While the big satellite channels are given full bombardment rights, community radio is a medium that the officialdom fears. Sad.
India claims to be the world’s largest democracy, but it fears of opening up the airwaves to the commonman. Its democratic traditions may be far stronger, yet countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka are edging past it in making radio relevant to their citizens. India’s reluctant march towards democratising radio indeed makes the intentions of its rulers suspect.
Broadcasting in India is speedily shifting its profile. Indian radio is currently changing from being a government monopoly to highly-commercialised broadcasting. But this needs to be democratised too. Privatisation and total deregulation will not mean much to the average citizen if radio fails to get a chance to make a difference to his or her life. India has so far clearly given step-motherly treatment to public service, community, educational and development broadcast networks.
Over five years back, the Indian Supreme Court made an interesting ruling. This judgement strongly critiqued the long-held government monopoly over broadcasting. In early 1995, the court declared the airwaves as public property, to be utilised for promoting public good and ventilating plurality of views, opinions and ideas. The judgment held that the “freedom of speech and expression” guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution includes the right to acquire and disseminate information; the right to disseminate includes the right to communicate through any media, print, electronic or audio-visual. “The fundamental rights,” said the judgement, “can be limited only by reasonable restrictions under a law made for the purpose… The burden is on the authority to justify the restrictions. Public order is not the same thing as public safety and hence no restrictions can be placed on the right to freedom of speech and expression on the ground that public safety is endangered.”
Judges Sawant and Mohan held that: “Broadcasting is a means of communication and, therefore, a medium of speech and expression. Hence in a democratic polity, neither any private individual, institution or organisation nor any government or government organisation can claim exclusive right over it. Our Constitution also forbids monopoly either in the print, or electronic media.”
The judgement rightly noted that Indian broadcasting was being governed by archaic laws. The Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 was meant for a different purpose altogether. When it was enacted, there was neither radio nor television, but both these media were later sought to be fitted into the definition of “tele-graph”. In view of this, the judges said it was essential that the Indian Parliament “steps in soon to fill the void by enacting a law or laws, as the case may be, governing the broadcast media, i.e. both radio and television”. The judges also instructed the federal government to “take immediate steps to establish an independent autonomous public authority representative of all sections and interests in the society to control and regulate the use of the airwaves”.
But what has been the official response to this progressive judgement? Reluctantly, the state-controlled broadcaster, All India Radio, was given some level of ‘autonomy’. For the most part, this meant that the organisation would have to concentrate on earning revenues, and foot a growing part of its own bill. In mid-November 1999, the government announced that the bidding process to set up 140 FM (frequency modulation) stations in 40 cities had closed to “overwhelming response”, with 349 potential broadcasters finally left in the race for a license.
Questions were however asked as to who was given a chance to enter this race, and how much publicity had in fact been accorded to the move to privatise radio broadcasting. By early August 2000, it was announced that some 26 companies have received letters of intent from the Indian government, after bidding to set up FM radio stations in 40 Indian cities. Three companies were not given letters “as clearance had not come from the Home Ministry”, as news reports put it.
But how open is open? Can the diversity of a country of one billion be reflected by a little over two dozen companies, who will be broadcasting mainly entertainment programmes from cities across urban India?
Argues professor B.P. Sanjay of the Sarojini Naidu School of Communication of the University of Hyderabad: “The license system (for setting up private FM radio stations) and the response is reminiscent of the telecom bids. The companies in the name of low returns are likely to default on the price and would expect a package to bail them out, and, as is the case with many other auctions, the government will respond. We have to really wait and watch the developments with regard to many or diverse uses of radio, if any, by the media giants. The communities who want and deserve some attention are yet to get their voices heard.”
For decades, India’s radio stations have been centralised, government-controlled, over-dependent on relays, and lacking in editorial independence. In recent years, a small number of citizens’ groups across India have been pushing for something altogether different, through the community radio model. Recently, a group meeting in Hyderabad issued the Pastapur Initiative on Community Radio, released at the end of a four-day UNESCO-sponsored workshop from 17-20 July. It pointed out that “a truly people’s radio should perceive listeners not only as receivers and consumers, but also as active citizens and creative producers of media content”.
The workshop said that if the government is really serious about freeing broadcasting from state monopoly, then it needs to proceed to its logical conclusion by expanding the available media space, and permitting communities and organisations representing them to run their own radio stations. It was also pointed out that community radio should have three key aspects: non-profit making, community ownership and management, and community participation. Community radio is distinguished by its limited local reach, low-power transmission, and programming content that reflects the educational, developmental and cultural needs of the specific community it serves.
India could well benefit from the creation of a three-tier system of broadcasting in the country: a state-owned public service network (existing framework); commercial private broadcasting; and non-profit, people-owned and -managed com-munity radio stations.
Permission for low-cost community radio has long been on the cards. But while dozens of FM radio stations are currently being set up by the private sector, the rules for setting up non-profit stations are yet to be framed. Even educational institutions and universities—like the Indira Gandhi National Open University, Shantiniketan, the National Law School University of India and Jamia Milia—have been waiting to reach out via the airwaves.
