Coronavirus Outbreak: Hope govt recognises valuable role played by community radio stations at great risk and cost, says professor Vinod Pavarala

Funding has been a major issue for community radio stations across India and unlike the West, volunteers have to think about their day-to-day livelihood here, says University of Hyderabad's professor Vinod Pavarala.

Simantik Dowerah April 30, 2020 10:18:33 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: Hope govt recognises valuable role played by community radio stations at great risk and cost, says professor Vinod Pavarala

It was a Supreme Court judgment in the Union of India and Cricket Association of Bengal case by justices PB Sawant and S Mohan on 9 February, 1995, that acknowledged "airwaves or frequencies" as "public property" paving the way for a community radio movement in India.

However, it took seven long years before the government approved the first policy for community radios in 2002 but restricting permission only to educational institutions to establish community radio stations. It was finally in 2006 that grassroots organisations like NGOs and other not-for-profit organisations were allowed to set up community radios in India.

Although it is believed that the 2006 "policy brought a paradigm shift in the Community Radio Movement in the country", the government itself admits that the number of "operational Community Radio Stations in India at present is rather disappointing keeping in view its size and population" and that "their capacity to mobilise resources is extremely limited.

Although the government introduced the Community Radio Support Scheme in the 12th Plan for providing financial assistance to community radio stations, the scenario for community radios in India is far from satisfactory. Despite their extreme limitations in terms of resources, these community radio stations across the country are working shoulder to shoulder with the government for last-mile delivery of information to create adequate COVID-19 awareness. Today there are about 280 community radio stations licensed by the Government of India across the country.

Firstpost spoke with professor Vinod Pavarala of Sarojini Naidu School of Communication, University of Hyderabad to understand the crisis facing the community radios in India and what the future entails for the movement.

Associated with the community radio movement in India for nearly two decades, Pavarala is the founder-president of the Community Radio Forum-India and since 2011, also held the UNESCO Chair on Community Media, the only one of its kind in the world.

Edited excerpts follow:

How big is the contribution of community radio in India during this ongoing coronavirus pandemic crisis?

There are some 280 community radio stations in the country today. Many of these stations are located in those areas where mainstream media doesn't really reach, especially tribal areas and other remote places. So community radio has been playing a major role in various development and social change issues from the beginning. I think this crisis has also brought the best out of community radios in the country because of certain unique features that characterise them.

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Professor Vinod Pavarala.

One is that they are very close to the community. They are located within the community. Community radio programmes are made with the partnership and participation of community members. The programmes are usually done in local languages and dialects. All of these features have made community radio a very significant medium during a crisis like this.

At the same time, I must appreciate that these stations are working in close coordination with the local administration and local authorities. Most of the times it is important to deal with local realities like at the panchayat level, district collector's level and broadcasting that information to the listeners. Because of that local character of community radio, they get listeners in a very targeted manner. Since they broadcast in the local language, the community radio stations are doing a great service.

Is there any community radio station that has caught your attention during this crisis?

If you look at a place like Odisha, a lot of stations are in tribal areas. So there is a station in Koraput called Radio Dhimsa(owned by South Orissa Voluntary Action and operates from Chhapar, a tribal village in Koraput district) which has been doing some amazing work not only on air but also physically doing outreach work by going into the community. They are doing this at great risk to their own staff, trying to go there and spread awareness, demonstrating things like washing hands, wearings masks and so on. Some of these things are effective by doing it directly rather than on air.

You will also find places like Himachal Pradesh where there is a community radio station in Dharamsala called Radio Gunjan(owned by Gunjan Organisation for Community Development) which is barely two years old but it is now broadcasting in Hindi and in Pahari and Garhwali dialects. By translating some of the content related to hygiene, public health, and precautions to be taken into the local dialects, they have been doing a valuable job.

