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It is not just a question of bread vs. radios: Community radio in India

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By Frederick Noronha

GOA, INDIA, 09 October 2007

Other voices: The struggle for community radio in India
by two University of Hyderabad scholars - Vinod Pavarala and Kanchan K. Malik - has just been published by Sage.

Publishers Sage called the title, "a significant study of an emerging alternative media scene in India, in the larger context of the globalisation of mass communication" and said it explores community radio in India.

Noting the global media trend towards mergers, acquisitions and concentration of ownerships in "fewer and fewer corporate hands", Sage said this study investigates the ideologies and
communication practices of various community-based organisations that have been using community radio as a means for empowerment at the grassroots. The authors look at radio projects in four large regions of India - in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat and Jharkhand.

BytesForAll's Frederick Noronha interviews the authors of the book: Vinod Pavarala, Professor of Communication and Dean at the Sarojini Naidu School of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and Dr Kanchan K Malik, a lecturer at the university.

FN: Briefly, what is the book all about?

VP: This book basically documents the four major community radio initiatives in India that have been going for the past eight years or so.

That's the Deccan Development Society of DDS (in Medak in Andhra Pradesh), Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (in Gujarat), Nammadhwani project in the Kolar district of Karnataka, and the Challa Ho Gaon Mein project in Jharkhand.

Looking at those four projects we tried to analyse the ideologies and philosophies of community radio, the degree of involvement and participation in local communities in programme production. Importantly, these are mainly non-literate rural communities. We also looked at the ways in which their listeners have responded to the programmes.

FN: What would you see as the issues emerging?

VP: One interesting thing is the period we cover is just the same period when all these communities have been waiting for licensing regime to emerge from the national capital of New Delhi. All these people had come up with creative ways to do audio production in the absence of the right to broadcast themselves.

Nammadhwani did it with "cable radio", while DDS did it with narrow-casting (or distributing recorded tapes).

All of them were fulfilling an important need in areas that were largely under served by the mainstream media. These were communities whose issues and problems rarely get reflected in the mainstream media, and they found these alternative media outlets ideal to highlight their local problems, to articulate local identities, in their own languages...

KM: Yes, language is an important thing. Being able to broadcast in the local dialect (is crucial).

FN: Interesting....

VP: In a country where language changes every few kilometres, the projects we studied show that radio done by people in their own languages could be a most effective tool for addressing problems of development.

In Jharkhand, when we asked some listeners why they don't listen to All Indian Radio Ranchi. One man said, "Woh Hindi humko Angrezi lagta hai!" (Their brand of Hindi sounds almost as alien as English to us!) It only shows how deeply the linguistic identities run in our country.

The programing of 'Chalo Ho Gaon Mein', for instance, uses a combination of the Maghi and Bhojpuri. They call their version of the spoken language "Tutti-Footi Hindi" (broken Hindi).

I think what is happening in the country is that a lot of identity politics that started un-ravelling in the 1980s and 1990s were an outcome of attempts to homogenise our cultural diversity in the names of one-nature, one-culture, one-language. The Punjab, Assam, Gorkhaland agitation, and also identity politics in the south through political parties like the Telugu Desam then became visible. There's nothing wrong in saying in you're a Telugu first and an Indian next.

KM: It was the initiative of the NGOs working in the area,
and came out of their whole approach to development. It wasn't a top-down form of development you see in other organisations. Here they were thinking of a participatory approach. Lot of other projects also following that approach.

VP: All India Radio (AIR) also tried its own experiments with local radio, much earlier. State-run radio stations like ones at Nagercoil or Hospet were there. With good intentions and good station managers. But they failed. They were wound up very soon, partly because this kind of participatory mode of radio programming of an already established culture of participatory development (didn't work with them). You can't knock on people's doors and suddenly say you make radio programmes on your own.

Some of the NGOs we studied, the DDS for example, have worked in the area for fifteen years. On issues of land, food security, biodiversity, water, gender equality... issues of survival.

They've done it in a way that involved communities, and empowered women's collective. There was an ethic of people doing something for themselves. Media came at the end of it all, not overnight. People were trying to take control of their culture, their land, their markets. When the media solution came to them, they just thought it was very natural. They ask: why can't we tell our own stories through our own eyes. Why should others tell our stories, second-hand.

FN: Are you optimistic about the (limited) experience for "community radio" in India so far? Do you believe it can be scaled-up?

VP: Absolutely.

We aren't quite sure that the Johnny Appletree's approach - plant apple trees everywhere to get a forest of apples - just because there is a policy is available now. I think the need should be felt by the community. They should perceive a lack a voice, in representing their issues and their problems. They should be some searching for some tool.

Somebody can suggest it. You can't say let's have 5000 radio stations (across a huge country like India) and overnight hope to have it... it doesn't work like that.