Non-profit and development organisations have been lobbying for more than five years to get the go-ahead to broadcast information that could help the “information poor” to get an understanding of issues critical to their lives. Recently, neighbouring countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka made waves by allowing non-profit community radios to be set up. Asian countries like the Philippines has already shown the beneficial impact of such locally-managed, non-profit initiatives taken up by the citizens themselves. Nepal’s Radio Sagarmatha, run by a body of environmental journalists, has attracted attention globally for its unique style of operation in a Subcontinent where radio has so far been tightly government-controlled. Despite an unhelpful attitude by the government, Radio Sagarmatha has been airing information-based and green messages.
Sri Lanka too is showing the way. “In Sri Lanka, we are using a community radio station in Kotmale to find information on the Internet, which readers ask for via phone or post. This helps villagers to get access to the information superhighway,” says University of Colombo journalism lecturer Michael J.R. David. He is the project leader of the Kotmale community radio station, which took off in May 1999, and is being studied worldwide as an innovative experiment in development communication.
India’s state-owned All India Ra-dio (AIR) had set up a string of local radio stations some years ago, and in the last decade, its programmes have focused more on the rural population and the urban lower middle classes. But again, the stations are not exactly locally relevant, neither are they community-run. Repeated changes in governments and bureaucratic red tape have meant that community radio is still to become a reality in India
Bazlur Rahman of the Bangladesh Coastal NGOs Network for Radio and Communication says that Dhaka is expected to license non-profit radio for community groups in 2001.
T.H. Chowdary, advisor to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu on technology matters, said at the recent Hyderabad meeting that, “On FM, the bandwidth permits a very large number of low-powered radio transmitters. There can be up to 5,000 FM stations, roughly the same number of tehsils (district sub-divisions) in India.
Today, it is technically and economically feasible to set up hundreds, if not thousands, of low-powered FM radio stations across the country. These would not interfere with one another. What is lacking are the government laws to permit this, and the political will to allow radio to play its role in a country like India.
For instance, two young men, Vikas Markanday and Dayal Singh of Rohtak in Haryana, both aged 21, have assembled a low-cost FM radio transmitter that they hope will spread useful information that could bring about change in the lives of villagers, including on agricultural practices. “Such radio can play a vital role in low-cost communication. Rural developmental issues can be taken up, illiteracy can be overcome. Farmers in the field could easily be given the information inputs they need,” says Markanday. Both the radio activists belong to Nutra Indica Research Council, a non-profit NGO in Rohtak that seeks to put rural innovators in touch with scientists. Weighing ap-proximately 12 kilograms, their en-tire “radio station” fits into a brief-case, with the transmitter having a range of 10-15-km radius.
And it has not been because of any lack of proposals that community broadcasting has not taken off in India. Some of the suggestions have been: small transmitters with a reach of ten kilometres; a studio with recording and broadcasting facilities; and broadcast hours in keeping with local context.
Media advocacy groups have been pressing for licenses to be given to universities (particularly agricultural universities, medical institutions, adult and legal literacy organisations), registered cooperatives, women’s cooperatives and other suitable public bodies. “Our problem has been a Delhi-centric approach to broadcasting. One fear is that (community broadcasting and grassroots radio) could become inconvenient for the existing power-structure,” says prominent media critic K.E. Eapen.
What has also happened alongside is the Indian middle class’ rediscovery of the radio with the FM boom of the 1990s. But it has also got to be mentioned that for the bulk of citizens of the country, radio has always been the only affordable electronic gadget. Recent studies suggest that radio in India has a potential listenership of 98.5 percent of the country’s population. There are some 104 million radio homes, double the number of TV homes.
And it has to be said that the radio is not merely a “poor man’s de-vice”. In affluent Europe, radio plays a major role in the community’s life, taking across relevant, local information in a way perhaps no other media can. It is particularly effective in the busy morning hours, while TV takes over in the evenings.
The Indian officialdom, however, is still apprehensive of opening up radio to the people. Although officials say that AIR’s low-powered stations in semi-rural areas—some 89 exist already—could offer one-hour time slots to panchayats or “bonafide” representatives of the communities, they then entangle the entire debate on the identifying process of which non-profit or voluntary organisation is a “true representative of the community”. They then make token gestures such as allowing non-profit groups time-slots on existing official channels.
All sections of non-official radio are barred from airing news, even though the officialdom doesn’t mind the entire globe bombarding India with whatever programmes via satellite. One argument proffered is that of the difficulty in monitoring radio stations in the “remote corners”. Imagine the same yardstick being applied to all the small newspapers. Anyway, why should the government presume that all citizens of this country have malafide intentions? Is it not possible to have a broadcasting regulatory authority to ensure that broad guidelines, and preferably a voluntary code, be respected?
Media critics like Sevanti Ninan have aptly asked the question: “Why is (the government) so nervous about opening up a medium that has powerful development potential? Are media groups such as the owners of the The Times of India and Midday more benevolent than development groups? Why is a 52-year-old democracy so terrified of positive decentralisation?”
All questions that could indeed do with some answers.