Reaching out through the skies

Published : May 06, 2005 00:00 IST

Community radio arrives in rural India and begins to serve as a development tool, addressing issues of local concern, despite the absence of policy support and government aid.


AT the crafts mela at Dehra Dun from February 25 to March 6, which buzzed with people digging into piles of shawls, scarves and other clothes or eating chaat, there was a stall in the farthest corner of the venue, which attracted a few curious onlookers. This belonged to the Hewalvani Community Radio, whose sign said: "People's radio, For people, By people". Every now and then some visitor would ask: "So, do you make Garhwali music albums? What channel? Do you need people to make music programmes?" Others wanted to know how it helped in development and were often openly sceptical about its sustainability. The personnel at the stall explained: "We are a group of people making radio programmes about issues relevant to and important for communities in and around villages. This is because other media may not be able to address our problems. It also helps people to know more, learn, communicate and exchange information."

Community Radio is a radio service for geographically bound communities, where infrastructure is poor and mainstream national and regional media may not reach. The service is usually run and managed by local people and addresses issues relating to the community in the local language. It has great potential to serve as a development tool in rural India in terms of creating awareness, spreading information and facilitating communication. However, India is yet to see a full-fledged community radio movement or process as government policy, governed by the Telegraph Act of 1885, does not permit such broadcasts.

Community radio broadcasting became a possibility for the first time when the Supreme Court declared in 1995 that airwaves were public property, in Ministry of Information and Broadcasting v. the Cricket Association of India. The Supreme Court ruled that airwaves must be utilised for advancing the public good. Representatives of some non-governmental organisations (NGOs), mediapersons and government officials met and formulated a draft on community radio in 1996, but it is yet to be addressed by the authorities concerned.

While commercial FM (frequency modulated) licensing started in 2000 with a huge licence fee and stringent restrictions, community radio made a small start in December 2002 when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government started issuing broadcasting licences to reputed academic institutions. However, despite the absence of policy support and government aid, several community radio experiments have been initiated by village residents and NGOs, funded by agencies such as the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). They have also devised ways of narrowcasting or broadcasting, depending on the means available, framework of rules and outreach demands.

In the case of the Uttaranchal Community Radio, after a basic training workshop held by the Himalaya Trust in September 2001, five groups were formed, which started making programmes. Rajendra Negi, a volunteer at Hewalvani, one of the five groups, says: "First we did not know what it meant but we learnt. Even the people were confused. When we first started recording and going from village to village, the local intelligence unit was also suspicious of our work. But later on, people were involved."

Hewalvani makes programmes and plays them back to an assembled audience from a tape recorder, occasionally with the help of a loudspeaker. Now, with help from Equal Access, a United States-based NGO working in collaboration with the UNDP in India for community radio, Uttaranchal Radio is all set to go on air on Worldspace Radio, some time in the third week of April. Worldspace has agreed to give them air time twice a week. Since Worldspace receivers are quite expensive, only a few will be installed in different villages and people will have to assemble in one place to listen to the broadcasts.

A group based in Karnataka, Namma Dhwani, uses cable-casting. In this method, programmes are narrowcast through cable channels, thus making it necessary for the villagers to have a television set and a satellite connection. Another option is to buy time on All India Radio's local stations. Groups such as the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan in Gujarat have bought airtime at concessional rates and broadcast in the local language for about an hour every week.

These may not be the best options, taking into consideration the issues of access and finances, but under the current policy framework only academic institutions can apply for a community radio licence. Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj in 2002 set a target of having over 1,000 community radio stations in different universities and campuses. Today, there are not more than 10 operational community radio stations. Until recently, it was only Anna University in Chennai that had a functional radio station. This year, institutes such as Jamia Milia Islamia and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi and the MOP Vaishnav College in Chennai started community radio stations.

However, a distinction should be made between campus radio and community radio. Campus radio broadcasting may also address social issues but with different priorities. Anna University radio's programme schedule does have development-related programmes, such as a few committed to the nearby fishing communities. But how far can such efforts reach the interiors, considering that the students have to attend to their syllabus? N.D. Jayal from the Himalaya Trust says: "We once had Doon School students help us and I even thought of their involvement on a long-term basis, but you cannot expect them [students] to get involved over and above their curricular and extracurricular activities."

THE Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), in its December 2004 recommendations, suggested that any legal entity, single person or NGO should be allowed to set up a radio station. It also suggested that the broadcasts of news and current affairs should be allowed, as well as local advertising for commercial viability.

Community radio initiatives have been able to take on the authorities. Archana Raturi from Hewalvani told Frontline the story of Godawaridevi, who was being harassed by the local patwari (police official). "For many days, nobody knew what had happened. Then we got to know about this incident. She had earlier opposed this man and so he got her beaten up. We went and interviewd the woman. Then we also spoke to people around that village. Later we took the programme to other villages and played it there. Enough support was generated for the woman. Next time around this patwari will think twice before he takes the law into his own hands," she said.

But it is not an easy task to carry on without funding. There are other problems such as girls in the group getting married. Rajendra says: "When Sameera's sister got married it was a big blow. It was as if we were pushed many steps back. We took some time to get the same momentum. Soon other girls may also go. Not all will be able to work." Vipin Joshi from Pradip community radio, one of the five groups of the Uttaranchal Community Radio, adds: "There are not enough people. So there are gaps when we make programmes. Even if the costs could be covered, like that of travelling, cassettes, and so on, we would do it full time. But when we have to spend money on this then we also need to have another occupation."

Seeing her daughter work for free, and watching her explain community radio to strangers at the mela, Archana's mother says: "There should be some result. They have been working so hard for the past three years. We know this is good work and it is for the benefit of society, but at least when I turn the radio on, I'd like to hear my daughter's name, since she has made the programme. There is no salary, no credits, no radio. It is not easy to go on like this."

Funding, if any, is inconsistent and irregular. If a policy decision is taken, then government grants would be given, and with the possibility of transmission, local advertising revenue would pour in. None of the political parties doubt the utility and need for community radio.

Ian Pringles from UNESCO, who has worked on such projects extensively, says there needs to be government intervention. "There should be a public process that is well thought out and well planned. There has been a steady progress and until the time a good policy is brought out, much work can be done in terms of training on skills, knowledge, and capacity building," he said.

It does not occur to the group of women in Tipli village in the Hewal valley, about three and a half hours away from Dehra Dun, intently listening to a docu-drama on dowry death, that the cities and the authorities recently celebrated International Women's Day. They are too cut off from such information. For them what matters is this group, which is asking every man and woman in the village if, faced with such a situation, they would give or take dowry. Hewalvani has also recorded and played back what other villagers have to say about this drama, and social situation. For Tipli, social change is happening with or without government policy, funds or adequate literacy levels.

Which is why Indira Ramesh, the inspiration for Uttaranchal Radio, is unperturbed by the policy delay. She said: "There is so much to do. Licences will take time. Till then one can continue with narrowcasting."

Article 19 of the Constitution says: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." However, the Telegraph Act is perhaps a big hurdle to overcome. And as policy-makers stay indifferent to the needs of the people, those who have taken up the cause go from village to village and mountain to mountain with a small recorder player, helping people to communicate.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment