Frederick Noronha (FN) on Fri, 26 Mar 2004 15:44:01 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> CAMPAIGN: Community Radio Gives India's Villagers a Voice

INTERESTING STORY from South India. Sorry for the delay in posting it. As
someone involved with the community-radio debate, I'd urge anyone who sees
potential in this form of communication to add their voice to the demand
for freeing India's airwaves. The world's "largest democracy" needs to
prove its commitment to free speech.

Interestingly, while Deputy PM L K Advani was recently praising the
potential of community radio (while launching the educational radio
station at Anna University in Chennai) officials of the government are
quoted below as expressing their reservations. Fear is the key! The
potential is lost.

If you would like to join a mailing-list devoted to spreading awareness
about community radio and its potential, sign on below... FN
>>>>> cr-india mailing list

Community Radio Gives India's Villagers a Voice Officials Worry Local
Stations May Foment Unrest By Rama Lakshmi

Special to The Washington Post Wednesday, September 17, 2003;

BOODIKOTE, India -- Crushed under the weight of three years of drought,
the villagers lost their patience when the public water pipes dried up
last June. For eight days, there was no water for cooking, cleaning or

There were murmurs of protest everywhere. Women came out of their homes with
empty pots demanding that the old pipes be fixed and new wells dug. Men
stood at street corners and debated angrily. The village chief made
promises, but nothing happened.

Then, a young man ran over to the village radio station and picked up a

"Women complained and shouted into the mike and vented their anger at the
village chief's indifference. There was chaos everywhere. But I recorded
everything," said Nagaraj Govindappa, 22, a jobless villager. He played the
tape that evening on the small community radio station called Namma Dhwani,
or Our Voices. The embarrassed village chief ordered the pipes repaired.
Within days, water was gushing again.

India's first independent community radio initiative is in this millet- and
tomato-growing village in the southern state of Karnataka. It is a cable
radio service because India forbids communities to use the airwaves. A media
advocacy group, with the help of U.N. funds, laid cables, sold subsidized
radios with cable jacks to villagers and trained young people to run the

"The power of community radio as a tool of social change is enormous in a
country that is poor, illiterate and has a daunting diversity of languages
and cultures," said Ashish Sen, director of Voices, the advocacy group.

Emboldened by a Supreme Court ruling in 1995 declaring airwaves to be public
property, citizens groups and activists began pushing for legislation that
would free the airwaves from government control. Two years ago, India
auctioned its FM stations to private businesses to air entertainment
programs. And late last year, India allowed some elite colleges to set up
and run campus radio stations.

By keeping the airwaves restricted, activists complain, the Indian
government lags behind such South Asian neighbors as Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Nepal launched South Asia's first community radio station in 1995 and today
has at least five independent stations across the country that address
people's complaints and act as hubs of information in times of strife. In
Sri Lanka, Kothmale Radio has been an integral part of the Kothmale
community for 14 years.

Last December, Sri Lanka issued a broadcasting license to the formerly
clandestine radio station run by the Tamil Tiger rebels, Voice of Tigers.
The decision was made to strengthen the peace process underway after nearly
two decades of war and to bring the radio transmissions under Sri Lankan

Radiophony, an Indian lobby group for community radio, claims that villagers
can set up a low-powered, do-it-yourself radio station -- with a half-watt
transmitter, a microphone, antenna and a cassette player -- for
approximately $25. The group says such a station can reach about a third of
a mile and cover a small village.

Last year, the group supplied a low-wattage transmitter to a World
Bank-supported women's group in Oravakal, a village in the southern state of
Andhra Pradesh. Mana Radio, or Our Radio, ran for five months before
officials from the communications ministry seized the equipment and shut
down the broadcast in February.

"We have to tread very cautiously when it comes to community radio," said
Pavan Chopra, secretary of India's ministry of information and broadcasting.
"As of today we don't think that villagers are equipped to run radio
stations. People are unprepared, and it could become a platform to air
provocative, political content that doesn't serve any purpose except to
divide people. It is fraught with danger."

The ministry runs the All India Radio service that covers the country and
has more than 200 stations. Chopra said communities can buy time from the
radio service and run their programs under state supervision. Since 1999,
two groups of villagers, one in the western state of Gujarat and the other
in the northern state of Jharkhand, have used time slots on All India Radio
to run programs in their local dialects. But activists say that the central
principle of community radio is to own and run a radio station freely.

"Community radio in India is not about playing alternative rock music," said
Seema Nair, who helps the villagers run the station at Boodikote. "It is a
new source of strength for poor people because it addresses their most basic
development needs."

Since it began broadcasting in March, Our Voices community radio has
crackled with the sounds of schoolchildren singing songs and giggling to
jokes; of young girls talking fearlessly about the evils of dowry and
admonishing boys for teasing them at school; of women giving out recipes and
teaching others how to open a bank account; and of farmers debating the
vagaries of the weather and fluctuating crop prices.

"This radio station is ours because it speaks about us -- in our language
and in our accent. When I turn it on, I hear the voices of people I know,"
said Triveni Narayanswamy, 28, as she twirled the dial of her tiny
transistor radio.

Narayanswamy sold milk until her only cow died three months ago. 

"But when I went to claim insurance money for my cow, the agent tried to
cheat me. He said he owed me no money," she said. "I went up and down his
office at least a dozen times in vain. Then I spoke about my problem on
Namma Dhwani radio. The next day, the agent gave me the insurance amount."
She said it was about $240.

"Our radio is more powerful than the corrupt and inefficient village
council," she said proudly. "They hold secret meetings and don't spend the
money on our welfare. I want the proceedings of such meetings to be
recorded. We all have a right to know what happens to the money that comes

2003 The Washington Post Company

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