‘Mahiti’ (translates to ‘information’ in Kannada) is a term that reverberates through the villages of Mysuru district, Karnataka. The term resonates most with women who have a quest for knowledge and are keen to access information on health, agriculture, economic opportunities, and public schemes. Different women have different demands and expectations. Some want to know about the best parenting practices, while others want to learn about managing their finances. Needless to say, the term acquires different meanings depending on who enunciates it. This ethnographic essay attempts to understand the multiple iterations and meanings of ‘mahiti’, and how women and women’s collectives in Mysuru leverage the network of seven information centers set up by IT for Change to claim informational power in the community.
Out of the seven information centers located in Hunsur and HD Kote blocks of Mysuru district, five of them operate at the village level and two at the block level. Each information center is equipped with a computer, a printer, a photocopy machine, and a digital camera to support the community’s technological requirements. The center is womanned by an infomediary (locally known as Sakhi), who caters to the informational needs of 8-10 villages in the vicinity. In this essay, I capture stories from across these villages and illustrate how engaging with information is a feminist practice for women in rural Mysuru.
One of the facets of rural life that first stood out for me, albeit unsurprisingly, was how busy women are. Even during their ‘leisure’ time, as they sit outside their houses in small groups for an evening chat, they are busy sieving grains or cutting vegetables for supper. The majority of women are marginal farmers, daily wage laborers, and homemakers, who are often left time-poor and have no access to channels to obtain technical-political information and knowledge beyond their experiential learnings from their daily work. Bound by patriarchal norms and the need to make ends meet, they can rarely venture out freely and pursue their curiosities. It is within this context, information centers emerge as go-to places for women to seek information on matters of governance and administration. And the Sakhi, who is elected by and from the community to carry out everyday affairs of the information center, becomes the curator of such a space.
To explain how information and knowledge travel within and between villages, let me tell you how a typical day unfolds at an information center. The Sakhi lifts the shutter of the center at 10 a.m. and switches on the computer to surf government websites noting down any new information that could be useful to the community. On most days, people visit her in the first few hours of the day to take photocopies of their identity cards and print their passport-sized photographs. This kind of paperwork, after all, is crucial to claiming public benefits. Men and women from across caste groups visit the information center with queries regarding various public schemes and entitlements. Sakhi, who can often be spotted at government departments sourcing and documenting information, usually has answers to most of these questions.
The Sakhi hardly ever finds herself alone at the center, as women casually drop by for a quick chat on their way to work. When not entertaining her toiling fellow-travelers, Sakhi is requested by womenfolk with more time on hand, to screen short films on topics they want to know more about. The center is abuzz with a fleeting and floating population, with children coming in to learn computer skills and school and college-going girls coming in to use the internet service for their academic projects.
With such a dynamic social life around the center, one would imagine the Sakhi to be confined to the center for long hours. However, far from being immobilized by her responsibilities at the center, the Sakhi is embedded in her surroundings. She travels on her two-wheeler to neighboring villages to disseminate public information and conduct community screenings. She visits houses, schools and Anganwadis (state-run child care centers), mobilizes women, and engages with women’s collectives to ensure no one misses a public entitlement, a health camp, a job opportunity, etc., because of lack of access to information.
Mahiti: A Force Activated by Access
Given the immateriality, yet embodied reality of information, it is difficult to define it in communicable terms. While grappling with its definition, Sandra Braman writes that information is “heterogeneous” and takes on “infinitely variable” meanings. The ways in which one conceives information, change over time and are tightly linked to one’s context, she notes. My conversations with women in Mysuru only reaffirmed this idea as I soon realized it is perhaps not helpful to look for an ‘objective definition’ of information outside of its social embedding. A plurality of meanings emerged when I began noticing what access to information does, or rather, what one does with information for greater access.