In Kanpur Dehat district of Uttar Pradesh, there is a community radio station called Waqt Ki Awaaz (promoted by Shramik Bharti in village Bairi Dariyav of Maitha block). Waqt Ki Awaaz broadcasted a 26-episode series basically focusing on World Health Organization's facts and figures, directives and regulations and so on. They went straight to the source and broadcasted it in the local language over a 26-episode series.

The hyperlocal character of community radio has stood it very well. In Gurgaon, there is a station called Gurgaon Ki Awaaz which caters primarily to migrant labourers in the Gurgaon area. They have been broadcasting some very useful information such as the arrival of ration supplies, when the local people can go to get their ration, opening of medical shops in the area among others. Many of the stations are taking calls from listeners. They are bringing experts into their studios to answer their questions.

Many community radio stations have actually caught your attention for content during this pandemic broadcast. Do you have any programme in mind that can be an example for community radio enthusiasts in terms of delivery style of content?

In the Mewat region of Haryana, there is a community radio station called Alfaz-e-Mewat (established in 2012 by SM Sehgal Foundation). Alfaz-e-Mewat did a very creative show called Ekkees Baatein, Ekkees Din when the 21-day lockdown was created. It had experts speaking to listeners directly. It also had a show that was like a fake news alert. There is so much fake news going around on WhatsApp sometimes it is difficult for ordinary listeners to judge its authenticity. They also created a show called Savdhaan like an alert dispelling myths that are being spread by fake news.

One station in Karnataka in Hoskote taluk of Bengaluru Rural District called Sarathi Jhalak did one creative show that came to my attention where they brought five different experts on a panel discussion. It was very interesting. They had a doctor, a historian, a philosopher, an activist and a police officer. They were trying to cater to the various aspects of the community's needs at this time and also looking at their spiritual well-being not only in terms of health but also telling them about how previous epidemics historically devastated the region etc.

From what you have said so far it can be safely said that the community radios in India are playing a stellar role in this pandemic crisis. But when we go deeper, we find that nearly all community radio stations in India barring those owned by educational institutions are struggling just to survive. Why is this happening?

I think community radio in many ways has been doing this work on their own. And, this is not unique to India. I just had a meeting with the Bangladesh network and the situation is pretty much the same there. There is very little support from the Government of India. I really hope that the Government of India recognises the valuable role that has been played by these community radio stations at this particular juncture with great risk and cost to them. Many a time it is not easy for these volunteers to go to the stations during this lockdown period or getting reports from the field by their community radio reporters.

What is happening is that the government used to give DAVP(Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity) advertisements to these stations. Community radio stations are permitted to take advertisements and much of it is from the government. But DAVP payments have been pending for very long. If the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting clears the huge arrears that are there currently from previous DAVP advertising, even that would be very handy for stations to manage their affairs at this juncture. I am not even talking about new advertising that they could release currently. That would be one big help the government can give to the stations.

You have been associated with the community radio movement in India since inception. Is funding always a problem for the NGO-owned community radio stations in India?

Funding is a major issue for these community radio stations. Those that are run by large NGOs at least try and manage but even there the NGOs want the stations to become self-sufficient. It is not easy in the absence of support from the government. So the community radio movement with which I have been associated for almost 20 years has been asking for a long time to create some kind of a community radio support fund. This is a public resource and we can create a public fund to which various ministries can contribute. The corporates can contribute from their CSR funds. From that fund, the community radio stations can be supported based on their proposals and applications for various reasons.

Right now the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has something called a Community Radio Support Scheme which is clearly inadequate because most of the spending goes on equipment as establishment cost. But there too, they have not been able to disseminate much of this funding whereas we have been saying not just for equipment, they should also cover the cost for programming, volunteer support and training.

In a country like India people doing it all voluntarily is a very tricky thing. Maybe in the West community radio stations are run by volunteers because they all have their regular jobs. They can come on the weekends and give some time. But in rural areas where community radios are run in India, they also have to worry about their day-to-day livelihood. It can't be expected to be done for free.

