The people's platform

14 min read
19 May 2017
14 min read
2335 words
In a media market dominated by sensationalist programmes, game shows and the like, Sajha Sawal has carved a niche for itself by being of service to the public

In episode 437 of Sajha Sawal, the popular weekly debate and discussion programme, the programme's host, Bidhya Chapagain, walks around Dhodeni, Gorkha, with a tablet in her hand. The episode was broadcast on March 27, 2016. It was Sajha Sawal's second episode shot in Dhodeni. The first one was shot back in 2015-just two weeks after the earthquakes. That earlier episode had to do with the difficulties faced by the villagers after the quakes. Chapagain had interviewed Laxmi Pant, a woman from the village, whose house had been completely reduced to rubble. While being interviewed, Pant had broken down and had made a plea to the leaders and the politicians to be fair and just while distributing aid. Almost a year later, for episode 437, Chapagain and her team revisited the village and interviewed Pant. The episode shows Pant still living in a temporary shelter. She shares the challenges of living in such conditions and how the government hasn't fulfilled their promises to the earthquake victims. In the episode, Chapagain interviews several people she had met with and talked to in the previous episode. All of them share that life has been difficult post-earthquake and that the government hasn't been of much help. The episode ends with three prominent government/non-governmental organisations' officials fielding questions regarding how the villagers' problems can be solved.

It's owing to episodes such as these that Sajha Sawal has been so well received across Nepal. Ten years ago, Sajha Sawal started out by hosting episodes that mostly featured direct interactions between the public and panelists, who usually comprised of social activists and political leaders. Four years ago, it added documentary-style episodes like episode 437. The programme today includes both formats. In the years that it's been on air, Sajha Sawal has served as a platform for people, in various towns and villages across Nepal, to discuss issues and hold their leaders accountable.

On a recent Friday morning, before the first phase of the local elections had been held, the 492nd episode of Sajha Sawal was shot. Shot at Moksh, in Jhamsikhel, the episode featured attendees discussing the importance of the polls. The technical director of the programme, Ananda K Shrestha, along with his crew had already set up the lights, cameras and other equipment early in the morning. Two hours before the cameras starting rolling, Chapagain, editor Dipak Bhattarai and other team members introduced themselves to the audience, briefed them about the topic they were about to discuss and handed them forms in which they entered their names, addresses and other details as well as their queries. The Sajha Sawal team, owing to their years of experience, knows how to get the most out of the interactions they host.

"We always call the audience a few hours before the recording begins so that they have enough time to get accustomed to the lights, cameras and microphones that can otherwise be overwhelming," says Chapagain. Once the audience were done filling their forms, some team members tried to get them acclimatised even more by letting them speak, sing or share jokes on the microphone. Meanwhile, Chapagain and another team member went through the audience's questions and chose the more important ones, which would be discussed first. After the audience's consent was taken (they raised their hands to show their consent), the technical team gave a go-ahead, and the cameras started rolling.

The panelists were Chief Election Commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav, and former election commissioner Usha Nepal. The members of the audience comprised of students, differently abled people, professionals and senior citizens. The audience asked several questions to the panelists. The organisers even held a mock election. Two days later, the episode was broadcast both on television as well as radio and was also uploaded on various social media platforms. What the audience didn't see, however, was the planning that had gone into the production of the show long before it even began to roll.

Every production cycle begins with Sajha Sawal's research team visiting some place that the team feels needs attention. At the place that they visit, the team holds focal group discussions and conducts surveys to find out issues that could be featured in the programme. After the research process is over, the editorial team, headed by Dipak Bhattarai, chooses the most important issues that need to be broadcast. They also decide on the people they want to invite as panelists. "Although we are always prepared with a fully fleshed-out plan, we have to be flexible, because of how fluid the political and social situation can be in our country," says Bhattarai. "We also always have backup plans in case a panelist cannot attend, or if some other unforeseen circumstances pop up."

Another important part of the production cycle has to do with audience enrollment. The number of people in the audience for a panel discussion is usually capped at between 60 to 80. The audience-enrollment team makes sure that the audience consists of at least 50 per cent women, and that 50 per cent of the total audience are from marginalised groups. (However, those figures and ratios cannot be adhered to when whole villages want to attend the programme.) The enrollment team comes up with a potential audience list by referring to their contacts in communities by calling village development committees, individual farmers, etc. The team then gets in touch with their potential audience, usually with the help of local journalists, and convinces them to attend the show. "It usually isn't very difficult to get people on board. But if they are very hesitant and don't want to speak in front of everyone, we put forward their questions via our host, or other audience members," says Prabin Khadka, production manager at Sajha Sawal.

With each episode, the show, which first started out as a programme on the radio, continues to grow. The Sajha Sawal team has already travelled to all 75 districts and recorded episodes regarding various social and political issues including the providing of relief after the earthquakes, the 2015 economic blockade, foreign employment issues, LGBTI rights, law and order, and caste discrimination, to name a few. In seven years, the show has gained more than 6.6 million viewers and listeners.

