From delicious billion-dollar scandals to uplifting tales of the human condition and narratives about the country’s economic progress, India boasts a bountiful supply of compelling stories.
Parimala Bhat wants to know about all of them. But the 52-year-old Mumbai resident is blind and for years she had to rely on TV news channels to satisfy her craving for news.
For the past several years, Bhat has subscribed to Sparshdnyan, a local newspaper that has carved itself an unusual niche in India’s surging media industry: the paper, whose name translates to “knowledge by touch” is written in Braille, making it one of the world’s few newspapers to cater to the visually impaired.
“You know how satisfying it is to sit and just read,” says Bhat, a healthcare worker with Air India. “It’s the same for the blind. The TV and radio are fine, but I love being able to save my paper for the night-time when I’m by myself and get involved in a story. It’s a different sense reading the paper instead of listening to news. It’s just incredibly satisfying.”
Published twice a month, Sparshdnyan is sent to about 400 subscribers in Maharashtra. While its circulation may be modest, readership is growing fast. Most issues are sent to institutes for the blind, where each copy is read by an estimated 60 people. The paper’s readership is estimated at about 24,000, says editor Swagat Thorat.
Four-year-old Sparshdnyan would seem to be a notable success story in India’s vibrant media sector. A team of local journalists volunteer their time to write for the paper, which averages about 48 pages per issue, and readers and government officials alike praise its coverage of local politics and social issues, Thorat says.
“We get about 600 to 700 letters to the editor every month,” says the 50-year-old. “We have readers from ten-years-old to 80 but I think more than half, probably 60%, are between 18 and 35.”
Thorat isn’t the first news editor who has recognised there’s a market for the visually impaired.
For Thorat, it all started in 1997 when he directed a play “Swatantryachi Yashogatha” (Glorious story of independence) which created a world record, with 88 blind artists from two blind schools in Pune, on the background of golden anniversary of Independence Day. This play was entered in ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ and ‘Limca Book of Records’.
Thorat reminisces, “While doing the show, I travelled with these kids and observed that their discussions revolved around things that they had read. Back in 1998, there were very few Braille books available. Now, the number has gone up. But I realized that these kids wanted to read more. There was a need…”
Sparshdnyan’s news slant is eclectic. A recent issue featured the review of an autobiography by a local college professor who is blind, an editorial on corruption, an issue that has dominated headlines across newspapers this summer, and a feature story about doctors who overmedicate.
There was also a section giving advice about public speaking, a travel story on the Maharashtra district of Raigad, where tourists flock to hiking trails 1,000 metres above sea level, a recipe for keema pulao, and a general knowledge quiz. Sparshdnyan chooses to give a miss to a few key news areas that are an integral part of mainstream newspapers.
Why a unique newspaper ‘sparshdnyan’ isn’t covering the IPL !!!
Crime and cricket are left out!
“The paper we use is so expensive that I want to be judicious of what gets printed on it and quality has been our prime concern. Cricket is all over the broadcast media. As for crime stories, they affect even the sighted. So imagine the impact it will have on the blind, many of whom do battle depression,” .
“Sparshdnyan leaves no stone unturned in inspiring our readers to scale new heights. Most of the content in the paper revolves around social issues, international affairs, inspiring biographies and education and career options” . Our ideology is clear. We want to acquaint our readers to current issues around them. We don’t want to discuss or debate only issues that affect the visually handicapped. Sparshdnyan carries content that you and I like to read in our morning paper. We cover subjects such as health, politics, music, films, theatre, literature and food, including recipes, the 40-46 odd pages.”
For three years, the advertising company that has worked with Thorat has failed to sell a single ad in his paper. It begs the question, why hasn’t he sacked his partner and found someone else to broker deals with local advertisers.
“I still want a future with them and hope they can turn it around but I am starting to think about getting someone new,” says Thorat, who refuses to identify the company that’s said to be searching for ads for Sparshdnyan.
Sparshdnyan is distributed among 400 subscribers in India’s western Maharashtra state. Most of these issues are sent to institutes for the blind, where each copy is read by an estimated 60 people, putting the unofficial readership at around 24.000.
The project is costly and Thorat has little money to fund the endeavour. To raise support from his seeing peers, he develops documentary films about India’s wildlife.
“Our subscribers re-circulate the issues to others” mentions Swagat. “When people know you’re doing something good, they help, hence I approached all my acquaintances and well-wishers with a special scheme. He further adds “If they paid an annual fee of Rs 1200 (revised from Rs 960 due to increase in paper cost), a copy of the fortnightly magazine would be presented to a blind person.”
Thorat, who also produces documentary films about India’s wildlife, says he covers his Rs 30,000 administrative costs by selling wildlife photos and films. A group of supporters pay the monthly bill of Rs 30,000 for paper. Since the paper is written in Braille, postage is free.
“It’s important that this newspaper be published,” says Suchita Shaha, a Mumbai psychologist who has raised Rs 50,000 from friends and neighbours to help cover Thorat’s expenses. “It’s not like it is in the West. There are no facilities here in India for the blind, no seeing-eye dogs. We need to do more to help.”
Despite his difficulties attracting advertisers, Thorat says he believes that there’s a demand for more Braille newspaper coverage. An estimated 10 million Indians are visually impaired and within a year, Thorat plans to launch a daily title.
“It will require about Rs 400,000 and this time I’ll be running it as a proper business investment only,” he says.
One reason he’s optimistic about a daily is that government policy in Maharashtra prevents public-sector advertising in publications that don’t publish at least weekly. A daily Braille newspaper, Thorat says, would draw ads for various employment schemes and other government programs.
“I still think private companies will come around,” Thorat says. “Right now, the blind in India just aren’t being looked at as consumers. Companies don’t realise that they still buy hair oil and toothpaste and cellphones.”
Sitting next to a roadside tea stall where local men sipped on steaming masala tea, despite the oppressive Mumbai summer heat and humidity, Bhat, the Air India official, says she’s come to love her bi-weekly newspaper fix.
“It seems like I start saying ‘is it here yet’ on the first day of every month until it finally comes,” Bhat says with a gleeful laugh.
Thorat who is striving to make a difference feels that Government is not doing enough to cater to the needs of blind! “Social organizations are doing much more for the physically challenged than the government” says Thorat.
Sparshdnyan has come all this way without any grants from the government or donations. Swagat confides “I dream of a day when blind individuals will get their own daily. I hope some media house starts it, but if they don’t I will start the daily on my own in a few years”. He further adds “I am trying to get public libraries at the district level to start Braille sections”
“What typically happens is that due to lack of access to Braille books beyond their textbooks, blind students lose touch with reading once they graduate,” says Thorat. “True, they can have a few books read to them, but that’s not reading, it’s listening! Reading and listening are two different functions. When you read, it has a deeper impact on your personality. It enhances your language which listening can’t” specifies Thorat!
This is why till date there has been no alternative to Braille the world over!For more donations and other details contact
Shilpa Redij : (Advertisement & Circulation Officer) Phone : 08097069805 / 022-24792287 Sparshdnyan, Yashogatha, Shop no. A – 11 & 25, Greenfields, Opp. Shahid Salaskar Garden, Jogeshwari -Vikroli Link Road, Andheri (E), Mumbai – 400093. firstname.lastname@example.org