COMMUNITY RADIO MOVEMENT IN INDIA
This write-up draws extensively from Vinod Pavarala and Kanchan K. Malik's book "Other Voices: The Struggle for Community Radio in India by Sage Publications (2007)." An abridged version of this article may also be accessed in the Encyclopedia of Social Movement Media by John Downing - Sage (2010)
The initial struggle
A historic judgment delivered by the Supreme Court of India in February 1995 ruled that, "airwaves constitute public property and must be utilized for advancing public good." The judgment further decreed that broadcasting media as a whole should promote freedom of expression and speech and, therefore, should be able to enjoy freedom from Government monopoly and control subject to regulation by a public body.
Following this judgement, campaigners for community radio in India struggled through the good part of a decade for the creation of a new tier of not-for profit radio stations, owned and run by local people, typically in rural areas, which would enable marginalized communities to use the medium to create opportunities for social change, cohesion and inclusion as well as for creative and cultural expression.
De-monopolisation of Airwaves
Radio broadcasting in India shifted from being a government monopoly to a highly commercialised broadcasting after the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), Government of India, announced the Phase I of auctioning of licences in November 1999. The Phase II of the private FM radio licensing policy announced in July 2005 made access to the airwaves a whole lot simpler and feasible for the commercial players. Radio entertainment in India witnessed a revival of sorts, as the airwaves broke free from government control. However, the long-standing demands for a third tier of independent, not-for-profit broadcasting in the country yielded only a confined 'campus' avatar of community radio in the form of 'Guidelines' issued in the first quarter of 2003. That allowed "well-established" educational institutions to set up FM transmitters and run radio stations on their campuses.
This decision diluted somewhat the hegemony of the state and market over radio. But to open up the broadcasting sector for an urban, educated, elite coterie in areas that are already well-served by media violates the fundamental philosophy behind community radio. It was mere tokenism to say that campus radio would provide space for development and change-oriented content. If radio did not enable the marginalised, rural or poor populace to disseminate their own messages, and to challenge the mainstream understanding of social issues, the whole purpose would be lost.
Radio, designated by several as a medium of the poor, seemed to have been hijacked by the elites. The Government of India for a long time resisted the demands for opening up this sector, under misplaced apprehensions that secessionists, militants or subversive elements would misuse the medium.
The Campaign for Community Radio in India
Several non-governmental organisations and media-activist groups campaigned for nearly a decade for the right to set up local radio broadcasting facilities to support their community development work. They also networked to further the cause of community radio in the country. This network, soon after the announcement of the community radio policy, came together in January 2007 to constitute the Community Radio Forum (CRF) of India. CRF has espoused the mandate to support and promote the setting up of community radio stations in India and to lobby for policy changes that would amplify the progressive nature of the community radio policy and further simplify and democratize the licensing procedures.
The Bangalore-based communication campaign group, 'VOICES' convened a gathering of radio broadcasters, policy planners, media professionals and not-for-profit associations in September 1996 to study how community radio could be relevant to India, and to deliberate on policies appropriate for such an action. A Declaration calling for the establishment of community broadcasting was signed. A suggestion that AIR's local stations should allocate regular airtime for community broadcasting was put forward. Requests were also made for grant of licences to NGOs and other non-profit making groups for running community radio stations. Subsequently, UNESCO made available a portable production and transmission "briefcase radio station" kit to VOICES to do experimental broadcasts of programmes for a hands-on learning experience towards the objective of setting up an independently-run community radio station.
A UNESCO sponsored workshop, hosted by an Andhra Pradesh NGO, Deccan Development Society (DDS) from July 17-20, 2000 in Hyderabad issued the 'Pastapur Initiative' on community radio that urged the government to take its intentions of freeing broadcasting from state monopoly to its logical conclusion, by making media space available not only to private players but also to communities. This landmark document urged the government to create a three-tier structure of broadcasting in India by adding non-profit community radio to the already existing state-owned public radio and private commercial radio.
The spirited campaigning for communities' right to access the airwaves and innumerable representations by organisations, academicians and individuals resulted in the MIB organising a workshop supported by the UNDP and UNESCO in May 2004 in New Delhi to design an enabling framework for community radio in India. The workshop brought together a large number of community radio enthusiasts, academics, NGOs and policy makers, who worked out a set of recommendations for a new community radio policy, one that would allow community groups to run their own radio stations. When the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) issued a consultation paper later that year, they arrived at largely the same formulations for community radio.
