Cybermohalla, a project conceived and run by Sarai (Centre for Study of Developing Societies) and Ankur (Society for Alternatives in Education), invited youth from Delhi’s low-income settlements to reflect on their daily life-contexts, using basic computers. The project set in motion a unique empowerment process, as it explored the democratising possibilities of cyber-technology. The young people engaged seriously and generated multiple narratives, recording a wide range of events, ideas, perceptions and emotions– knowledge products that circulated via local cable networks, blogs, email-lists, social media, wall magazines, journals, art installations, diaries, booklets, books and the world-wide web. Spanning a decade from 2001 onwards, Cyber-mohalla enabled hitherto marginalised ‘digital outcastes’ to become sophisticated media practitioners, reaching out from their humble mohallas (neighbourhoods) to global audiences.

Cybermohalla demystified and placed `the machine’ at the service of the community, adapting and indigenising the internet, helping its young practitioners to evolve and share unique local perspectives. In doing so, it challenged stereotypical notions of computer literacy and use, and set new agendas for new media and communication. Domesticating technology, it helped constitute the “digital glocalised”(1) – using techno-capitalism for local purposes, simultaneously nurturing what Ravi Sundaram, Sarai, sees as a “truly international sensitivity”.

Localising cyber-technology, unleashing creativity

The Cybermohalla project played upon the meaning of mohalla – a settlement with lanes and bylanes, alleys and corners — as a means of talking about one’s `place’ in the city. Four computer labs were set up, three within three mohallas, and one at Ankur. Each compu-lab was called a `compughar’ – literally, `computer home’: it had three computers, portable audio recorders (dictaphones) and cameras (digital and bromide print), and 15 to 20 young people working regularly, five days a week.

Artist Mrityunjoy Chatterjee, part of the Sarai team and active with Cybermohalla during 2001-07, recalls, “We began in LNJP Colony, with a second-hand computer. Most youngsters had never used a computer, and didn’t know English well. Yet it took barely a week for them to learn how to operate the computer, and key in text. Recognition of alphabets was the only qualification needed! Using commands was never a problem, since signage is more important than words such as `Open’ or `Save’. It took another week for them to pick up the basics of image-making.”

The Sarai team worked hard to localise computer software. They made a manual How to Use the Computer, which was useful in the initial phase. Software was made compatible for use in Hindi, a critical requirement, since typically English is the language of the computer, posing a major barrier to access. Linux free software was used. Basic technologies were adapted, a process Sarai calls “Indic-localisation – adapting software and computing systems to the specific cultural habits of a region. Once they’d picked up the basics, young people began generating content. Practice was their way of learning: there was no formal course, and no separation between learning and doing. Soon enough, they began creating fresh cross-media stories, broadsheets, videos etc. The environment was friendly and enabling, with learning resources and facilitators close at hand to discuss ideas and help clear technical barriers. Each centre was self-regulated, run by the local youth.

At LNJP Colony, the young people put up a poster, spelling out what they felt, and did: “…At Compughar, techonology is not a terror, neither is it expensive…. There is an open environment. Here we write what we feel. Whatever we write, we type onto the computer. This is not a place where we young people and kids are under any kind of pressure. We say what we want to, ask what we wish to ask. Here, there isn’t any kind of competition. We work on three things – text, sound and image…. What do we write about? For instance, `What is fear, why we feel it, what causes it.’… [and] stories about our basti (neighbourhood), interviews with our neighbours, and our experiences. It is with these that we work on the computers. For these we go into the basti to take photographs around different themes….”

Building multi-media content

The young cyber-practitioners generated content on local realities – slices of life from the streets, homes, barber’s stall, ration shop, playground or school. Daily life was looked at with new eyes, noting significance, nuance and detail, voicing doubts, questions, insights… playing about with meaning, light, image and words. Their abilities and products grew exponentially, and so did their confidence. Several youth were school irregulars or dropouts; they learnt about computers from scratch. Smriti Vohra, who edited Compughar content for Sarai Readers (2006 and 2007), notes, “The text was very beautiful…. The most compelling thing about Cybermohalla, for me, was the way young people presented their basti realities. Over the years, they learnt so much: it was incredibly sophisticated.” The formal education system had `failed’ many such youngsters, who were alienated from the economy and world at large, with little earning power or hope for the future. Yet, provided with a respectful learning environment, they proved capable of unlimited creativity. They gained a sense of worth and confidence, realising, “What I think, who I am, matters.”

