GOA, India, 11 December 2006
Eleven years after the Indian Supreme Court directed New Delhi to "open up the airwaves", campaigners who battled long for this to happen gave a sigh of relief when India finally opened up its broadcasts to community radio in mid November 2006.
"The decision by the Indian government to allow civil society organisations and community groups to own and operate radio stations will give an additional tool to the civil society to empower people it works with," commented Rahul Kumar of OneWorld South Asia, a global civil society and non-government organisation network working in eleven languages.
On November 16, the Indian Cabinet decided to grant permission for setting up of community radio stations to non-profit organisations
apart from the already-permitted educational institutions provided they had a proven record, no links to political parties and fulfilled some other criteria.
A region reluctant to community radio
South Asia, including India, has long been reluctant to open up community radio broadcasting. Community radio is a type of radio service that caters to the interests of a certain area, broadcasting material that is popular to a local audience but is overlooked by more powerful broadcast groups.
At an APC meeting in April 2006, community radio network AMARC Asia-Pacific’s regional coordinator Suman Basnet had told APCNews that "there’s still a huge struggle (in Asia-Pacific) for a community radio-friendly atmosphere and enabling environment." He had then said: "Legislation is still largely not in place."
Indonesia has hundreds of "pirate" stations. Thailand too has its un-licensed operators. In Indonesia, legislation was being drafted. In South Asia, only Nepal allowed community radio
with some pressures since 1997. Bangladesh has in place draft legislation on community radio.
In South Asia itself
a region mainly consisting of former British colonies and one of the most populous and poverty-stricken regions of the planet tiny Nepal is the only country where community radio stations have flourished. In India, citizens groups have long argued for a ‘third layer’ of broadcasters, apart from the State-run and commercial FM networks.
Said Dr Vinod Pavarala, a US-educated communications academic based in the South Indian city of Hyderabad, who solidly supports the idea of community radio: "We are (shortly) organising a media tour of the Deccan Development Society radio station at Machnoor (Andhra Pradesh, that has been waiting for years to get a license despite having all the equipment needed). I can’t go on asking (village women there) to be any more patient."
But change came unexpectedly in mid-November, when almost all had given up hope and had got tired of waiting.
"The new policy will now allow civil society organisations, non-government organisations (NGOs) and other non-profits to apply for community radio licenses making ‘citizens radio’ a reality. Members of the Forum have congratulated this move that will bring about democratisation of India’s airwaves," commented Gujarat based citizens’ media campaigner and videographer Stalin K. of the Community Radio Forum, India.
Backed by influential players like UNESCO and the UNDP
both United Nations bodies as also the experiences of even poorer, less tech-skilled countries in Africa and East Asia, the campaigners have long made a case for promoting community radio in India too.
Reactions: A mix of caution and optimism
But the news was tempered with caution. Campaigners were cautions, after many false starts – including a policy from the earlier right-wing BJP national Indian government for ‘community radio’ that only allowed prominent educational centres to launch their own stations. That too, it must be specified, under strict conditions, along the lines of campus radio stations.
IIT-educated Delhi engineer Arun Mehta whose company radiophony.com offers circuits to create ultra low-powered FM transmitters for a few hundred rupees, questioned the new policy.
Mehta commented, in an online discussion forum: "Wait a second! No news or current affairs (under the new policy)? (Delhi-based university) Jamia Milia Islamia’s community radio has a surfeit of Urdu poetry (in a language popular among the Muslim community, which it serves). Because without news and current affairs, they don’t have much else (to broadcast)."
But others saw it as reason for optimism. "I agree (that this technology) will have so many spin offs. There are exiciting times ahead!," commented Rajen Varada, director of the Bangalore-based Technology For The People network, also a non-profit organisation.
"(Those who have regularly campaigned in cyberspace have probably) pushed it really hard lobbying offline as well. You all really deserve a round of applause," commented Isteyaq Ahmed, the marketing manager of the commercially-run RED FM 93.5 in Mumbai, taking part in a mailing-list set up by campaigners called CR-India.
The Kuala Lumpur-based Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union noted this decision, and said the move came "aiming to put in place a vibrant community radio system in the country". It noted such radio stations by non-profit organisations would be allowed "after ensuring security clearances from the Defence and Home Ministries."
"Congratulations for this great achievement! Your hard work and perseverance has finally paid off. There are many challenges ahead but for now this is just fantastic! Moments ago the news was announced in AMARC9 general assembly in Jordan and was received by all amidst thunderous applause," commented Suman Basnet, the Nepali campaigner and radio specialist who heads AMARC Asia Pacific, based in Kathmandu, in a message emailed back to South Asia.
Community radio outlets in other parts of the world also carry news and information programming geared toward the local area, particularly smaller population or language groups poorly served by other media outlets. Its proponents argue that community stations can be valuable assets for a region.
Technology and economics have made it possible to set up a large number of low-powered FM stations, catering to local needs. These, more importantly, offer information that could play a crucial role in the lives of the poor, via a device
a radio the bulk can today easily afford.
Does this mark the beginning of the end of a regime where the "world’s largest democracy’s"
as India calls itself has had its airwaves controlled by rigorous oversight? Interestingly, India has only nominal controls over its press, cinema and internet, and moderate control over cable TV and satellite TV.