The phenomenal hike in royalty and licence fee for community radio has come as a big blow to its rural operators.
Amidst recent apprehensions of increasing government and other regulation on the media through guidelines or Bills, one area went relatively unnoticed. Community radio representatives and operators are feeling highly insecure following the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology's decision in March to effect a fourfold hike in royalty and licence charges for assignment of frequencies to community radio stations. The fact that no consultative process preceded the decision makes matters worse.
As per the recent notification of the Wireless Planning and Coordination (WPC) wing of the Ministry, the royalty and licence fee for operating a small FM community radio station broadcasting within a range of five to 10 kilometres has been raised from Rs.19,700 to Rs.91,000 per annum.
Community radio has been in operation in the country since 2006 after the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) along with the Ministry of Communications recognised the fundamental right of communities to speech and expression in accordance with Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. The campaign for community radio began in the late 1990s following a landmark judgment of the Supreme Court (in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting vs Cricket Association of Bengal case), which held that freedom of speech and expression included the right to acquire and disseminate information and that airwaves were public property and have to be used for the benefit of society at large.
Voices of protests were heard across the country following the decision to raise the fee. The Community Radio Forum (CRF) of India, which represents community radio stations across the country, wrote to Communications Minister Kapil Sibal in May asking him to reconsider the decision as community radio came in the non-profit sector and would be placed under much hardship if it was forced to pay the increased royalty. A press release issued by the forum said: It is shocking that community radio stations, which are of, for and by communities, often in remote, rural and hilly areas, operating in marginalising and disadvantageous conditions, will now be required to pay as much as Rs.91,000 per annum as royalty/licence charges for operating a small FM community radio station broadcasting within a range of 5-10 kilometres with a 50 watt transmitter. The Government of India, through its various ministries, has been deploying various strategies to suppress freedom of media in the country. One such method has been to arbitrarily and unreasonably raise the barriers to entry, causing smaller players to drop out and creating a non-level playing field.
The Community Radio Association submitted a memorandum to Sibal in the second week of May. It said: As you are aware, the Government of India has been advocating a strong policy for encouraging more and more community radio stations in rural and backward regions of the country in an attempt to empower the rural and marginalised people. However, it is regrettable that the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has adopted a retrograde policy by equating the non-profit community radio stations with other commercial stations.
The CRF is incidentally on the I&B Ministry's screening committee for community radio and is also identified as a nodal agency for complaints resolution for community radio under the government's draft Broadcast Bill/Content Code 2006/2007.
There are 132 community radio stations in India that address a range of issues from gender to education. Advocates of community radio rightly argue that these issues are not adequately addressed by the mainstream media and that it is the community radio stations that give people an opportunity to express themselves. The criterion for getting a licence itself is rather stringent. Non-profit organisations have to show that they have at least three years of experience doing community work before they can apply for a licence. In community radio, there is the option of receiving low-cost, battery-operated transmission within a limited range.
A persistent demand of community radio operators to the Department of Telecommunications has been to exempt them from paying spectrum fees. Now, instead of exemption, there has been a mammoth increase of the fee. The CRF argues that this will paralyse the sector as many existing stations will have to be shut down and that it will also discourage new applicants. This move, said the CRF, was clearly a mockery of the government's claim that no licence fee was charged for community radio.
As per the policy, the I&B Ministry would insist only on a bank guarantee of Rs.25,000 at the time of signing the Grant for Permission Agreement. However, for frequency allocation, operators had to pay a fee to the WPC Wing of the Ministry of Communications, apply for clearance from the Standing Committee on Frequency Allocation (SACFA), obtain a Wireless Operating Licence (WOL), and so on.
Raising the spectrum fee by almost 500 per cent could mean that genuine grass-roots communities will be excluded and that community radio licences will be captured by rich non-governmental organisations (NGOs), universities and private educational institutions. As a mark of protest, the CRF decided to boycott a policy consultation held by the I&B Ministry on May 9 and 10. It also decided to observe May 9 as a day of silence by switching off transmitters for the whole day.
N. Ramakrishnan, general secretary of the CRF, told Frontline from Bangalore that the government should recognise community radio as a resource. He said that the CRF had been formed in January 2007 with the objective of amplifying the progressive nature of the community radio policy and democratising licensing procedures. The community radio policy guidelines, issued by the government in 2002, were revised in 2006 to include civil society organisations. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) apparently came out with a position paper that recommended zero spectrum fee for community radio.
Grass-roots NGOs, as it is, find it difficult to put together Rs.20,000, not to speak of Rs.91,000, Ramakrishnan said. The Krishi Vigyan Kendras would not feel the pinch, he said.
Henvalvani, the community radio station in Tehri district, Uttarakhand, is run by Rajendra Negi, Ravi Gosain, Raghu Bhai Jhardhari, Pradeep Kothari and Aarti Negi. The young State does not have a regional Doordarshan channel, so Henvalvani has an important role to play here. But the radio station does not have a regular source of funding.
According to Rajendra Negi, its station director, Henvalvani found it difficult even to raise the monthly rent of Rs.3,000 for the office from where the station operates. We don't have proper infrastructure; we have just one table for our transmitter. But we reach out to nearly 450 villages and all in the local dialect, said Rajendra Negi. The staff at Henvalvani are volunteers, several of them students. Issues relating to daily life water, electricity, roads, schools, and so on are broadcast. In the summers, information about forest fires is relayed to us, and through our caller line system we regularly keep people updated about developments, including feedback from officials that we get in the form of interviews, said Rajendra Negi.
Sajan Venniyoor, former general secretary and one of the founder members of the CRF, told Frontline that of the 132 community radio stations operating in India, the majority were concentrated in urban areas and that only a few were in the hands of NGOs or civil society organisations. Delhi, he said, had more stations than many States put together. I would find it difficult to quantify the benefit from community radios to urban India, but in rural India it is very significant, he said. For instance, if a small station in a hill State announced bus timings five times a day in the local dialect, it had a huge social benefit. The local dialect also received encouragement due to its frequent usage.
The idea of community radio was to serve people who do not have the benefits of modern communication, not to concentrate in already media-rich areas, he said. Community radio advocacy groups have long campaigned for the dissemination of news. At present, there is a ban on it. Traffic, weather, disasters, education and so on are topics that community radio stations can freely broadcast. But even this is being questioned. In rural areas, everything is political. Even the digging of a well has a certain political dimension to it, said a community radio representative.
It is not clear whether the government will decide to revoke the hike or exempt community radio from spectrum fee altogether. What is evident is that there is a growing opinion against the commercialisation of resources such as spectrum at least in contexts like community radio which have a certain social importance.