Frederick Noronha on 20 Oct 2000 18:08:42 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Community radio debate in India...


By Frederick Noronha

We claim to be the world's largest democracy, but fear opening up 
the airwaves to the commonman. Our democratic traditions are far 
stronger, yet countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and perhaps even 
Bangladesh are edging past us 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-commercialized broadcasting. But this media needs to be 
democratized too. Privatization and total deregulation will not 
mean much to the average citizen if radio fails to get a chance 
to play a vital role in their lives. 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 gave an 
interesting ruling. This judgement strongly critiqued the long-
held government monopoly over broadcasting in this country. In 
early 1995, the court declared the airwaves as public property, 
to be utilized for promoting public good and ventilating 
plurality of views, opinions and ideas.  (AIR 1995 Supreme Court 1236). 

This 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. And, 
in turn, the right to disseminate includes the right to 
communicate through any media -- print, electronic or audio-
visual. "The fundamental rights," said the judgment, "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 

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."

This judgment 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 concepts 
were later sought to be fitted into the definition of "telegraph".

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". Also, the judges instructed the 
Indian 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".


IN RESPONSE TO THIS, WHAT HAS THE official answer been? 

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. 

Further, Indian radio broadcasting is right now shifting from 
being a government monopoly to highly-commercialized 
broadcasting. 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 been 
in fact 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 the news reports put it. 

But how open is open? Can the diversity of the country of one-
million be reflected by a little over two dozen companies, 
who will be broadcasting mainly entertainment programmes from 
cities across urban India? 

Argues Prof B.P. Sanjay of the Sarojini Naidu School of 
Communication of the University of Hyderabad: "The licence 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 centralized, 
government-controlled, over-dependent on relays and lacking in 
editorial independence. In recent years, a small number citizens' 
groups across India have been pushing for something very 
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 July 17-20. 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."

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 organizations 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 community 
radio stations.

What the country badly needs now is to dedicate frequencies, 
specifically for the creation, maintenance and expansion of 
community broadcasting in the country.

Permission for low-cost community radio has long been on the 
cards. But while dozens of FM (frequency modulation) 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 -- ranging from 
IGNOU to Shantiniketan, the National Law School University of 
India and Jamia Milia -- have been waiting to reach out via the 

Non-profit and development organisations have been lobbying for 
more than five years to get permission 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 edged past India 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 citizens 

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, it has managed to promote information-based 
and green messages. 

"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 simple villagers to get access to the 
information superhighway too," University of Colombo journalism 
lecturer Michael J.R. David said during a recent visit to India. 
He is the project leader of the Kotmale community radio station, 
which took off in May 1999 but is already being studied worldwide 
as an innovative experiment in development communication.

India's state-owned All India Radio (AIR) had set up a string of 
local radio stations some years ago. But without carrying these 
plans through effectively, the stations were not locally relevant 
and community-run. By contrast, community stations can play an 
important role. Repeated changes in governments and bureaucratic 
red tape has 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, "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. 


in Haryana, both aged 21, have assembled a low-cost FM radio 
transmitter that they hope will spread useful information that 
could make a vital difference to the lives of villagers, 
including on agricultural practices.

"Such a type of a radio can play a vital role in low-cost 
communication. Rural developmental issues can be taken up. 
Illiteracy (bottlenecks) can be overcome. Farmers in the field 
could easily be given the information inputs they need," says 
Markanday. Both the young men belong to Nutra Indica Research 
Council, a non-profit NGO in Rohtak that seeks to put rural 
innovators in touch with scientists, and also create a platform 
for ideas to be exchanged, particularly on the rural front. 
Markanday is still an engineering student.

Weighing approximately 12 kgs., the entire "radio station" fits 
into a briefcase. This transmitter has a range of 10 to 15 kms 
radius, and thus can be used to beam developmental inputs to 
rural citizens.

Some suggestions that have recently been considered in this 
country include: small transmitters with a reach of ten 
kilometers, one studio with recording and broadcasting 
facilities, and broadcast hours flexible to fit into local demand 
-- for example, before and after field work in early morning and 
late evening in rural India.

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 suitable public bodies.

"Our problem has been a Delhi-centric approach to broadcasting 
that we in this country has taken. One fear is that (community 
broadcasting and grassroots radio) could become inconvenient for 
the existing power-structure," prominent media critic Professor 
K.E.Eapen of Bangalore argued recently. 

India's middle classes seem to have re-discovered radio -- with 
the FM boom -- in the 'nineties. But for the bulk of the citizens 
of this country, radio is virtually the only electronic gadget 
they can afford. There's no medium other than radio that can 
offer relevant, local information too, provided it is aptly utilised. 

Radio has already proven its relevance to Indians. Recent studies 
suggest that radio in India has a potential listership of 98.5% 
of the population of this vast country. There are some 104 
million radio homes, double the number of TV homes. Radio has a 
far broader reach than television. 

Over the last decade, All India Radio has focused more on the 
rural population and the urban lower middle classes, unlike 
TV's preoccupation with the relatively smaller number of urban 
upper middle classes. It has also been argued that considering 
the low levels of literacy in India and the low purchasing power 
of the large majority, radio will inevitably retain its edge over 
the print media and television in terms of outreach.

But radio is not only the "poor man's" option. Even in affluent 
Europe, radio plays its 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. 


opening up radio to the people. Officials argue that AIR's low-
powered stations in semi-rural areas -- some 89 already exist -- 
could offer one-hour time slots to panchayats or "bonafide" 
representatives of the communities. Official quarters then 
entangle the entire debate in the question of how should they 
ascertain which non-profit or voluntary organisation is a "true 
representative of the community". 

Official thinking currently seems to be to block non-profit 
groups from setting up their own broadcast facilities, if 
possible by using the sops of offering them time-slots on 
existing official channels. Besides, the strictly 'no-news' 
policy on all sectors of non-official radio betrays the paranoia 
that our ruling elites have about this medium. They don't mind, 
of course, if the entire globe bombards India with whatever 
programmes via satellite! One wonders what would be the fate of 
the official policy should this be challenged in the court of law.

Officials argue that radio stations in a "remote corner" of India 
would be difficult to monitor. If so, doesn't the same hold true 
for tiny 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, is 

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 'Times of India' and 'Midday' more benevolent 
than development groups? Why is a 52-year-old democracy so 
terrified of positive decentralisation?"

Questions that indeed could do with answers... (ENDS) 

   frederick noronha, freelance journalist,
   near convent, saligao 403511 goa india 0091.832.409490/ 409783
   News from Goa
   Photos from Goa

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