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The Rediff Interview/Sushma Iyengar, activist
'Radio will never go'
November 13, 2006
But, in real life, the Government of India doesn't want to lose its iron grip over the 'airwaves' which was hailed as 'public property' by the Supreme Court in 1995.
Far away from the media glare there is a group within civil society which is fighting for the choice to have 'community radio.'
Right now, only educational institutions -- eg, university campuses -- are allowed to have their own radio station. Somehow, the government is reluctant to allow other communities to have their own radio stations covering a larger radius.
Advocates of community radio argue that if academic institutions can be allowed to broadcast, why not allow all people's organisations that are registered under the Charity Act as well.
If NGOs are good enough to be registered under the Act, why can't they run radio stations for their respective communities?
The concept of a community radio station is an idea that has arrived but the current community radio policy, which carries guidelines for applying licenses for setting up low power community radio stations, is retrograde.
In December 2004, broadcast regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India submitted its opinion to the government in which it recommended the lifting of restrictions.
But old-fashioned babus in the home ministry are raising objections and blocking the arrival of a revolutionary and pro-people's idea. The government has many concerns to address before it grants licenses to communities, non-government organisations and grassroots movements.
The foremost objection is regarding security concern -- that insurgents or unscrupulous elements may control radio stations and broadcast objectionable material.
Another concern is technical in nature, that low power frequency may interfere with civil aviation network, police or the defence network.
With rising demand for community radio, the home ministry will have to come out with a balanced approach because the advantages far outnumber the risks involved in granting licenses, claims Sushma Iyengar, a respected leader of a grassroots movement in Gujarat. She spoke to Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt in Bhuj.
Why is community radio important? How does it function?
Community radio is completely decentralised radio where the local communities run the radio station, at low frequency, for themselves. They have access to the medium and the message.
Nepal has the one of the best run community programmes in South Asia. It's a popular medium across the world where just as you have decentralised the press and cable channels, you have decentralised the radio system.
It's a low-cost operation which is decentralised and communities make the programme which are relevant to them. They broadcast it by setting up an antenna, but in India community radio is not allowed and the government refuses to give license to run it.
At Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghthan, we have women who themselves make programmes which are scripted, enacted, recorded and edited by them but still, they have to broadcast the programme on air through All India Radio.
To do that they have to buy time to go on air unlike community radio where we can make and broadcast the programme ourselves.
How does the cost work out?
Approximately the cost of running the radio station in a radius of 1 to 25 km will need an investment of Rs 10 lakh. In community radio, the setting up of the antenna is costly. The actual cost of the programme is quite low.
What is the broader concept behind community radio?
Community radio is very important. It is a part of the citizen's freedom of expression. It's deeply contradictory that in our society where you have freedom of speech, where you have a free press, where you have the right to publish your views like KMVS has a magazine called Ujhas but still, we are not allowed to have our own radio station.
There are thousands of regional people running newspapers. Our press is decentralised. You can shoot a programme and can show it on cable television which is freely accessible. Our audio technology is free and accessible for communities. The internet is free, blogs are free. Today educated communities have a whole lot of media available to express themselves.
Some irresponsible elements will always be there but by and large our media has been responsible. But it's deeply contradictory that those who are not literate but whose oral tradition of information and knowledge is still strong and for whom the radio is the main medium even today are not given permission to have one of their own.
Rural people and illiterate communities should have an access to the medium in which the medium and message both should be under their control so that they can give full expression to their aspirations. Community radio should become a strong developmental tool for India. Basically, we are asking for access to airwaves.
What's the legal status of the issue?
The information and broadcasting ministry is trying to build a consensus. The issue went on a round of all the ministries. Whether community radio should happen or not is being discussed in New Delhi. It's always facing the bulwark from the home ministry. They claim that a completely decentralised radio is difficult to monitor and they want to know who will access it and all that blah, blah... They are creating a fear psychosis around the issue.
But in an insecure world with too many violent groups thriving, obviously security is a matter of importance for any nation.
Of course, security matters to any country. Our answer to it is that there are hundreds of things happening in our country that jeopardises security, there are things hampering development and creating hurdles in the empowerment of the community.
These factors have to be balanced. You have to see the potential merit of a medium like community radio that can empower Indian communities. I always believe that if you create responsibility within the citizens then you are more secure. History has seen that if you start clamping down on various form of expressions then as a society you become more insecure. You can't even monitor everything.
Google Earth is showing everything but even then you have boards restricting photography on our borders. The whole issue needs a second look. If you can monitor your television channels, if you can monitor the press then you can monitor your airwaves. There are ways for checks and balances, like who is given permission to start a radio station.
Intelligence agencies cite the case of Maoists types of insurgent groups taking control of radio stations.
Yeah, so? They can run a television channel, they can run a press and newspaper. Why don't you stop that? Then, why don't you put a blanket ban on these existing medium too?
How do you see community radio helping in the development of the region?
The communities want to inspire other people to share what happens in one village. People want to share their knowledge of technology and other things. Why do you have all other types of mass media? It is for the same reason that at the grassroots level, community radio is required.
Of course there will be a balance of entertainment and information.
KMVS had six programmes through All India Radio and all were very successful with 70 per cent of the rural audience. It had a huge impact on women sarpanches. The programme named Kunjal panje Kutchji gave them inspiration and confidence. It showed them how developmental issues can get subverted and how it can be tackled and handled.
Migratory crane birds are known here as Kunjal. They are considered as the daughters of Kutch. Kunjal was used as a metaphor in the programme. She was the commentator commenting on everything around us. She would criticise the politics being played in development activities and why education is important. She was a non-human character yet so human.
On public demand it was extended by one year. Later, listeners of that programme formed a club, collected funds to give it to our team to continue making programmes. More than 160 music groups of Kutch came out of the villages to play on radio. It was a cultural revival.
It also gave expression to a completely voiceless people. To a woman living in a village without much means, a newspaper is still a remote medium and the printed word is still a fearful thing. But she can immediately relate to the radio. That's why I think community radio is an extremely powerful medium.
What are you doing to persuade the government?
A huge network has been formed of people believing that the government must allow community radio after putting checks and balances in place. The kind of explosion television and mobiles have created will be repeated in the case of community radio.
We are saying this since the last one decade but look at your urban listeners. How radio has come back. Rang De Basanti and Lage Raho Munnabhai are reviving the spirit of nationalism through radio. Today you don't have to scream about the effectiveness of radio. Television has arrived and radio has not gone. And, it will never go.
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