The dark subcontinent

As far as radio waves go, South Asia could perhaps call itself the dark continent. This part of the planet has an almost-uniformly unenlightened policy when it comes to opening up its airwaves. Voices from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal….

As far as radio waves go, South Asia could perhaps call itself the dark continent. This part of the planet has an almost-uniformly unenlightened policy when it comes to opening up its airwaves.

There were complains all around, and and a lot of empathy for each other, when participants at the APC Regional Consultation on ICT Policy in South Asia (Dhaka, April 19-21, 2006) shared a tiny round-table on this issue during one of the ‘open spaces’.

"There are no licenses in most parts of Pakistan except in the earthquake prone area," one participant informed. "It’s fear on the part of politicians that (radio) will empower the people. Lack of awareness is also there, and no government wants to give away control."

Yet, the humble radio had proven to be a potent tool when it came to furthering gender rights or expanding into the rural areas.

"Sad to say, but disasters at times bring opportunities and possibilities. In six days time (after the October 2005 killer earthquake, probably the worst natural disaster in Pakistan) six licenses to set up radio stations were given out in the affected areas, a participant informed. Incidentally, these areas are considered to be very "sensitive areas".

Currently, there are 11 non-commercial radio stations, including that of the Punjab University. FM89 is known to have some developmental programming.

And what’s the situation in nearby India?

In 1995, the Supreme Court passed a very progressive judgement, saying that the airwaves are "public property" and that the State cannot claim a monopoly over the same on the pretence of acting on behalf of the "public".

But since then, a campaign in the real-world and via the Internet (see the Community Radio-India mailing list ) has been underway. While the authorities play a cat-and-mouse game, community radio has not made its appearance.

In fact, the Indian authorities have allowed campus radio stations to be set up in highly restrictive conditions in some educational institutions, and call these ‘community radio’ stations.

It’s possible to get plans on how to make a simple, low-powered FM radio transmitter on the Internet, costing as little as US$8. Some students have actually experimented with these and created the same.

Recently, a poverty-striken young man Raghav Mahato of region of Bihar, eastern India, was found to have set up his own low-powered "radio station", through which he was broadcasting film songs and other entertainment, to earn a little income badly needed in a home where his father was striken by cancer.

After this was reported in the local media, it even got reported by the BBC. Finally, mainstream newspapers like the Times of India gave a half-page spread to the story, before a clampdown came from the Indian authorities.

This however build a great deal of awareness about the options offered by community radio. Indian expats living in the US wanted to come to his rescue financially (they can’t, non-commercial licenses are only given out to educational institutions and commercial licenses costs a hefty packet).

Free Berkley Radio was also keen to offer help in the form of a radio transmitter!

But the real culprit here, is the law which disallows the citizen from having a right to express himself via the airwaves. Strange for a country which has a large and free press, which allowed cable TV to grow unregulated, and now has a few hundred TV channels all largely uncontrolled.

Some voiced the view that the authorities needed to be convinced that they wouldn’t end up in trouble. But, the counter view is that there are countries with far more precarious situations to cope with than India. Also, it is futile to presume, in advance, that the citizen will break the law. Like in the case of the press, community radio if guilty of breaking the law could also be dealt with as and when the situation arose.

Vicram Crisna pointed out how the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) had undertaken the exercise of holding public consultations, and then handed in its submissions over the issue. But politicians and policy planners were saying it was too "sensitive" to take a decision, and were simply delaying on this.

Bangladesh — after a long stint of advocacy — has a draft broadcasting act in place. It proposed a three-tier broadcasting system, with public service broadcasters, commercial broadcasters and community radio.

Side by side, the country has worked out a national frequency allocation plan, with its preparatory process funded by the World Bank, according to AHM Bazlur Rahman.

There are some positive signs here, but going by the experience of the subcontinent one can only be optimistic once the law is passed, and the stations get going into transmissions.

Citizen band radio — walkie-talkie to walkie-talkie solutions — are offered with equipment having a five km range. This has helped in the world of disaster preparedness.

Nepal has been the sole exception in South Asia. In the past though. Its Radio Sagarmatha became the first community radio station to be allowed in the sub-continent, when it came up in the late ‘nineties.

But these are changing times. Since the crisis in that Himalayan country in early 2005, the king seizure of power has lead to pressures on radio. Photos depicted how armymen were camping in Radio Sagarmatha, and the community stations were ordered to play only entertainment music, and not broadcast any talk — not even health — after the palace coup.

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