Frederick Noronha (FN) on Mon, 29 Mar 2004 17:17:48 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Community radio in India... still awaited


>From Frederick Noronha

MANIPAL (Karnataka): It's almost a decade since the Supreme Court handed
down its powerful judgement ruling that India's airwaves are "public
property" to be utilised for promoting the public good and ventilating
plurality of views, opinions and ideas (AIR 1995 Supreme Court 1236). Yet,
despite many promises, New Delhi has so far dragged its feet, played on
fears and sought to give only watered-down alternatives to opening up
community radio stations.

"Whether the Government gives licences or not (for community stations), it
will come," says an optimistic Stalin K. He's one of team in Gujarat's arid
Kutchh area which hires costly airtime on the still largely state-controlled
All India Radio. This is the only option now, as laws currently don't allow
citizens' groups or non-profits to set up ultra low-powered FM radio
stations, as done in many other countries of the globe.

Their 'Radio Ujjas' broadcasts creatively-scripted programs in the local
Kutchi dialect -- which has no written form -- to low-literacy Kutchh, which
is Gujarat's largest district over half of which is covered by desert.
"We're paying Rs 31,000 to broadcast each episode. It's not viable or
sustainable," says Stalin.

Community radio, a vastly misunderstood or unknown concept in India, means
having low-powered FM radio stations that speak in the local language, take
care of local diversity and information needs, and fill in the gap between
the state-run and the commercial radio stations which currently exist.

"For India, it offers another realm. It offers a chance to reduce gaps in
education, language, class and social structure," argues Dr Leela Rao, head
of the Manipal Institute of Communication. Rao's journalism training centre
in coastal Karnataka is one of those waiting to set up a low-powered FM
transmitter of its own. Anna University, on the other coast of south India,
has launched its own campus radio station in February.

But campus radio, though welcome, is no substitute for community radio

"How can you expect city-based students to make (radio) programmes on
village people? On the other hand, if we come to the city to make our
program, you'll ask us what our qualifications are. Both attitudes are
unrealistic," says "General" Narasamma, a young rustic woman given an
unusual appellation because of her leadership qualities and outspoken nature.
She's part of the Deccan Development Society in Pastapur, two hours from
Hyderabad. DDS was supported by the UNESCO to set up its own station and
infrastructure but can't get on the airwaves since the government simply
won't give it a licence.

Besides Pastapur and Kutch, other small experiments in community
broadcasting including hiring out the airwaves at Daltongunj (in the
poverty-stricken Palamu district of Jharkhand) and another at Kolar district
(Karnataka) which sends out radio signals via cable, in a rather roundabout

In September 2003, the Washington Post carried a glowing article, listing
the potential of community radio in India, for taking on, among other
things, even a corruption-ridden or slothful panchayat in an area stricken by
three years (now, four) of drought. It gave the example of the small
community-radio station 'Namma Dhwani', or Our Voices, in Kolar. There,
broadcasting is done via cable through blanked-screen TV sets, so as to
avoid breaking the law which transmitting directly would involve.

Ironically, at the launch earlier this year of the Anna University's campus
radio station in February 2004, deputy Prime Minister L K Advani was all
praise of the potential of community radio stations. Yet, in the very same
Washington Post article which he cited so eloquently, senior New Delhi
ministry officials had strong reservations. The view from the ministry was:
"We have to tread very cautiously when it comes to community radio. 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."

In recent months, the Government of India has been opening up the airwaves
to campus-based low-powered FM stations, which it calls "community radio".
But while it spoke of opening up "thousands" of such stations -- which is
technically possible -- the high costs in spectrum fees, and tough licensing
procedures, meant this police so far has drawn only a few takers. 

"You make a law to see it will not succeed. Then you say nobody is
interested, and hence it's not required. This is absurd," commented an angry
Bandana Mukhopadhyay. She's a former senior All India Radio official, now a
champion of the community-radio campaign. Mukhopadhyay was one of those who
sometimes sounded disillusioned and angry at a colloquium on the subject,
held in this coastal educational centre in south Karnataka, recently.

"All these things are being looked into. It is very difficult to regulate a
community radio," argues a young Anshuman Patnaik (33), joint-secretary of
the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. This official with a
physics-background, who earlier was in the Indian Revenue Service, currently
looks after the community radio section and is confident that the airwaves
will be opened up faster than expected.

"There's no shortage of spectrum available in FM. Yet, who's making FM
transmitters in India? Why has the FM capacity been allowed to wither away?"
argues an angry Vickram Crishna. Journalist and former IITian, Crishna is
part of the network that even shares ideas on how to make
your own transmitter -- for a few hundred rupees.  (See )

International organisations, including UN-based ones like UNDP and Unesco,
have been egging-on India to open up community-radio broadcastings, knowing
well the potential this type of communication has had in low-literacy,
waiting-for-development regions of the globe. Of course, community radio is
alive and kicking in much of the affluent world too. 

"We made an FM mono transmitter for a hundred rupees. The antenna cost us
another hundred. With a mini-disk (which costs about Rs 15,000 but is
convenient for editing and recording) we could get very high results with
very little training (for villagers)," says Crishna, a former Business India
journalist with a deep technology background. 

More permanent stations would need more investment, but this can be slowly
scaled up to meet needs, he argues. To demo the simple tools he used, he
holds aloft a plastic box in which the transmitter sits, and a
ordinary-looking wire that served as the antenna.

"It's very, very low powered, micro radio. It reaches a circumference of
about half-a-kilometre. But remember your audience is always within reach
for local broadcasting. Anna University (which launched its station in Feb
2004) set up a very rugged station costing Rs 10 lakh. We could build one
for a few thousand rupees. What would be the difference? Not much, except if
your a trained sound engineer," he argues.

"Most groups with a community radio dream are still awaiting a change in
policy. Some of the signs are promising," says a patient Dr Leela Rao. 

But others believe that there's a need for different approaches. The website has a link called "seizing the airwaves". 

One of Sri Lanka's well-known names long connected with radio, G.Victor A.
Goonetilleke, known widely in the world of world of DX-ing (monitoring
distant and unknown radio stations) fails to see the logic in the Indian

Says he: "What is the problem?  Fear of what?  Free speech? In Sri Lanka
private radio started with only music being allowed, it was a bold start,
but soon radio and TV were complete freedom. They have their own news,
political discussions and the Government even allowed the LTTE its radio
station. Sure there is even a civil war in Sri Lanka, but free speech is the
least of our problems.  You have guidelines like for any mode of media like
defamation, and certain accepted moral values. The problem is not really
free speech, but for officials to come out from their old ways of thinking."

     March 2004         | Frederick Noronha, Freelance Journalist
Su Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa    | Goa India 0091.832.2409490 or 2409783
    1  2  3  4  5  6    | ----------------------------------------
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14 15 16 17 18 19 20    | Writing with a difference	  
21 22 23 24 25 26 27    | ... on what makes *the* difference
28 29 30 31             |

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