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<nettime> INDIA: Breaking Free: Battle over the Airwaves
Frederick Noronha (FN) on Thu, 19 Jun 2003 16:46:27 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> INDIA: Breaking Free: Battle over the Airwaves

			From Economic & Political Weekly

Breaking Free: Battle over the Airwaves
Vinod Pavarala

In February 2003, the small village of Orvakal in Kurnool district of
Andhra Pradesh off the Hyderabad-Bangalore highway had unwanted visitors
from the Communications Ministry of the Government of India.  The village
that had been the focus of development work by the UNDP for years had
recently launched an innovative experiment in community media called Mana
Radio (Our Radio).

Supported by the A.P. government's World Bank-funded poverty alleviation
programme, Velugu (meaning 'light', run under the aegis of the Society for
Elimination of Rural Poverty), this project used a tiny transmitter that
covered a radius of half a kilometer to enable rural women members of
self-help groups to communicate with each other and with other residents
of the village.  About four months after the programme was started amidst
much media excitement and participation by politicians, officials from the
Central government brought police to seize the equipment and declared the
broadcast illegal.  Under the archaic Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 and the
Wireless Act of 1933, they were of course legally right.

Paradoxically, around the same time, the Ministry of Information and
Broadcasting (MIB) announced policy guidelines for what it termed
'community radio'.  According to the scheme, 'established' educational
institutions, such as universities, IITs, IIMs, and residential schools
could obtain licenses to run their own radio stations.  Mistakenly labeled
'community radio', the norms laid down for licenses include content
regulations that suggest that these campus radio stations air programmes
on agriculture, environment, health, and other development-related
information.  Apart from the fact that university campuses are privileged
'communities' with more than adequate access to media resources, it is
unrealistic to expect campus radio stations managed by young students to
eschew fun and entertainment.  There is no apparent fit between form and
content in this new policy, even as marginalized rural communities
continue to be denied the right to produce, own and operate real community

Radio is an inexpensive medium -- both in terms of production and
management as well as for reception; it involves a fairly uncomplicated
means of production, making it easier for people to learn the techniques;
it overcomes the limitations of literacy; it is more appropriate for
cultures dominated by orality and helps enhance cultural identity and
community pride; the widespread ownership of and familiarity with
transistor radios make it potentially a people's medium; all over the
Third World radio has a proven track record of being a catalyst for social
change.  It may be possible for communities to use television and the
Internet as well, but the reasons stated above plus the inherent
inequities built into these new communication technologies render them
less appropriate as substitutes.

Historically, radio has been used by the state within the context of an
older paradigm of community development as early as the 1950s.  That whole
approach was top-down, elitist, pedagogical, and treated people as only
passive consumers of information. However, 'community radio', in the sense
of a non-state, non-market venture, owned and managed by the community
(defined as a territorially bound group with some commonality of
interests), is a relatively recent idea in India. This idea is today being
articulated against the backdrop of the rise of new social movements and
non-governmental organizations. These movements and NGOs appeared on the
Indian socioeconomic canvas in the post-Emergency years, as the state
suffered from a severe crisis of legitimacy, giving rise to a civic
ferment.  These organizations have now, after two decades of grassroots
work, reached a level of maturity, redefining politics and development in
the country.  After years of focusing on issues of livelihood, capacity
building and mobilization, some of these organizations have now turned
their attention to deploying media technologies for empowerment of
marginalized communities.

Even as the state-owned public service broadcaster, All India Radio, has
turned 75 and the Prasar Bharati Corporation has completed five years of
its existence, broadcasting in our country continues to be governed by
archaic laws and uncompromising bureaucracy. Apart from the inadequacy of
the laws governing electronic media in India, the state is also faced with
a new set of dilemmas and demands.  While private broadcasters are seeking
a free market for media and consumers are demanding the right to choose, a
number of civil society organizations are challenging the positions held
and roles played by state-centred or market-run media and are articulating
the need for alternatives in the form of popular, community-based media.

Several NGOs in the country have now developed an active interest in
community radio and some, in the absence of an independent license, have
been making use of available spaces within the state sector of
broadcasting.  Others, fearing cooptation and appropriation, have been
steadfastly resisting the offer to use state radio; they have, instead,
continued to creatively engage in narrowcasting.  The Government of India
stubbornly refuses to yield to the demands for opening up this sector,
under misplaced apprehensions that secessionists, militants or subversive
elements would misuse the medium. These so-called subversive elements do
not need official sanction to communicate with each other.  There are all
kinds of simple as well as more sophisticated mechanisms by which such
groups bypass the official communication routes.  This is just a bogey
being raised by a government that is uneasy about the consequences of
democratization of the airwaves.  The question we should ask is: why does
this government find Rupert Murdoch trustworthier than a poor, unlettered,
Dalit woman who wants to use a media channel to communicate?

This special section of EPW attempts to raise this and other critical
questions related to broadcasting in India, with specific reference to
community radio.  Fred Noronha provides an overview of developments in the
South Asian region, where many of India's neighbours have taken bigger
strides than India towards community radio.  Kanchan Kumar offers a
comprehensive historical analysis of broadcasting policy in India,
highlighting various government actions since independence caught between
autonomy and control.  The paper by Jo Tacchi examines community radio
policies in Australia and South Africa, hailed as one of the oldest and
most progressive, respectively, to suggest that state support in terms of
legislation and funding are imperative in the Indian context.  My paper is
based on an evaluation of Chala Ho Gaon Mein, the community radio project
of Alternative for India Development (AID) in Jharkhand, focusing on the
tangible and intangible benefits of the programme for the community.  
Finally, Ashish Sen makes an argument for carving out a legal space for
community radio in India by demonstrating the excitement generated by
Namma Dhwani (Our Voices), a collaborative community audio experiment by
Voices and Myrada in Karnataka.

[I would like to thank EPW and Padma Prakash for giving this space to
deliberate on the state of radio broadcasting in India and to share
experiences from the field of community radio.]

See www.mib.nic.in for detailed guidelines and application for license.

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