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AMARC Asia Pacific President Ashish Sen - We need more information disseminated about availability of appropriate

Author's name: 
AHM Bazlur Rahman-S21BR
Dhaka, Bangladesh

AMARC Asia Pacific President Ashish Sen –
We need more information disseminated
about availability of appropriate, low cost technology
to set up Community Radio stations

Ashish Sen, Trustee, VOICES, and President, AMARC (World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters) – Asia Pacific Region, is a member of the Community Radio Forum and a Trustee of the Dev Nandan Ubhayeker Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore.

A media specialist for over three decades in various assignments, Sen is passionate about the community radio movement in the country. Recently back from a NGOs’ meet in Bihar to discuss the evolving role of community radio, he outlines for Radioandmusic.com the status of the CR initiative in the country.

How would you assess the current community radio scenario in India?

The most urgent challenge lies in bridging the gap between demand and supply. It’s been more than two years since the policy guidelines for community radio were announced. In March 2007, community radio advocates and practitioners were informed that the country had room for 5000 community radio stations. So far, a little more than 30 stations are operational – a substantial majority of which are campus based. Only three or four come from grass root communities. We need to rectify this imbalance.

At the same time, we need to have several more stations on air. How do we do this? First: by generating awareness- especially among the grass roots. Relatively few are aware about community radio. Advocacy that goes beyond the band of the converted is necessary. We need to have many more awareness based and capacity building programmes and more stake holders need to join the process. So far, the Community Radio Forum and CEMCA have been the main players organizing these workshops, supported by UN agencies and government, but there need to urgently go to scale.

There needs to be more information disseminated about the availability of appropriate and low cost technology in setting up community radio stations. For instance, very few are aware of NOMAD technology that is authorized manufactures of low cost transmitters. Most of us are aware only of BEL and WEBEL (also authorized dealers) whose costs are far steeper and beyond the reach of the aam aadmi. If community radio is to assert itself as a “voice for and of the voiceless” there needs to be greater impetus given towards providing and accessing low cost technology.

We also need to take a closer look at the policy guidelines and work toward ensuring equity. We need to advocate reform within the policy that will ensure uniform application provisions for both campus and grass root community radio stations. For instance, the single window clearance should be applicable for ngo/cbo applicants alike and not just for campus radio applicants.

There needs to be more inclusiveness – both in spirit and practice – within the sector. While respecting differences between campus community and grass roots community stations, we need to build bridges between both to ensure a vibrant community radio climate in the country.

The relevance of community radio in rural and remote areas is not disputed. But we also need to ensure that we do not lose sight of the wood for the trees. Community Radio has a vital role to play in addressing urban poverty and providing the urban poor and less privileged communities with a powerful voice. The paucity of frequencies for community radio stations, as articulated by official quarters, is worrying and needs to be reviewed.

Finally, The Community Radio Forum (CRF is a national membership forum) set up to promote community radio) needs to be energized and strengthened both in terms of membership and activities.

Are the regulations user friendly? It’s been mentioned that license conditions ‘implicitly favour well-funded stations as against inexpensive low power operations’ – how true is this? What are the other hindrances to setting up CR stations in the country? Are costs the only major factor? What about training, awareness?

The following aspects in the regulations need to be reviewed: The ban on news. This contradicts and inhibits some of the key objectives of community radio which seeks to provide local/community information for local/community needs. Further, it is not clear what constitutes news. As a community radio advocate pointed out at a recent consultation: “My sister’s wedding is also news.”

As mentioned earlier, there should be the same criterion for license application for grass root communities/NGOs, campus communities and agricultural universities.

The guidelines need to encourage and facilitate the use of low cost technologies in setting up community radio stations. This assumes particular significance in the context of transmitters Where BEL and WEBEL remain projected as a well known authorized dealers. There costs are considerably higher than a more recent entrant like NOMAD. The regulations should facilitate opening up this area. Only then would technology become more accessible.

Has community radio, thus far, through academic institutions and NGOs, been an effective tool for generating local consciousness? Which among the current lot of CR stations operational in the country, have really been able to make a difference?