The young practitioners grew immensely, as they discovered they could write well, think clearly, and articulate their experiences and understanding of life. Individual voices emerged, with their own styles of expression, sometimes wry, sometimes angry or lyrical, as Ayesha’s in the following passage: “Time stands still when water runs out and the tap is dry. Time stands still when electricity goes. Time stands still when one sleeps in the afternoon. Time stands still when one sits in class in school. Time stands still when you can’t afford to go out and have a good time.”(2)

A budding writer would document fights over water at the community tap, another described a macabre accident: “This road asks for one sacrifice every year, people say. Ten years back, there was a woman who was pregnant. She was crossing the road with her daughter when a bus came and the girl was run over. She came under the tyre of the bus. She pulled hard at her mother and she fainted, screaming. And why wouldn’t she have, I saw this with my own eyes. When I saw the girl, she didn’t have eyes and her head had become flattened against the road. I can still see that face clearly and then the whole incident gets replayed in my head. Then police arrested the bus driver and friends and relatives of the woman broke the bus.”(3)

Cybermohalla’s varied output circulated via the internet, finding an audience not just in the city but also in different parts of the world. An `imagined community’ was created, connecting urban slum-dwelling youth with others, people interested in learning about intimate realities of life in inner-city India. Rooted in generative contexts of local intellectual life, it engaged in a constant making, questioning, and refashioning of specific location(s). The resulting multi-layered archives were open and participatory, collecting information and at the same time asking new questions about society and politics.

Cybermohalla thus became an important player in public space. Its writings and images form a rich database of narrative, comment, observation, imaginative play and reflection on the contested circumstances of life in the sprawling urban metropolis of Delhi.

Recording experiences, articulating rights

Sharmila Bhagat, Director of Ankur, notes, “For us Cybermohalla is important as a part of our entire programme, not in isolation. We’ve worked in Delhi bastis for over 30 years now. Cybermohalla helped deepen some dimensions of our work, by bringing the perceptions of young people to a wider audience, making basti experiences visible to the world outside.”

Cybermohalla highlighted ways in which the urban poor experience the government, recording in painful detail, for instance, how people of Nangla Machi were evicted to procure the site for apartments during the Commonwealth Games (2010). Suraj Rai wrote, “It takes many years for a place to become a settlement, but a settlement is barren in merely two days…People are watching houses being pulled down. Each time dust rises when a house falls, they don’t turn away. They seem to be trying to take it all in. They had plastered the walls and roofs of their houses with their memories. Today those memories have turned into dust and are spreading out in the air.”

Prabhat Jha (Ankur) and Jeebesh Bagchi (Sarai) described how Cybermohalla practitioners of Nangla Machi documented the eviction process: “They talked to people daily. They recorded innumerable voices. They collected documents as evidence for court proceedings. They debated on how to frame the desolate topography of abandonment, of destruction. They visited evictees in their new houses and shelters being erected pole-by-pole and mat-by-mat, in other areas. They travelled long distances to look at the barren promised land of resettlement. They sat inside the stripped, empty lab, and talked with visitors about the approaching ‘new’ city. They wrote, translated and shared their impressions of this event with the wider world through a blog….”

The Nangla Machi blog recorded the destruction of Nangla Machi in August 2006, and subsequent processes of rebuilding, beginning anew in Ghevra, some 50 kilometres away, where the government allotted tiny plots of land to 900 families. The writings are poignant; several pieces were later edited to form part of a book, Trickster City (2010, Penguin). The writings critique state policy astutely, precisely, and fairly irrefutably. The state, as recorded by local intelligentsia, used sinister, Kafkaesque procedures – for instance several families (in Nangla Machi) lost forever their right to a plot of land (in Ghevra) because their doors happened to be locked on the one day that officials came to Nangal Machi for a survey.

As people articulated their issues clearly, they began to reclaim a sense of agency. Some months after people were evicted from Nangla Machi and resettled in Ghevra, another team of government surveyors came and threatened eviction (from Ghevra) for residents who were not present! This time, people resisted, saying, “…work makes us travel out of our settlements during the day. Had you let us know you were coming, everyone would have taken leave from work and been present in Ghevra for the survey.” The team of government officials was compelled to stay until all residents returned home from work, and to conduct the survey again, this time at night.

Describing the incident, Jaanu Nagar wrote(4) – “What makes someone silent, and when? It’s so hard to understand this. Sometimes people are fearful of teams of government officials, and at other times it is the officials who get frightened by the thought of what people might do. What makes government officials fearful?”

