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Gram Vaani in Tehelka

admin 27 May 2021

The community radio movement is still alive, and was recently featured in Tehelka. Gram Vaani technology also makes an appearance in the article, available here.

FM of the Masses

A ministry and the people are working together to promote a grassroots movement.Janani Ganesan tunes in to the community radio revolution in India

Photos: Soumik Mukherjee

A BSNL tower looms by the side of Nuh Road in Haryana. A smaller tower is barely visible in the background. Thirty metres tall, including the height of the nondescript Mewat Development Authority building it is mounted on, it has to be pointed out to be noticed. When the smaller tower was set up in 2010, it caught Mohammed Arif’s attention. Having worked as a crime reporter for a local newspaper in Faridabad, he soon found out that the tower had been installed for a Community Radio Station (CRS).

Arif, 27, began work in Radio Mewat, crooning into the mike after every report on agriculture, his beat, the purpose of a CRS in a rhyming radio jingle: “Aapki Baat, Meri Baat, Suniye Radio Mewat. (Listen to your issues and mine on Radio Mewat.)” Not an interview with the finance minister on the fiscal policy, but with the local bank officer on the savings scheme. Not a day-long discussion on the bailout package for Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines, but questioning why funds had not reached the Sarpanch. Not popular Bollywood songs, but created-in-studio music of the local Mirasi community.

The result: the station now receives women callers, a rare feat in the primarily Muslim population of conservative Mewat with a 44 percent literacy rate, 20 percentage points below the state average. When women like Syeda Hameed, a Planning Commission member, are featured on a 15-minute show Aaj ki Mehman (Today’s Guest), it does create ripples.

Community radio is a grassroots movement that even the government is excited about. With 130 active radio stations across the country and 233 more in the pipeline, the concept is a runaway success. And when the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) came out with the first edition of national awards for community radio this February, this success knocked on the media’s door to be heard. Radio Mewat has been a favourite, the only station to have won an award in the sustainability model category while the other four categories averaged three winners each.

The award did wonders for us. We received a call from Auroville in Pondicherry asking about the station,” says Archana Kapoor, the founder of Radio Mewat.

Kapoor is with SMART, the parent NGO of Radio Mewat. This year, at least three other community radio stations will be set up in Mewat. One of them, Alfaz-e-Mewat, is already at the testing stage.

Mewat is not an unusually active spot for community radio. In the past two years, the number of stations in the country has doubled from 64. Despite community radio being opened up to registered non-profit organisations in 2006, it is only in the past two years that the I&B ministry has proactively engaged with the phenomenon.

The awards, for instance, were announced in the second edition of the National Community Radio Sammelan, organised by the I&B ministry as a platform for CRS across the country to interact with each other, as well as with the ministry.

Organised on the heels of World Radio Day (13 February), it hosted representatives from UK, US, Australia and South Africa. “Community radio is doing well in developed nations and we wanted to learn from them,” says I&B Ministry Joint Secretary Supriya Sahu.

That the conference is not a mere gettogether event, but a policy advocacy forum, is evident from the fact that last year’s demand is a reality this year: the rate of government programmes aired on CRS has been increased to Rs 4 per second from the earlier Rs 1 per second.

This year’s moot point was sustainability. “One thing we learnt from the foreign experts is that they provide a start-up fund, which is Rs 10-15 lakh in India. We realise its importance now,” says Sahu. Educational institutions run 80 stations, NGOs run 40 and only 10 are operated by individual people’s groups. The ministry’s aim is to boost this number as well.

However, it is unfair to give credit only to the ministry. Outside Shastri Bhavan, there is a movement brewing.

WITH NINE CRS representatives landing in Delhi for a three-day workshop, Arti Jaiman who set up Gurgaon Ki Awaaz, is too busy to meet. “You can come. But you can’t interrupt the session,” her SMS highlights the packed schedule.

An RJ inside the Radio Mewat station that reaches 5 lakh people
Talking heads An RJ inside the Radio Mewat station that reaches 5 lakh people

Galli Galli Sim Sim, the Cartoon Network educational show, is ready to be aired on community radio. Gurgaon Ki Awaaz already has a scheduled slot. Organiser of the workshop, Anuragini Nagar, programme manager for Galli Galli Sim Sim, explains the purpose of the event, “People use their mobile phones to listen to community radio. And the only age group not covered are children. Since most people have mobile phones with FM, it would be a great opportunity to engage with kids.”

The success of the CRS movement is also evident from the number of different insitutions seeking collaborations.

Gram Vaani provides technological support such as radio automation systems that allow for airing recorded programmes in an unmanned station and news-over-phone service that promotes citizen journalism, while Ideosync provides research and content development support.

A reporter interviews a sarpanch
Talking heads A reporter interviews a sarpanch

Ek Duniya Anek Awaaz (one world, many voices) is a web-based service that uploads the content of radio stations. Listening to Bhojpuri or Tamil from villages that don’t appear even on Google maps, is such an exciting platform that even the ministry mentions this in its press release on future plans for community radio.

The I&B ministry has fast-tracked licences and spearheaded a national conference in the past two years

But despite the fast tracking, the zeal, and some unprecedented coordination between government and the people, there are a few shortcomings. “The wireless operator licence that has to come from the telecom ministry, after the permission from I&B ministry, is supposed to take 30 days, but takes 6-8 months,” complains Rajendra Negi, with Havelvani station in Tehri, Uttarakhand. Sahu agrees that there is a problem. “There are inter-ministerial meetings every month, to discuss the speeding up of the process,” she explains. She adds, turning to a map representing CRS coverage in India, “Also, the Northeast is not covered. We’d like to see some progress there and are holding workshops in Itanagar, Sikkim and Bodhgaya in March.” These workshops are held across India by the ministry to create awareness about CRS.

A people’s movement is in the offing. Of a non-violent, optimistic and constructive nature. And as Sahu puts it, “It is exciting. It is new. It is democratic.”

Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.