Yeoman service of Odisha's community radio stations during coronavirus crisis underscores medium's necessity in India
Low-cost yes, but not low on information, community radio stations in Odisha have been catering to the information needs of communities in remote locations where no mainstream print or electronic media reaches and internet services are nonexistent.
The state of Odisha has been a trendsetter on many fronts in the current fight against Covid-19. But what has remained unsung is the role played by 17 Odisha-based community radio stations in this effort. It took me a pandemic to realise the yeoman service that they have rendered in ‘reaching the unreached’. Low-cost yes, but not low on information, they have been catering to the information needs of communities in such remote locations where no mainstream print or electronic media reaches and worse, where even social media cannot reach due to absence of network to provide internet services. Equipped with a low power transmitter (50 watt), they are supposed to generate 60 percent of their content locally and in the local dialect, which uniquely positions them as the voice of the community.
When the coronavirus outbreak started, Radio Swayamshakti in Khariar, Nuapada, started a radio campaign to connect buyers with the milkman who had suddenly lost business due to lockdown. When the traditional media was publishing photographs of distressed milkmen pouring their unsold milk on the roads, this small but timely effort was changing things for the better.
Stations across the country have come up with locally relevant jingles to promote wearing of masks, social distancing and hand washing in the local language and dialect of that region. Call centres have been set up in the studios of the radios which not only broadcast the frequently evolving guidelines as soon as they were announced, but also answered listeners’ queries, thus providing an effective bridge between the community and the government in handling their grievances during the pandemic. They have even gone a step ahead in aiding the district administrations in supporting relief measures.
In Tamil Nadu, fishermen were starving since they had not gone to sea for almost one hundred days, firstly because of the ban and then due to the lockdown. Kadal Osai, a Rameswaram-based radio station promoted by social organisations, quickly connected the fishermen with Brittania and Muthoot Finance: Brittannia chipped in with biscuits packets and Muthoot provided rations to them.
During the April 2017 riots in Bhadrak, Odisha, with fake news and misinformation further fueling the unrest, Radio Bulbul rose to the occasion with bulletins promoting peace and harmony. In Odisha’s Nayagarh district, Daspalla-based Radio Surabhi’s popular programme ‘Suna Jhia’ (Listen Girl or the Golden Girl) was a much-needed intervention in a district infamous for female foeticide. Other community radio stations have tackled varied issues like child marriage, sanitation, women empowerment, skill development, nutrition etc.
I did not even know that the Government of India’s Department of Science and Technology has partnered with almost 400 stations to popularise mathematics in different communities. Besides, the Election Commission of India worked with 60 radio stations to create a voter awareness campaign on a pan-India basis during the run up to the 2019 general elections. There are 140 educational institutions and 22 Krishi Vigyan Kendras who are running community radios.
No other communication channel has been as expansively effective as community radios during times of natural disasters. The Government of India came out with a Community Radio Policy followed by rules after they learnt that an illegal local radio in the sea coast saved a number of lives during the tsunami after it broadcast a timely warning to fishermen out at sea.
When Odisha battled Cyclone Fani, Konark’s Radio Namaskar was broadcasting updates on wind speed and directions till its tower went down around midnight. Since electricity was shut down before noon, radio was the only source of information for the people on safer places to move to. Radio Ala in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh is known for broadcasting weather reports for fishermen at sea, providing a valuable service during the regular onslaught of cyclones that the state suffers every year. Kadal Osai in Rameswaram works with the coast guard and marine police to aid rescue operations. There are around 30 stations in coastal India which work relentlessly during disasters.
Mainstream media, be it print or electronic, has largely been urban centric whereas India still lives in its villages. Further, in a state like Odisha where the tele-density is as low as 77 percent, meaning that about one-third of the total population and perhaps close to half the rural population does not have access to the internet, the community radio is the only medium that provides last mile connectivity. More importantly, communities can engage in two-way communication using these radio stations, thus fostering true community participation. Despite working in low-resource settings, community radios play an important role in advancing the unheard voices of the community. The administration could also use them for monitoring delivery of government programme, thus improving programme implementation. Most of the 267 operational community radios in the country are in rural areas, some in extremist areas and aspirational districts. There is, therefore, a compelling reason to make this movement more robust and expansive.
Yet, the government’s policy, be it at the centre or the states, has not been very favourable to community radio stations. While GoI allows them to operate for a licensing fee, there has been little promotion of their schemes and programmes over these radios. District administrations seldom use them. Many state governments have not even evolved a radio policy till now. While FM stations with their huge urban presence are able to get advertisements from both government (Bureau of Communication, earlier called DAVP) and private sectors, community radios have not been so lucky. I am happy that I recently took up their cause with the Union Information and Public Relations Minister to recognise their potential and make community radio a revolution in India.
Dr Amar Patnaik is Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha from Odisha; a former CAG official with a Master in Public Management from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore and the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; an academic with a PhD in management. Views are personal.
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