The Tansen Community Multimedia Centre (CMC) initiative in Nepal is part of a regional innovation and research project initiated by UNESCO to study the potential of information and communi-cation technologies (ICTs) for poverty reduction. The project is looking for ways to use ICTs as a tool to empower and strengthen the voices of the poor.
Community multimedia centres are an extension of UNESCO’s long-standing work with community radio, inspired by the increasingly important role played by new digital technologies. CMCs like the one in Tansen combine traditional community media – in Tansen’s case video, cable TV and print – with new media tools like computers and Internet.
The goal is to explore ways that Tansen can use ICT as dynamic development tool: to bring more voices and cultural forms, ideas and issues into the community’s media space, and to provide poor, marginalised youth with new skills and opportunities.
The combination of established local media, like community TV with new technologies like Internet, opens up great possibilities to link small, comparatively inaccessible towns and villages like Tansen to new global networks. New media are not only powerful tools for producing content, they are also gateways to ever expanding information and knowledge resources.
Life in the hills
Tansen is a hill town some 300 kms by road, west of Kathmandu. Once the seat of the Sen Dynasty, it is now the headquarters of Palpa district in western Nepal. Perched on the rim of a fertile valley, Tansen is about 30 kms into the Himalayan foothills and 60 kms from Nepal’s border with India.
The population of the Tansen municipality is about 25,000, made up of a mix of ethnic communities and traditional caste groupings. Like the rest of Nepal and much of South Asia, a majority of the population are youth below the age of 18 years. The townspeople are predominantly Newar Buddhists and Brahmin and Magar Hindus. Though officially a thing of the past, traditional caste, trade and ethnic groupings are still a very strong part of Tansen’s social fabric.
Historically a regional centre, like many hill towns in the Himalayan belt, Tansen is increasingly isolated from the plains where growth, trade and mobility are higher. Palpa also faces the pressures of migrating labour and instability due to ongoing conflict between Nepal’s government and Maoist insurgents. There are few local jobs or business opportunities through which young people can hope to make a decent living and the situation is worse for the poor, women and people from marginalised castes.
A centre for media innovation
Tansen has an unusually wide range of local media for a relatively small and isolated hill town. Tansen’s media mix includes three local FM radios in the town itself (all established in mid-2004), one from nearby Madanpokhara village as well as a weekly community-oriented paper, two cable networks, a local television producer and the CMC.
Cable TV started in Tansen in the early 1990s with the emergence of satellite and cable technology in South Asia, a combination that was to dramatically change the region’s media environment and give rise to thousands of small, local cable operations.
In Tansen, video production and cable distribution grew in response to the absence of either Nepali language or local content programming available via satellite in the early 90s. In the following years, local musicians and media enthusiasts using basic equipment and volunteer labour created one of South Asia’s only local television programmes, running more or less uninterrupted for over ten years.
Community multimedia for youth
With support from UNESCO, the Tansen TV group expanded their set-up in early 2003, adding a computer network and basic digital production facilities. Over the course of the first year, some 175 youth participants, most between the age of 16 to 20 years, were recruited and trained in video, multimedia and computer skills. A high percentage among them now contribute as volunteers to a range of local media: a weekly TV show called The Local Programme, a local community website and as of 2004, an online version of a local community-oriented newspaper called Deurali.
“The main criterion to get entry in this centre is poverty. I mean the poor and marginalised young people could only get opportunity in the centre. So being poor, it has given me the opportunity to be the student of the centre. I came to know that the centre was built for the poor people. The centre is helping students to an extent to be able to work in society.” Interview with Tansen CMC participant.
The CMC emphasises the participation of girls, achieving a roughly 65:35 ratio with boys, and has proactively recruited youth from poor families and marginalised caste groups. Approximately 15 per cent of youth trained in the first year are from so called low caste groups. The youth are trained together in batches of 30-40 learning both computing and media production skills. They plan and produce their own multimedia programming, using digitial video cameras and production software like Microsoft Moviemaker and Adobe Premiere. Their video productions end up as part of The Local Programme cablecast Saturday nights 7-8 pm to some 1200 households in the municipality and adjoining rural areas.
The idea is to enable and amplify the voice of marginalised local youth, to improve both the quantity and quality of local media programming and to introduce new formats that actively combine Tansen’s various media: TV, radio, print and websites. In the process the CMC hopes to foster a sense of community ownership that will support an increasingly wide range of local media. After one year of youth training programmes, the CMC began designing new training programmes for specific groups, e.g. housewives, campus MA lecturers, etc.
For ICT training and public access there are 10 networked computers and a server and a printer/scanner. For video production there are 3 computers, 2 computers for training and student work, 2 video cards and 4 video cameras. Audio production equipments include 2 computers, an audio mixer, and 3 digital audio recorders. For Internet connectivity, there is a radio modem access point and two radio modems.
Skills and empowerment
Although the link between poverty and media training and production is not immediately clear to many observers, the CMC’s work with poor local youth does several things that are important in reducing poverty: develops skills, builds confidence and inspires self-expression and participation in wider community spaces. A good example is the story of the Hitangas:
“Som and Manoj Hitanga are cousins from the traditional shoemaker caste, which because of the association with feet and with animal hide has traditionally been considered as ‘untouchable caste’. Recruited in the first batch, Som and Manoj are two of the CMC’s most promising trainees. They quickly mastered the computing and video production skills taught in the basic curriculum and have gone on to learn advanced digital production applications like Adobe Premiere. They have contributed a number of features to The Local Programme and since Som took over the regular feature on community activities, townspeople regularly come to knock on the door of his home to inform him of local happenings and events. Some time back, the owner of a cable network in India recruited and offered both Som and Manoj jobs to help start up and produce a local cable programme in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. Although they went to Gorakhpur, they returned back to Tansen after less than a week as they were not happy in a big Indian city in the plains.” Notes from field visit to Tansen.
While the CMC facilitators are aware that not all students will find employment through their new skills, the handful that have found employment