//Free the airwaves, for India

Free the airwaves, for India

Community radio doesn’t cause wars, it brings positive change

Frederick Noronha, Tehelka.COM, Nov 5 -11 , 2006

We have about 30 here,” said my Ugandan friend, when asked about fm radio stations in and around Uganda’s capital Kampala. Nepal has shamed the “world’s largest democracy” many years ago.

And we’re not talking of just multi-million rupee licences for commercial fm. Apart from the sarkari airwaves, and the commercial ones, India has just forgotten to open up its airwaves to its own citizens, volunteer networks and the not-for- profit sector (not just ngos alone). Paranoid politicians, overcautious officials, and ad-obsessed broadcasters, have worked to make this happen. Campus radio is no substitute for genuine community radio.

Conflict-prone Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia too have outdone us. In 1995, the Supreme Court was clear in telling the authorities that the “airwaves are public property”. Yet, every stalling trick has been deployed to delay. Will the government be different now? Now, though, we have talk of new community radio-friendly policies from the gom, Cabinet approval and what-have-you. But till we hear the broadcasts, let’s just keep our fingers crossed, shall we?

Half a decade ago, a disparate group that saw potential in community radio joined a unesco workshop held at Hyderabad. To build some continuity, an electronic mailing list called cr-India was set up. Since then, over 300-plus citizens have tried every trick to convince the authorities why this is a good idea. So, whose interest does it serve to keep Indian talent on a tight leash, even while blocking the huge potential for communication?

Academics agree with it. There is clear evidence that community radio works elsewhere. We have more than sufficient skills across India. Just take a look at radiophony.com that tells you how to build a low-powered transmitter for a few hundred rupees.

We’ve seen groups in Bhuj and Bihar struggle with leasing time on the air network. We’ve seen youngsters from Haryana create transmitters for Rs 11,000. And we’ve seen an innovative Raghav Mahto run an unlicenced fm radio station in a way that makes it relevant to the locality and enables him to earn a few rupees for a cancer-stricken dad.

So what are we waiting for? But then, India’s irrational fears about unleashing the power of communication, in a way that could really make a difference to the information-starved, is keeping our potential blocked. Thanks to technology, and today’s unprecedented pace for the spread of ideas, you don’t need an army of bureaucrats or a few million rupees to communicate via the airwaves anymore. What’s more, the radio could be the most appropriate in a country with poor power in vast rural stretches.

But irrational fears are just that. Irrational, and hard to get rid of. We have a (relatively) free press; and the country hasn’t fallen apart. Radio doesn’t cause wars or the breakdown of law and order. Rather than war-war, it allows for jaw-jaw. We need discussions that could resolve conflict and act as an early warning system. Those not in line with the law will do so, whether you offer them licences or not. So, whom are we penalising?

We need radio to warn the citizen of disaster, to inform them of how to bring positive change in their lives, and even to keep alive the varied cultures which get trampled upon by our centralised models.

Tomas Koshy — discussing via the [email protected] network — tells a recent story of what happened when he spoke to 150 women in Champaran. Three read newspapers. Four watched TV. And almost everyone listened to radio. So should they be force-fed the official version, when technology allows for thousands of community-run radios, reflecting the needs of India? Rather than fearing what happens when the poor get access to information, we owe it to them to just unshackle the medium. This is not middle-class burden; even “illiterate” millions are educated enough to make use of this medium. Are we enlightened enough to stop fighting possibilities with paranoia and artificial blocks in the law?

Action can always be taken against those violating the law; should we presume malafides by default? Time lost, as a decision gets delayed, is something the country could never ever recoup. So why not just free the airwaves for the citizen too? Till then, India will just have to wait for its real communications revolution.

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Noronha is a Goa-based journalist