In terms of supporting community radio stations in India, the government should seriously consider using a small proportion of the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) to bolster community radio services in the hinterland. India, as a signatory to the Constitution of the International Telecommunication Union(ITU), is obligated to see how the benefits of new communication technologies extend to all parts of the country, especially the deprived regions.

In India, such a fund was created in 2004 with the funds generated through the Universal Access Levy (UAL) as a percentage of the revenues earned by telecom licensees. For instance, such funding could go to subsidising the high costs of internet connectivity to community radio stations. The coronavirus pandemic, when community radio personnel are struggling to do their programming by logging in remotely, recording their programmes, and uploading their content using their expensive mobile data, is a perfect moment for implementing something like this.

How difficult is it to start a community radio station in India?

One of the main reasons that have been historically there right from the beginning of the policy is the bureaucratic hurdles before securing a licence, the various ministries that come into play for giving various clearances. It takes anywhere from one year to 18 months from the time of an application for a station to be able to go on air. It is not easy.

Many of the applicants are small NGOs located in small areas of the country. They are also not able to go to New Delhi frequently to lobby and to keep doing their rounds in different offices to get the clearances. So they patiently sit for their licenses to arrive and it often takes so long.

Do you think India has a sufficient number of community radio stations to cover a country of its size and diversity?

That is a very good question and not necessarily to do with the current crisis. In flatter regions, the signal can go up to 25 to 30 kilometres but in mountainous regions or where there is dense forestation the signal doesn't reach very far. It is like an FM frequency. It goes as the crow flies by air but because the voltage is so low — 50 watt — it doesn't go far enough. Even if you just look at the number of districts in India, which is 736, we don't have one community radio station per district in India. We only have about 280 community radio stations. If you look at the frequency spectrum that is allocated to community radio stations and let us say you divide it by 50 Watts, easily something like 3,000 to 4,000 community radio stations are possible. However, we are nowhere near that number.

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Professor Vinod Pavarala at a community radio station near Douala in Cameroon in December 2017. Image courtesy Facebook account of Vinod Pavarala

We need to increase the number of community-based organisations that can own and run stations. The number is quite low right now. Nepal, a small neighbouring country, has almost 300 plus stations. It is more than what India has and for its size, it's quite a lot. Although I am not saying quantity is everything but if you look at a diverse country like India where in every 5-kilometres agriculture changes, culture changes, the language changes, we need many more stations speaking in local languages catering to local needs. In times of a crisis like this, we realise how important these are.

There are so many community radio stations that are owned by educational institutions in different parts of India. In this regard, what are the possibilities for collaboration between NGOs and community radio stations run by educational institutions?

Some campus-based community radio stations do arrangements like that. In India, we do not have a separate licensing for campus radios. They also fall under the same community radio licensing regime. They are also called community radio stations. But what has happened is in many cases including in the case of University of Hyderabad's community radio station called Bol Hyderabad, they tend to become more like stations being run for the campus community. These stations are being run by students and they have their own limitations. Every year or two, there is a huge turnover of students as the old students leave and new students come in.

I think it's a good idea that campus-based community radio stations build links with community-based organisations around their campus and try to leverage that community connection that these NGOs bring. Some campus-based stations do that quite well. For example, Radio Active in Bengaluru is a community radio station run by the Jain Group of educational institutions. If you look at the kind of work that Radio Active does, it hardly has any tell-tale features of a campus radio station. It is an urban-based community radio station. It works closely with a lot of marginalised communities like the rag pickers, migrant workers, transgender communities and so on.

There are good examples of university-run community radio stations with good connection with communities around and we need to increase that. Today about half of our community radio stations are run by educational institutions and the other half is run by NGOs, agricultural universities, Krishi Vigyan Kendra and so on.

With the internet now becoming a global rage, do you think community radios will be able to compete with that?

Those who think radio in the times of the internet is an anachronistic medium, given the uneven access to ICTs in India and the limited penetration of smartphones, community radios are still very relevant and cater to those communities that are at the far corner of the development road. Their local character, their community connection, and participatory nature makes them an ideal medium for the marginalised people to have their voices heard.

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