Sophia Huyer and Nancy J. Hafkin suggest that women, who use Information and Communication Technology (ICTs) to “improve their income, gain awareness of their rights and improve their own and their families’ well-being”, are “Cyberellas”. Upturning the story of Cinderella — who is at the “bottom of the knowledge society” and has little opportunity to use information to build her life — Cyberellas wield ICTs that were previously inaccessible, to improve their lives, just like the women (including Sakhis) and girls in Mysuru.
Women, at the intersections of different kinds of marginalities, find themselves negotiating their status in the eyes of the state and the community, both of which are entrenched in gender inequalities. In such circumstances, informational power is utilized to navigate them both. As Kumari*, the Sakhi at the information center at Mulluru village in Hunsur block asserted, “Women’s lives are limited to their houses and particularly, to their kitchens. For us, mahiti is as essential as the oil we pour to make sambar (an Indian dish made of lentils and vegetables). We cannot access any benefit or improve our lives without mahiti.”
Navigating the Apparatus of the State
During my conversations with Kumari, it became abundantly clear that access to information not only enables mobility but also paves way for knowing, belonging, and understanding one’s own subjecthood and social position, such that a critical questioning of the state is made possible. For Kumari, seeking information on public schemes and entitlements, shapes and expands her worldview, for upon learning about the nature and scope of the scheme, the totality of the social system of governance and administration unravels. Who is eligible under the scheme, who is able to avail it? What benefits will the citizens get? What documents have to be provided and what is the process to apply? Who will benefit? “I know my people well. I can even anticipate the possible doubts they might have. I make a list beforehand and clarify everything during my department visits,” Kumari told me. Her efforts to seek information stem from not only the need to help people avail schemes and entitlements but also from a place of mistrust in bureaucratic procedures. “They [government officials] keep sending people back home saying this document is missing, that document is missing. Many times, they even forget to mention the scheme-related document that is required. It is confusing for ordinary citizens and they end up losing days’ worth of wages. I don’t want that,” she added.
Kumari and Rajni* (another Sakhi at an information center in a village in Hunsur block) surveyed 16 villages in their vicinity and found that many citizens were not receiving their pensions. The Sakhis immediately took the matter to the Department of Social Welfare. It was there that they found out that a Pension Adalat (a pension-related grievance redressal program regularly organized by the government) was to be held in a nearby town in the coming week. “Ideally people should be notified regarding such programs well in advance, so that they have time to arrange their documents and plan their travel,” Rajni said. Nevertheless, the Sakhis shared the information in their respective outreach villages and mobilized about 85 people for the program. “I shared mahiti [on Pension Adalat with the people] during village meetings and house visits. I even messaged and called people who had mobile phones. I also made sure people knew what documents were needed,” Rajni added. On the day of the event, the local village administrative officer and the Tahsildar (tax officer) verified each application and promised the Sakhis that they would be processed soon. “We will also let you [Sakhis] know when the next Pension Adalat happens,” the village administrative officer reportedly assured them.
When the state increasingly documents and disciplines people without fixing its service delivery infrastructure, information-sharing becomes a modality to mobilize and cultivate solidarity that challenges the state. In the process, Sakhis act as local grassroots leaders who not only empower themselves but also the women around them. As they try to bridge the gap between the state and the public, they do not intend to become an extension of the state’s functionaries. Instead, they assemble certain kinds of knowledge, vocabularies, and networks that address information asymmetry and increase their bargaining power. Interfacing with government officials is not to merely contest the state, but also to build constructive relationships with them that ultimately brings the government closer to the public. Sakhis' act of seeking information thus expands and leverages their network with the state’s service providers to ensure that the needs of the people are prioritized. “Most officials do not have the time nor the patience to explain bureaucratic procedures. And if you don’t have enough background information, it becomes very difficult. Because of the work I do, I have learned a lot about how bureaucracy works. The local officials also know this and respect me for it,” said Kumari.
