Indian consumers check their mobile telephones at a free Wi-Fi Internet zone.   Photo: AFP/ Indranil Mukherjee
Indian consumers check their mobile phones in a free Wi-Fi zone. Photo: AFP / Indranil Mukherjee

A Facebook group made of people from one of the most backward regions in northern India is holding authorities accountable on a range of issues in a state regarded as one of the country’s most corrupt.

Bihar is the fifth poorest state in India, with Seemanchal region ranking even lower in terms of literacy, economic stability, infrastructure, etc. But that is where a private Facebook group, Khabar Seemanchal, started in 2011 by people from different walks of life. Slowly, members started to fearlessly question corrupt government officials within the region and change the poor conditions they endure.

Last year, Khabar Seemanchal helped to clamp down on corruption in the distribution of assistance to flood-affected families. After devastating floods, the Bihar government distributed compensation, but it did not reach all flood victims. In some cases, local officials were accused of taking the money for themselves. In Kochadhaman, for example, 60 members of a local official’s family received compensation while others in the region went without.

Khabar Seemanchal moderators took note of such irregularities in the flood relief system and suggested that concerned complainants acquire documentary evidence of discrepancies from local government offices and post it on the group. After this, people also complained of alleged bribery in exchange for releasing compensation.

These actions put such pressure on authorities that corrupt officials returned the compensation money to the government’s treasury. Two individuals were also arrested from Palasi village on corruption charges related to flood relief. After, district administrators in Kishanganj, in Seemanchal, released a notice regarding a mandatory deposit of stolen relief funds.

A new online avenue for citizens

Khabar Seemanchal has a reputation for questioning irregularities and airing people’s concerns about corruption via social media.

The group is made up of more than 425,000 members, which is surprising as the region’s literacy rate is only around 51%, according to the 2011 Census, and Seemanchal’s population is around 11 million.

They started out with a highly successful ‘Call for Action’ campaign in 2013 that forced people in positions of authority to pull up their socks. Through the campaign, people brought to light some of the problems they faced, such as a lack of teachers in a school, or an eligible individual being denied pension. Contact information for concerned officials, who could solve the problems, was given out to multiple group members who bombarded the authorities with complaints.

“We solved more than 100 issues through this campaign and that’s made Khabar Seemanchal very popular in this region. We got lots of requests [from people] about joining this group,” Hasan Jawed, the group administrator of the Facebook page, said. Membership in the group shot up from around 20,000 to around 50,000 during this period.

Interestingly, the members included not just regular social media users, but government officers, local politicians, policemen, army officers and many more. “This is the fastest medium through which anyone gets the news and the mood of this region. Every happening in this region flashes here [on the group],” Jawed said.

Maulana Asrarul Haque Qasmi, a Member of Parliament from Kishanganj constituency, said: “I am fond of this Facebook group and the youths of my parliamentary constituency. We get information about our region around the clock from this group. And it helps me to work and take action against any irregularity.”

Administrative officers and law enforcement officials in the region have also benefitted from the group. “We get quick information about incidents of crime from across the Seemanchal region as [the group’s] members are spread out far and wide, and we also get an avenue to spread positive information about policing initiatives,” said Akhilesh Kumar, a Subdivisional Police Officer in Kishanganj.

Md. Shafiq, another Sub-Divisional Officer in Kishanganj, said: “Khabar Seemanchal is a very strong social media group in our region. They help us fight against corruption”.

Keep on topic: developmental issues!

Although Khabar Seemanchal is a social media group active on Facebook and WhatsApp, many people confuse it to be a web portal or media platform. The group has four administrators and 10 moderators. One of the admins, Md. Rizwan Ahmad said: “In our group, some working journalists are active members, but it is not a media group. It is a simple social-media group having a presence mainly on Facebook. We are also active on WhatsApp, but that is secondary.”

Seemanchal is a Muslim-dominated region, but there are many Hindus and members of other communities active in the group as well. In the politically-charged environment of Bihar, the group also gets affected by political debates. The moderators generally try to calm the situation by making people focus on developmental and anti-corruption campaigns.

Group admin Jawed said: “Last year when the Mahagathbandhan [an alliance between the Janata Dal United (JDU), Rashtriya Janata Dal, and Congress] broke and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar [and JDU chief] decided that he will go with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is popular for its anti-Muslim stance in India, members of Khabar Seemanchal were mounting pressure on their local Muslim legislator to resign from the JDU.”

Tensions heightened, and the legislator had to intervene by requesting members on the group to stick to issues of development, Jawed said. So, for now, politics has taken a backseat in the otherwise vocal group but they continue to influence politicians.