As yet, only a couple of grass root community radio stations (Sangham Radio and Taragram) have launched – and that too only within the past few months. However, anecdotal data and impact studies have demonstrated indicate that community based radio/audio has had considerable impact in terms of generating local consciousness and have been able to make a difference. We also need to have more impact and action research based studies that would clearly demonstrate the relevance of community radio.

The examples below (which have been documented in earlier studies) reinforce the point:

Gender: The Pastapur Media Centre is managed by a team of seven Dalit non literate women. The initial Namma Dhwani management committee initially comprised representatives overwhelmingly from women based self help groups. Not surprisingly, many of the programmes focused on women’s participation in the political process, women’s right to education, dowry deaths, and female foeticide.

Identity: “If we have our own radio, the issues that we will talk about will reach a larger community of women. Radio will enhance the credibility of our messages by lending them the weight of our medium” Bidakanne Sammamma, Pastapur. This observation from a Dalit woman in Pastapur underscores a strong correlation between community radio and identity.

Namma Dhwani is located on the border of three states: Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The nearest AIR station is in Bangalore some 100 kms away and broadcasts in chaste Kannada. The people speak a mix of Tamil, Telegu, and Kannada. Not surprisingly, Namma Dhwani helps to bridge a critical gap.

Education: Namma Dhwani’s school programme which started in mid 2002 cable casts programmes made by children to the local Government school. The school programme has met with such success that the local block development officer recommended a two hour schedule within the academic time table in 2003 – long before community radio was legitimized by the law of the land. The fall outs have also been positive. As the ICTPR study noted, “within a few weeks of cable casting the programmes to the school, participation from the school children doubled……”

Aspects of Governance and Culture: The Kutch Mahila Vikas

Sanghathan magazine format programme MUSAFARI resurrected Kutch history, art and culture and interpreted them within a contemporary context.

Namma Dhwani’s cable casting of a gram panchayat election (local election) reinforced issues of transparency and accountability. In 2004 Namma Dhwani used cable casting to lobby with the local panchayat to ensure drinking water was supplied to the village of Budhikote.

Economic Development and Empowerment: The role of community radio in economic development has been considerable – both at individual and community levels. As a community member from Budhikote pointed out, it made her realize that “information is money.” The following account from the UNESCO ICTPR (ICT for Poverty Reduction) study explains why.

“Purnima, a lower caste member of the community was bereaved at the loss of her only cow, also her only means of earning. She had taken out an insurance policy, but was unaware that she could claim insurance for her dead cow until she heard one of Namma Dhwani’s programmes on insurance. The community resource centre helped her to claim her insurance which amounted to Rs 10,000/-.”

Through the process of web browsing, farmers at Namma Dhwani are able to effectively engage with the market and overcome the middle men and get a “fair” price for their produce.

The Dalit women from Pastapur share similar sentiments and assert that narrowcasting has substantially impacted food security. . “We used to eat Korra and Ragi….Now, thanks to the programmes we are storing the seeds also.”

The experience of the MSSRF Knowledge centre in Pondicherry is similar. Through a mixed media model information is provided on crops, market prices, education, health, government entitlements, weather and fishing.”

What role should community radio ideally take up in this country – interactive – where people make their own programmes or the sermonizing – where education, information can be disseminated?

Community Radio, as its name suggests, is radio of, for and by the community. The community should take centre stage stage in terms of management and ownership. The listeners of programmes are often producers as well. Consequently, content (whether it is educational or entertainment) is ultimately determined by the community. In India, community radio has huge potential in being a voice for the voiceless, less privileged and special interest groups. We need to ensure that potential is substantiated by performance.

Can community radio co-exist with All India Radio? Will it anytime result in conflicting messages given out?

In a vibrant democracy, ideally a three tiered media structure based on equity and inclusiveness should exist – public, private and community. So, there is absolutely no reason why community radio cannot co-exist with AIR. If anything, the converse would be odd.

All messages that are disseminated – whether by public, private or community radio need to conform to existing codes of conduct which will ensure their veracity. This, in turn, should reckon with any possible issue of conflict.

Should news be allowed on community radio? How can this be monitored, given that so many community radio stations are poised to go on air shortly?

There is no doubt that news should be allowed. Its ban makes no sense. This was clearly implied by a government official at a national consultation as early as March 2007 when he pointed out that freedom of expression (as articulated by Article 19 of the Indian constitution) cannot be silenced by a pen.

