision to only hire them, so they could report news that is truly local," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Initially, six women with some basic education were hired in Chitrakoot in southern Uttar Pradesh, and trained to report and write stories, and take pictures.
The publication was printed every week in the nearest big city, Allahabad, five hours away by road. From a print circulation of about 10,000 copies, readership has grown with the digital shift, Joshi said.
Published in the local languages of Bundeli, Awadhi and Bhojpuri, the topics range from dowries and farmer compensation to politics and cricket.
"To people in these districts, English and Hindi are the languages of the elite, of those in power, whereas the local language is seen as second-class," Joshi said.
Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, also has among the highest crime rates, with violence rife against women and lower-caste people.
The month-long Uttar Pradesh polls starting Feb. 11 will see Mayawati, a former leader known as the Dalit Queen, pitted against the ruling party.
Khabar Lahariya's reporters struggled initially, as they would not be invited to press conferences, and their calls not be returned, Joshi said.
But they persisted, taking on politicians and local leaders. There are now 30 women reporters in 10 districts in the state.
"It's very hard to be a journalist there, (especially for) a woman of a lower caste. They have been threatened and intimidated many times," Joshi said.
Dalits and other lower-caste people make up nearly a fourth of India's 1.3 billion population.
As far back as 1996, Kenneth J. Cooper, then a reporter for the Washington Post in India, wrote about being unable to find a single Dalit journalist in the country.
Ten years later, a survey found no Dalits among more than 300 senior figures in the media.
Meanwhile, Khabar Lahariya plans to expand to more districts in Uttar Pradesh, and other states including Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Joshi said.
"After all these years, they are still the only Dalit women journalists in their districts," she said.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)