In July 2004 MIB prepared a draft policy based on the May consultations. Subsequently, community radio groups in India launched an online petition campaign, urging the inclusion of the right of communities within the community radio policy and thereby ending the discrimination against rural and poor communities. In October 2005, the draft policy was referred to a group of ministers, who took about a year to give its approval after deliberating upon several contentious issues such as advertising, news and information, licence fee, and spectrum availability.
These intense advocacy efforts and passionate debates about community radio broadcasting for the social sector finally capitulated into an inclusive community radio policy approved by the Union Cabinet in November 2006.
Community Radio Guidelines 2006
The new expanded policy permits non-governmental organisations and community-based groups, with a track record of developmental work, to set up Community Radio Stations (CRS). The CRS must have an ownership and management structure that is reflective of the community. At least 50% of content must be generated with participation of local community and the programmes produced must be in the local language and dialect(s). Advertising of a restricted nature is permitted for up to five minutes per hour of broadcast. The license is issued for five years and is non-transferable.
The license holder is expected to adhere to the provisions of the programme and advertising code as prescribed for All India Radio. This relates essentially to the norms of good taste, decency and respect for religions, communities and friendly countries etc. The new policy, in its present structure, does not permit CRS to broadcast any programmes, which relate to news and current affairs and are otherwise political in nature.
The application procedure for organizations other than Government recognized educational institutions, is not simple and requires clearances from several ministries before the CRS can be made operational. It is for this reason that after more than two years of the announcement of the policy only three out of the 48 functioning community radio stations in India are owned by developmental organizations. Others are all campus community radio stations.
Civil Society Initiatives in Rural India
Even as the government was dithering over legislation to facilitate the functioning of community radio in India, a few community-based organizations had initiated radio projects in rural India. Some made use of available spaces within the state sector of broadcasting while others, fearing co-optation and appropriation, steadfastly resisted the offer to use state radio. They, in the absence of an independent licence, continued to creatively engage in narrowcasting i.e. playing back of programmes on a tape recorder or reaching the people through television cable.
The Deccan Development Society (DDS), an NGO working with poor, rural, dalit women in the Zaheerabad area of Medak district in Andhra Pradesh, set up a community radio station with assistance from UNESCO in 1998. In the absence of a licensing policy, programmes produced by members of the community were narrowcast through tape-recorders in the village sangams (autonomous groups of women). This CRS - Sangham Radio has finally gone on air on October 15, 2008 as India's first rural community radio after securing a license under the new community radio policy. VOICES/MYRADA started an audio production centre, Namma Dhwani (Our Voice) in 2001 at Budhikote village in the Kolar district of Karnataka and have been cable-casting (through television cable link) programmes made by rural men and women trained in basics of radio production. Going through the final stages of the licensing procedure, this initiative will soon go on air.
The Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, (KMVS), an NGO working with rural women on their concerns in the villages of Kutch, the largest district of the Gujarat state in western India, offers a different model for community broadcasting in India. KMVS built on its long presence in the area of doing development work and started airing a 30-minute sponsored Kutchi language programme on AIR's Radio Bhuj in December 1999 by purchasing a commercial slot. They have since acquired the AIR slot for two subsequent series on AIR and call themselves Ujjas Radio. Owing to the vast geographical spread of the area in which KMVS functions, different blocks/communities have applied for separate licenses to operate their own CRS under the new policy. These stations would be seeking capacity building inputs from Ujjas.
Chala Ho Gaon Mein is a community radio programme supported by the National Foundation for India (NFI) and produced by community representatives of Alternative for India Development (AID), a grassroots level NGO in Jharkhand. From August 2001, the programme has been broadcast from Daltongunj, a backward region in the Palamau district of the state, by using the AIR slot of the local station on terms similar to that of KMVS in Bhuj. The organization has acquired its license and is on air.
Other initiatives that merit mention here are the Henval Vaani and Mandakini ki Awaaz set up in the state of Uttarakhand by a media and development NGO, IdeoSync. Also, Bundelkhand Radio, of Development Alternatives, stared airing its programmes as the second rural community radio station on October 23, 2008.