Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Making a difference through social media communication: A case of Rice Bucket Challenge


        When Manjulatha Kalanidhi woke up on that bright Sunday morning of Aug 24, little did she know that she had become an overnight internet celebrity. Clutching a cup of coffee in her hand, she was on her way out to fetch the morning newspaper when the telephone started to ring. On the other end was her sister excitedly chattering something about a story that was published in ‘The Hindu’ about the ‘Rice Bucket Challenge’, an initiative that Manju had launched as a response to the extremely popular Ice Bucket challenge that was doing rounds on the internet.  Calls started pouring in from friends who wanted to congratulate her on the success of her idea. She logged into her Facebook account and found her page flooded with #RBC posts. The original picture, had received over 500 likes and 200 shares. Someone had already opened a Facebook page for the Rice Bucket Challenge, and followers were growing at a rapid pace.

 Soon Manjulatha started getting calls from the media. By afternoon, Manjulatha and her husband Vijey Devuni found themselves coordinating all the action around the RBC. Before she knew it she was recording an interview for a TV channel, yelling out her message about the challenge to Australia’s RBC drive and shooting off email answers to websites, while on the phone with Reuters. Life had simply moved to another paradigm altogether.
Early Beginnings
Growing up in the sleepy little town of Warangal, barely 90 miles away from Hyderabad the erstwhile capital of Andhra Pradesh, Manjulatha Kalanidhi knew that money did not grow on trees. Although her middle class family could afford good food, a clean home and education, luxuries like branded goods, electronics, were out of bounds. Youngest of three children, she learned the value of money from a very early age. Her father Narasimha Rao Kalanidhi, an employee of the Indian Railways made it a point to inculcate the traditional Indian values of sharing, caring and conserving amongst his children. Her parents had little tolerance for wastage and little Manjulatha and her siblings were severely chided when they threw away their food or wasted water. As she grew up, these values became deeply ingrained within her.
After graduating from Asian College of Journalism, Chennai in 1997, a 21 year old Manjulatha, moved to Hyderabad in search of work. There she found a job as a journalist in an English newspaper called The Indian Express. She started as a trainee journalist and quickly rose through the ranks. In 2006 she joined, Deccan Chronicle where she worked for the next six years. She was elevated to the position of Staff Writer before being picked up ‘Big Hyderabad’ where she served as one of the editors. In between, she also worked with a UK-based corporate media house for a short while.
Sensitizing the society
It was in June 2014 that Manjulatha joined Oryza.com a rice research journal. It was at this time that the ALS Ice Bucket challenge took the internet by storm. The objective of the internet challenge was to create awareness about ALS, a progressive neuro-degenerative disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord .The ice bucket challenge was an effort to motivate people to contribute money towards the ALS Association.  You can challenge your Facebook friends to donate money to the ALS Association. If they are unable to do so in the next 24 hours they’ll have to pour a bucketful of ice cold water over their heads, film it, and upload it on the Internet. The activity became an overnight sensation as the Internet was filled with videos of people from around the globe shrieking as they tipped a bucket of freezing water over their heads.
Manjulatha was opposed to the idea by principle. She found the activity to be shallow, extravagant and wasteful. Somewhere in between people forgot what the challenge was all about and started throwing water over themselves just for fun. She was sure that most of the Indians including the celebrities who took part in the challenge knew hardly anything about ALS or The ALS Association. To them it was more of a fun activity than a fundraising event. In a country like India, where  we have more basic problems poor sanitation and disease wasting so much water for a cause like ALS seemed insensitive to Manjulatha.
She realized that with a little creativity she could tweak the event to match Indian sensibilities and in the process draw the society’s attention to more pressing concerns closer to home. As a member of the editorial team of Oryza, Manjulatha had done a considerable amount of research on rice - exports, imports, research, shortage, hunger and the like. Although, India is a rice-eating, rice-loving country, a large percentage of the population cannot afford a proper meal. Hence a rice bucket challenge seemed more sensible than an ice bucket challenge.Thus it was born – a desi cousin to the ice bucket. It was simple. To partake in this challenge, all you need to do is to cook a bucket of rice and donate it to someone in need. You also have the option of donating medicines worth Rs. 100 to their nearest government hospital.  Upload a picture of the deed on your Facebook wall and nominate your friends to take the challenge forward.