Besides self regulation, codes of conduct would help to ensure the veracity of news.

How do you rate the Indian community radio policy with that of other nations?

The good news is that there is a distinct tier for community radio in India. This is not the case in quite a few other countries where community radio stations exist. For example, local (private) and community radio stations conform to the same license application process in Nepal. This does not take away from the fact that Nepal boasts a rich tradition of independent community radio stations.

However, there are several issues in the Indian policy which are restrictive (and unlike policies in other countries) and which need to be reviewed. Some of these have been mentioned earlier and include:

The ban on news. The need to review and extend the transmitter range especially in hilly terrain. (The current policy does take cognizance of this to the extent that it indicates that exceptions to the current 100 watt range can be made depending on the terrain). There is need to also reconsider the validity of mobile broadcasting especially in the context of emergencies and disaster situations.

Another constraint is linked to the age of the NGO applicant. Currently, the policy permits NGOs that have been in existence for three years to be eligible for licenses. However, in areas vulnerable to floods and famines, there are credible and community based NGOs that have come up in the recent past.

Countries like Australia have promoted the diversity of broadcasting by developing two models for licensing community services: special interest and geographic. The same is true in countries like Canada, Ireland and South Africa. Further, in countries like Australia, there is no cost involved in applying for a community broadcasting license.

How can revenues be generated innovatively by CR stations?

The policy allows for five minutes advertising per hour of programmes which could generate substantial income. In addition, Community initiatives like Namma Dhwani have been able to meet their running costs through combining training, documentation and production into the work of the community radio station. Sponsored programmes that are relevant to the community and development or educational could be other sources of revenue generation.

What is the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters doing to promote the cause of community radio in the country?

The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) is an international non-governmental organization serving the community radio movement and links more than 3000 community radios in 110 countries through direct membership and national federations. As a network of exchange and solidarity, AMARC provides consultation, cooperation and promotion of community radio to its members.

AMARC has already pledged and demonstrated its support to the community radio movement in India through assisting the proceedings of the national technology consultation on Community Radio which followed the second meeting of the Community Radio Forum (CRF) in Bangalore at the beginning of 2008. It has indicated and plans to support activities of the CRF and its members that are consistent with the goal of strengthening a vibrant and independent community radio movement in the country. AMARC believes that this will, in turn, accelerate the pace of development. Towards this end, AMARC actively participated in a consultation organized by Action Aid in Bihar that focused on community radio and disaster management. It is worth pointing out that community radio and disaster management is a priority area for AMARC. In this context, Community Radio practitioners like Radio Kalanjiam in South India have participated recently in an AMARC Asia-Pacific workshop/training programme on Community Radio, disaster preparedness and poverty reduction that was recently held in Yog-Jakarta, Indonesia.

The AMARC meet in Bihar recently has decided to ‘form a consortium to fight for the cause of the community radio. It passed a resolution seeking recognition of citizens rights of setting up of community radio stations on shoestring budget as component of his constitutional entitlement to freedom of expression’. Could you elaborate?

More than 40 community based organizations, NGOs, civil society groups, academia and media representatives participated in this interactive meeting which was organized by Action Aid. The discussions focused on the role, relevance and efficacy of community radio – particularly in the context of disaster and the recent floods in Bihar. The participants affirmed the relevance of voice as a critical ingredient for poverty eradication and emphasized the role of freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 19 of the Indian constitution. It was in this context that they endorsed the relevance of community radio technology which would be a “voice for the voiceless” and which was accessible, affordable and relevant to the poor and marginalized. A core group has been formed to take the endorsement forward.

Bazlu
_______________________
AHM. Bazlur Rahman-S21BR
Chief Executive Officer
Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication(BNNRC)
&
Member, Strategy Council
UN-Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN GAID)

House: 13/1, Road:2, Shaymoli, Dhaka-1207
Post Box: 5095, Dhaka 1205 Bangladesh

Phone: 88-02-9130750, 88-02-9138501
01711881647 Fax: 88-02-9138501-105

E-mail: ceo@bnnrc.net, bnnrc@bd.drik.net
www.bnnrc.net

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