One interesting thing was that when we spoke to some people, some asked questions like, "We don't even have food to eat. Can radio give us food to eat?" The answer, we found there itself; many times you don't have food to eat, because you don't have a voice to ask for it.

Radio might not give you food, but it might give you a voice to ask for it. Bread versus radio is a little bit of an unfair question. People probably need both, and perhaps one is even linked to the other.

FN: What about people's participation in such initiatives?

We often say people should participate in radio programming. We say that people should come into their station and give their time. We found that where people were involved, listenership also increases, simply because audiences know people from their village participated. Participation in programmes seems closely tied in listenership.

KM: We also trace the complex history of the Indian
broadcasting policy, from its early colonial days to the more recent Government of India guidelines until the November 2006 period, when the Indian Cabinet approved community radio (in the proper sense).

We also undertake an analysis of documents available from the 1950s. For a long time now, the Government of India has been talking about making airwaves more democratic...

VP: There are some wonderful nuggets of wisdom hidden in some of those reports. But the great intentions never implemented. The Prasar Bharat Review Commission 2000 chaired by (IT mega-entrepreneur Infosys's) Narayanmurthy, has some amazing stuff about how radio should be local, about recognising local identities and such issues.

KM: One broader things we're trying to argue is that in order to be good citizens in democratic societies, one needs to participate in the larger democratic sphere. In terms of both information consumption and information production and transition.

Many people continue to be marginalised and left out as nonentities. We are suggesting that community radio in India has the potential to create an alternative public sphere where the unlettered, marginalised could participate with some confidence and play and role. If they need to be good citizens playing a role in nation building.

FN: But there still seems to be fear in India over the possibilities of empowerment, and what it involves.

VP: It looks like at the current regime is making all the
right noises about the empowerment of people. By bringing up issues like the Right to Information, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, etc. There's scope for optimism that the rulers are catching up with the reality of grassroots empowerment. We need to see....

There's absolutely no ground for fear. Official organs of the state are now talking about need to be more participatory. Why not take further steps and give them a voice? By announcing policy guidelines, this government has moved away from the fears previous governments have had.

FN: What about the situation elsewhere, in other countries?

KM: We also looked comparative of CR policies in other countries. Canada, Ireland, US, South Africa and Australia, UK to some extent.

These countries were picked because they gave us some examples of durable community radio policies, which have withstood the test of time. Or in the case of South Africa, though relatively new in its origin, its policy represents a very liberal, very pluralistic and very democratic broadcasting approach in the post-Apartheid Constitution. It creates the kind of structure we have been dreaming of.

FN: Tell us a little about your own involvement with the issue of community radio?

KM: I was introduced to CR by Dr Vinod (my PhD guide). I've been broadly involved in communication and development.

VP: I could practically link it to the UNESCO conference we at the University of Hyderabad co-hosted in July 2000 in Hyderabad, and the Pastapur Initiative (accepted by campaigners from across India subsequent to that event).

It involved co-hosting conference. I was myself quite involved with that. In many ways, we enjoyed being part of community of campaigners for community radio in India today. It's like an extended family. Then, we also have the CR-India online network
We also put together a special issue on community radio for the Economic and Political Weekly, an academic journal with wide reach.

FN: What were the lessons learnt while writing this book?

KM: There were lots of theoretical reading done ... but not too much connection between theory and see in field. Lot of things were talked about in theory, participatory approaches, empowering women... at the grassroots, one has to hope for change. In the universities of the North, often radio is not seen as having such a big potential to bring about change.

But even in a place like Bhuj (in rural Gujarat, western India), a lot of women reporters trained say they had never earlier worked. Interacting with men is something they've never done before. Now they go to the government offices, and question officials about policies and things like that. Earlier, they were even afraid of talking to other people.

Most people don't know what radio is all about. And they surely don't know what community radio is. When they hear the term, the closest they get to community-radio is thinking of some concept like (one-to-one conversations of) HAM radio.

VP: There are still a lot to be done on issues of gender.

In a place like Jharkhand, a radio reporter, a woman called Silvanti Biranchi was telling us how difficult it had been as a woman, going out and working. One gets looked down upon. There are all kinds of prohibitions. One is expected to play the role of being a daughter, an in-law, and a wife. But change has started coming

In some areas of Jharkhand, some villages didn't have electricity and no roads. But there are radios everywhere. You can see people hanging a radio on the branch of a tree, while they work in their fields. Or blacksmiths working to the voice of a radio. In a way, there are signs of hope.

We'd like to think our work involves some kind of action-research approach, with not too much of ivory-tower theorising and analysing. Leading to some kind of action. We are also part of the community radio movement.

Author: --- (Frederick Noronha)
Contact: fredericknoronha[at]
Source: Frederick [FN] Noronha
Date: 10/09/2007
Location: Goa, India
Category: Media and Internet