Manjulatha set things in motion by donating the first bucket of rice to Sathibabu, a 55 year old man who sold who sold idlis, in the same neighbourhood. She clicked a picture and uploaded it on Facebook. "My own local, practical and tangible version/response to #icebucketchallenge... save water feed the hungry!” read the caption. The likes and comments started flowing in as the rice bucket. Piggybacking on the popularity of the ice bucket challenge, the RBC gained a lot of attention in a very short span of time.It is a customizable concept. You can donate whatever you want (technically a bucket of rice, but not many can afford to give so much) to whoever you think is deserving. Also in this case, there was something tangible and useful that was exchanging hands. In India, rice donation is considered to be among the best of donations that appeal also worked favourably for RBC. A picture speaks a thousand words and seeing someone in your family or friends circle is bound to motivate you to do it. The ease of social media and the way a small act could fetch you appreciation and likes from all corners of the world also was an added incentive.
Without spending a penny on advertising or promotions, by the sheer strength of a good campaign, #RBC was able to reach out to millions, across the globe. As on September 8, the campaign has spread to U.S., Asia and Africa, and to countries like Vietnam, Bahrain and The Philippines. At least 20,000 kilograms of rice must have been distributed now. Several corporations have joined to do it in bulk—500 kilograms at a time. College campuses, firms, media houses and technology firms have joined in big numbers. The official Facebook page has 64,882 likes and is increasing each day. The number of photographs and videos on the page keep growing at an astonishing pace and this speaks volumes about the popularity of the RBC.
The Challenges
Considering the kind of success the Rice Bucket Challenge has tasted, the challenges she had to face were really insignificant, feels Manju. Her broadband connection at home let her down on that fateful Sunday and it was the biggest challenge, as she had to keep updating pictures people were sending, and keep track of the Facebook page. Her backup- a slow Internet dial-up was also failing. The mobile phones needed constant recharging to take all of the calls. She was unable to do a Skype interview for a prestigious international news channel because her Internet connection was too slow. My mailbox and phone message box were overfilled.
She and her husband were overworked, overwhelmed, drained out, but still on top of the world. Managing everything- handling the media, giving interviews, ensuring that they left no opportunity to talk about the cause, doing live shows for television channels, staying up late in the night to finish her work for Oryza and at the same time keep the campaign alive was a little exhausting on Manju and her family. After a week, she felt the need for a personal assistant, a litigant manager (too many spin-offs of the page, too many fake FB accounts masquerading as RBC). She also wished she had a small five-member office to manage her appointments, update the website and the like.
Hunger in India and beyond
India is the world's second-biggest rice consumer, with reserves of 21.2 million tonnes of the grain by July 1. It was the world's biggest rice exporter last year. However, in a striking irony, the number of hungry people in the world was estimated at 842 million in 2011-13 by the Global Hunger Index (GHI) report. According to this report India is home to a quarter of these world's hungry people. The country last year ranked 63rd on a list of 78 countries tracked by the International Food Policy Research Institute's Global Hunger Index. China ranked sixth.

In India, there are millions of people who come under what's the called the ‘unorganized sector.' Such people have no health insurance, no job guarantee and no pension. The day they stop working, they may have to go without a meal.Rice donation has a universal appeal, not restricted to India alone. That could be the reason why within the first three or four days, Manjulatha received emails and messages inquiring how to donate from Turkey, California, Sydney, Cambodia and beyond. It is a great idea to donate to local food banks. This is also a sustainable campaign as hunger is not a seasonal fad. Hunger is all-pervading and the satisfaction of feeding a hungry stomach is bound to make any human being happy.

Role of Social Media
The 'desi'fication of the Ice Bucket Challenge took the social media by storm. Within hours of posting the first photograph the challenge went viral. From 50 likes and 25 shares the post hit 4 figures in a matter of hours. Before Manju knew it, the Rice Bucket Challenge was taking on mammoth proportions with Indians coming out in full force.
 On August 24th, 2014, Twitter user naman_bhandari introduced the hash tag #ricebucketchallenge. Within a month the hash tag was tweeted out 11,000 times. The same day Buzzfeed published a post titled ““The Rice Bucket Challenge” Is India’s Brilliant Alternative to the Ice Bucket Challenge.” Also on August 24th, YouTube user ‘Prasar Bharti’ uploaded a video titled “India Rice Bucket Challenge for charity” which features the rules of the challenge and pictures from those who completed it. As of September 2014, the video has gained over 21,000 views. The following day the challenge was covered by several major news sites including CNN and CNBC.

After Manju started the initiative, many people from all walks of life called in to pledge their support. One gentleman wrote out a cheque of `9000 to an orphanage, saying it is for purchasing three bags of rice. Manju attributes this to the 'connect' one feels with homegrown issues. According to her, this is a common man's challenge. It's desi in its essence and identifies with a homegrown problem like hunger. So, when her Rice Bucket Challenge picture went viral, she got many calls from people pledging their support. While one of them designed the social media page, the others tried to pitch in every way they could.
With celebs like Suchitra Krishnamoothi putting their weight behind the cause the challenge reached new heights. Many volunteers are trying to get people like Satya Nadella, Jwala Gutta and others to pitch in. The Ice Bucket Challenge got popular because celebs were involved. With celebrities like, South Indian actress Sandhya and well-known Bollywood filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt backing the initiative, the challenge is primed to reach new heights.

This article is written by Rohit krishnan ,a student of pgp 14-16 batch.Rohit can be reached at PGP14041.rohit@iimraipur.ac.in                                             

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