These are important questions. We see here a mode of cyber-activism – building countervailing power through the medium of a new counter-culture. Even when subject to the machinations of brute power, ordinary people realised that they can speak – and be heard.

Mohalla voices with global outreach

Young cyber-practitioners questioned not just policy on eviction and the exercise of bureaucratic power, but globalised development as such. Thus Nilofer wrote in August 2007, “To reach Ghevra you travel beyond Shakarpur and the big shopping malls and clubs, beyond the stretch of road where huge construction work continues. The journey challenges and asks us, `Where are you in this?’”

A small sub-section of Delhi’s underprivileged youth engaged in new cultural practices, rethinking and reimagining the fabric and infrastructure of cultural and intellectual life. Their voices may not be heeded by the state, or by the globalised corporate which carries on in arbitrary brutality. However, people were listening: public dialogue was generated, and wider discontent may indeed crystallise over time.

Among those inspired by Cybermohalla were artists from the Architectural Association in London. Led by Frankfurt-based architects Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller, they developed an installation, a cultural laboratory called Cybermohalla Hub, based on the existing cyber-labs. This prototypal `hub’ for a hybrid community centre, school, studio, archive and gallery, was shown at several venues including Vienna, Denmark and Delhi (Gurgaon and Ghevra, 2009). A book, Cybermohalla Hub (2012), edited by Hirsch and Shveta Sarda, presents insights from the whole project, with writings by Can Altay, Cybermohalla Ensemble (approximately 70 young Cybermohalla practitioners), Rana Dasgupta, Hu Fang, Naeem Mohaiemen, Hans Ulrich ObristJacques Rancière, Superflex, Nikolaus Hirsch, Shveta Sarda and Raqs Media Collective et al.

Core learnings

Cybermohalla is about the construction of knowledge by poor urban youth – about their realities. The self-organised labs manifested tactics of knowledge production outside any institutionalised consensus. They created a counter-model for education and communication, oriented towards participatory, emancipatory and collective modes. Public space was translated into space for reflection and challenging of hegemonic structures. In such a context, a multi-register “digitextuality” flourished – coding local culture in multiple languages, idiom and imagery, providing `reality shows’ that truly reflected the “matrix of cultural and intellectual life of a neighborhood”.(5)

In contrast to capitalist appropriations of internet, offering personalisation and customisation, Cybermohalla fostered communitarianisation via digital technology — extendingcommunity-feeling into the online environment. It created new cultural practices, reconfiguring cultural and micro-political levels of everyday life, generating new modes of collective, and building the virtual through the intimate and corporeal. This productive engagement with the ‘digital divide’ fore-grounded subaltern subjectivities, and created new media modes in which minorities, marginalised and often minimally literate persons could record their experiences.

Beginning as a critique of the dominant technological imagination and mediascape, Cybermohalla went on to map a counter strategy grounded in access, sharing and democratic extensibility. It was an experimental engagement with media technologies and software ‘tactically’, creating multiple local media contexts within the larger media network engendered by internet. It was at the same time an engagement with local history, experiences, modes of expression and creativity. In 2002, Bagchi wrote, “In its broadest imagination, one can see Cybermohalla as a desire for a wide and horizontal network (both real and virtual) of voices, texts, sounds and images in dialogue and debate. ‘Public’-ation modes are and will be as diverse as wall magazines, books, posters, stickers, web pages, audio streams, animation etc. The present technological juncture provides a possibility – the point is to actualise it.”(6)

Cybermohalla formally ended in 2010; within this time it succeeded in actualising the possibility – demonstrating the potential of democratised cyber-technology. Clearly, the experiment holds significant lessons for cyber-policy and practice. As Bhagat notes, “We at Ankur have integrated it into our basti programmes. Young people whose lives were touched by Cybermohalla carry on using what they learnt, and charting new directions. For instance Yashoda, one of the young cyber-practitioners, is now an independent author: her first book is under publication and will be out soon!”

Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a Delhi-based writer and academic. Her recent book is entitled Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur.

Endnotes

1) Nayar, Pramod K. 2007. ‘The Digital Globalized’. Writing Technologies 1 (1).

2) Ayesha, `Cybermohalla Diaries’, Sarai Reader 2002: The Cities of Everyday Life, p 178

3) Azra, Sarai Reader 2002, ibid, p 182

4) Jaanu Nagar, Making of Ghevra by Nangla Lab @ 08.07.2008

5) http://www.sarai.net/practices/cybermohalla

6) Jeebesh Bagchi, Sarai Reader 2002, ibid, p 177