Navigating Social Life
I visited Kamala*, a 28-year-old woman living in Kolegodanahalli village, which is located three kilometers from HD Kote town. During our conversation about the information center, she said, “I was like a frog inside a well. I had no idea what was happening in the outside world. However, things have changed now. The Sakhi provided us [Kamala and her friends in the village] with the mahiti required to start a self-help group (locally known as a Sangha). She also linked us to various workshops organized by government departments and local training centers. Our Sangha attended the ones on mushroom cultivation and animal husbandry. This was the first time I attended any program of this kind. I spent three days with my friends outside my village.”
Associating information with terms such as “awareness”, “exposure”, “courage”, and “confidence” is common, especially among the women I have spoken to, reinforcing the notion that having access to information can be liberating. On the one hand, information is crucial to confront the state, and on the other hand it supplements our ability to confront our day-to-day realities. Kamala said that sourcing mahiti during sangha meetings through the information centers has helped her gain status within the family. “I have begun to understand how the world works. In fact, my husband now seeks my advice on how to rear our cattle,” Kamala exclaimed, as if it was something she had never imagined would happen. It is through Sanghas that women make savings, learn to manage finances, seek emotional support, and explore not just economic possibilities but also recreational activities. Sanghas, when plugged with information centers, act as networks that allow women to actively steer their learning. Briefly put, information centers and Sanghas become vibrant and overlapping spaces that allow women to collectively explore avenues other than their homes. These peer-learning networks resonate with Ivan Illich’a idea of the “educational web”, which is an alternative to formal schooling and most importantly, is accessible, encourages human interactions and employs a bottom-up approach.
Another arrangement that demonstrates the values of an educational web is the community screening of films and videos. In one such gathering in K. Belthuru village, one of the Sakhis screened a short video that questioned the invisibilization of women in agriculture. After watching the video, Ratna, a farmer, opined, “We work relentlessly on the fields, but we rarely inherit the land. This is a tradition that has been passed on to generations after generations. Despite doing the same tasks, why are we paid less?” Although some women in the group disagreed with Ratna on the grounds that “things are changing” and some believed “nothing can be done”, the discussions still nudged them to examine the ubiquitous but silenced manifestations of patriarchy around them. Some felt that the video helped them see their realities in a different light. Their words reminded me of bell hooks’ thoughts on theory as a liberatory practice wherein she writes, “theory was a way to grasp what was happening around and within me”. Watching the video speak to their lived experiences seems to unlock different worldviews for women, as they find room to express concerns and situate their dissatisfaction with the circumstances they find themselves in. Is knowledge-seeking, then, also cathartic? As Krupa*, a former elected member of the Gram Panchayat (village level governing body), articulated, “knowing makes the heart feel lighter”.
Engaging with Mahiti as a Feminist Practice
All the vignettes we discussed so far illustrate the various ways in which women gain informational power and leverage it to make sense of their lives, claim their entitlements, forge collective solidarity, and increase their bargaining power in the community. Moreover, gaining informational power also indicates that women then become “key interlocutors in the local informational ecology”. Information is not just sought, but actively appropriated, wielded, and produced. For instance, Sakhis regularly report instances where government officials and other village folk approach them for information. They also mentor girls and encourage them to pursue their studies. “One of the girls had to write an essay on our village. She approached me for information on the population [of the village] and the occupational profiles of the people. These details are difficult to find even on Google… I also told her to reach out to me if she wants to use the internet or needs help with the essay,” Rajni recounted with immense confidence in her voice.
Listening to Rajni, I better understand what bell hooks meant when she said that theory is not inherently “healing, liberatory or “revolutionary”. What is important is to translate knowledge into practice — something the Sakhis, the women, and the girls do. Huyer and Hafkin also rightly articulate that, “ICTs are [also] not a magic wand or Cinderella’s scepter that will do away with centuries of discrimination… but because they are an increasingly pervasive force in society and an increasingly accepted part of what defines the “haves” women need to acquire and use these technologies to prevent further marginalization.” As Kumari, in one of our conversations, reaffirmed, “If I don’t step outside my house, there is a chance that my daughter also won’t. I don’t want that to happen… learning not only helps me but also those around me.”
*Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.