The Sajha Sawal team has already travelled to all 75 districts and recorded episodes regarding various social and political issues

"The shows have also been very impactful as well," says Bhattarai. "That's because once brought into the spotlight and questioned by the public, the leaders and the policy makers have no choice but to take action quickly regarding matters brought up during the episodes." For example, an episode of Sajha Sawal that discussed the adverse effects brought about by excessive use of pesticides prompted the government to conduct a regulatory check in the Kalimati wholesale market. Similarly, an episode filmed in the district of Kalikot revealed that the government had stopped providing 'Nyano Jhola', a package of warm clothes that is given to newborn babies and their mothers. After the show, the government was forced to take action and resumed providing the packages.

Sometimes, the impact made is not necessarily in the form of policy reforms or of government bodies taking action. During an episode filmed in Selang, Sindhupalchok, Ujeli Tamang, a 15-year-old girl, called Chapagain aside and shared her troubles. Despite being very young, Ujeli had already received several marriage proposals and had learned that she would be getting married very soon. Ujeli had confided in Chapagain and told her that she didn't want to marry. She wanted to attend school and complete her education. But going to school would be difficult in Selang as the school did not have sufficient teachers or teaching resources (especially since this was the time after the earthquakes of 2015). Furthermore, Ujeli and other girls often got bullied and harassed on the way to school, and because of all this, Ujeli was very disturbed and desperately wanted things to change around her. In the same episode, we see actor Rajesh Hamal, with whom Ujeli had shared her sorrows as well, stepping in to make sure that Ujeli's family does not proceed with plans for her marriage. Hamal is seen explaining to the two families that the young girl is not mentally, or physically, ready to get married, and that at her age, it is more important for her to complete her education first.

After Ujeli's words were recorded and released in a documentary-style episode named 'Baancheka Mancheharu, Sindhupalchok', which gained a lot of popularity; it was also noticed by a non-governmental organisation named Thelma and Louise Nepal, which provided Ujeli with a scholarship so that she could enroll at Genesis Academy, a residential school in Boudha, Kathmandu.

Ujeli says that living in Kathmandu took some getting used to but that she had gradually started to not only do well in her studies, but also participate in extracurricular activities such as Taekwondo, singing, skateboarding and playing the flute and guitar. These are activities she would have never gotten involved with had she gotten married, she says. In the future, she hopes to return to her village and become a teacher there.

Although examples of positive change brought about by Sajha Sawal are numerous, it is still difficult to change the deep-rooted mores of society. After actor Rajesh Hamal and host Chapagain visited Dipak Malik, a person of a supposedly low caste, in order to shoot one of the opening scenes of the episode 'Dalit ka Mudda, Saptari', Malik and his family were later confronted by other villagers for taking Hamal and Chapagain inside their residence. "It was our responsibility to protect Malik and his family, so we made sure that the local NGOs and community mediators got involved in this and tried to resolve the issue peacefully," says Bhattarai.

Although examples of positive change brought about by Sajha Sawal are numerous, it is still difficult to change the deep-rooted mores of society

When dealing with sensitive issues like caste discrimination, domestic violence or rape cases, Sajha Sawal is exceedingly careful. For example, when they feature people who have lived through harrowing experiences, they do their utmost to shield their identities. "We have to take preventive measures. After all, a small mistake by us could lead to severe consequences for the people," says Chapagain. It's because of the professionalism they bring to their shooting and the care with which they deal with the minutia that the show is regarded with much respect by its audiences.  

Over the years, the Sajha Sawal team has not only created a forum that helps people hold discourses and hold leaders accountable, but have also made several efforts to help other community radio stations and televisions to conduct similar shows as well. Through their capacity-building training programmes, they partner with radio stations such as Kalinchowk FM in Dolakha and Radio Ramaroshan in Achham. These radio stations not only air episodes of Sajha Sawal, but have also started their own discussion shows with the help of the training and equipment provided by Sajha Sawal. Radio Ramaroshan, for instance, has a show named Sudoor Sawal, in which issues faced by the people of Achham's villages are discussed. "The show has been gaining popularity because it has been able to build a good reputation for solving local issues. For example, when the local hospital there faced acute water shortages, our show played a significant role in resolving the issue," says Chandra Bahadur Thapa, chief technician at Radio Ramaroshan.

Today, Sajha Sawal airs on Kantipur Television, which has a wide reach across Nepal, on Lumbini Television and Himshikhar Television. It is also broadcast over 300 radio stations in various districts across Nepal. They do this because the team believe that the issues that they cover, which are particular to particular localities, are also representative of the problems that could occur in various other places across the country. And by broadcasting their discussions countrywide, they know they are bringing about positive changes at the grassroots.