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Can Grassroots Comics Make Tech More Inclusive?

2nd June 2021
Can Grassroots Comics Make Tech More Inclusive?
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Image Credit: World Comics India

The mobile phone has revolutionised the way we Indians interact with governments, businesses, and each other. Underlying this trend, however, are widely divergent experiences in terms of the phones we use, how much time we spend on them, the apps and websites we visit, and how safe and empowered we feel online. Rural India expresses itself differently, in different languages, and on different social media platforms, than urban India does. Within that, women experience the internet differently than men – they often have heavily guarded access to a phone, and face more harassment online. India’s tryst with the mobile is not monolithic – it is a colourful mosaic of diversity. Statistics and analysis don’t do justice to this mosaic.

Instead, imagine if we could feel the personal and emotional online journeys of the Next Half Billion?

These journeys can be expressed in many ways – through prose, poetry, song, dance, and painting, among others. For decades, Sharad Sharma of World Comics India (WCI) has been pioneering one such method – the use of grassroots comics to bring out stories from the Indian hinterland. Participants in WCI’s workshops are trained in the art of making comics, and then asked to sketch their perspectives on social issues.

Sharad Sharma, Founder of World Comics India

These workshops also create safe spaces for participants to discuss sensitive or personal experiences. In response to rising hate crimes against Indians from the North East, WCI launched theNo Stereotypes Plz!’ campaign. The cartoons emerging from this campaign were compiled and circulated in various schools and colleges, to battle racial prejudice. Another campaign, Chadi Ke Laagal Hathkadi’, sought to reduce corporal punishment meted out to children. Over the years, WCI has worked with many vulnerable and under-represented communities, like tribal communities and refugee groups.

At the core of WCI lies the idea of inclusion and participation – that people draw out their thoughts through comics and use them to have conversations within their communities. It facilitates the sharing of ideas and the formation of local coalitions.

WCI is now using grassroots comics to bring out stories about the NHB’s experience with the mobile phone. Grassroots comics can be a creative conduit for the hopes and aspirations, the fears and limitations, and the deeply personal lived experience of the masses. While some may focus on the economic opportunities that the mobile phone created, others might talk about the freedom they experienced online. Yet others may talk about unpleasant experiences on the internet. In all cases, these are stories worth listening to, because they give us a glimpse into the minds of everyday India.

Grassroot Comics in action at Jorhat town, Assam, India.

These are stories that all of us in business, public policy and government should pay attention to – simply because they are so different from ours. They will tell us how we should design our tech products or frame our tech policies in a way that is empowering for the Next Half Billion – not just in aggregate statistics, but at a personal and emotional level. Only then, perhaps, can we make our digital society truly inclusive.

This is the first of a seven-part weekly series on new ideas to make every Indian feel empowered and safe online. To find out more about WCI, go to www.worldcomicsindia.com.

Coming up next week:
Point of View: Developing a platform that gives low-income women daily digital safety information as well as providing them a helpline service for harassment and fraud