Information can make or break you. Information can enable or disable you. You can have information and feel empowered or you can be deprived of information and opportunities, rights and freedom. In the disaster in Uttarakhand, information was the biggest casualty. How?
Although stories of devastation and horror are flowing out of Uttarakhand, we have almost no real information on the exact situation in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. The massive floods that struck Uttarakhand is a wake-up call to the government as well as citizens. The tragedy is also an institutional disaster. Before the cloudburst and flash floods wreaked havoc, the Indian Meteorological Department had warned of heavy rainfall in Rudraprayag, yet disaster management agencies made little effort to prepare. The lack of coordination in states prone to natural calamities makes quick response in such a situation nearly impossible. India’s most hi-tech communication lab, Defence Electronics Application Laboratory (DEAL), is in Dehradun, but even after two weeks of the tragedy, the government failed to take assistance of DEAL to establish communications.
While different states announced aid, the Uttarakhand government seemed clueless about how to handle the situation. It’s not surprising that in such a situation, it is important to have a high-resolution map of the region and terrain. However, rescuers in the affected areas found it difficult to locate and access survivors without appropriate maps. According to experts, good disaster management planning requires 1:500 ratio maps of the regions or terrain, but we don’t have that kind of high-resolution maps of the flood-affected areas of Uttarakhand.
During natural disasters, and for some time afterwards, people affected by them ask many questions and are desperate for information. When this disaster took place, unlike in the past, we are living in the era of real-time information and media and the sources are many and diverse—radio, television, Internet, SMS, mobile phones, and so on. Yet, we could not find many of those real-time media playing any decisive role in finding solutions. It is often noted that the real effective solution to many disasters, where government action is always inadequate, like we have in India, local communities remain the first responders. Their role, especially youth, in saving lives during the first few hours after a disaster, is critical. Incidentally, we have two very strong community media in hand—community radio and mobile phones with its seamless feature of SMS, video, photo, voice and Internet.
The role of community radio is tremendous in natural calamities. A public radio station with a reach of 15-20km becomes highly powerful with the integration of mobile telephony in real time. The region, brutalized by floods, has only three community radios running—Kumaon Vani (Mukteshwar), Henvalvani (Chamba Valley) and Mandakini Ki Awaz (Rudraprayag). These radio stations have been broadcasting live programmes that inform and sensitize communities and tried to reach all flood-affected families.
Since community radio has proved to be an excellent empowering media tool on the ground, kudos to the government for making it possible that NGOs can have permits to run such operations. Yet, it takes five ministries to get a licence, the bottleneck being the ministry of communication and information technology’s wireless planning and coordination wing, which provides the wireless operating licence. In the past one year, this wing has not awarded even a single permit to any of the 239 applicants for public radio stations although it has collected annual fees from each of them.
In a country like India, where 70% of the people live in rural areas, where governance is a casualty, information is a miss and media is non-existent, community radio is a must. It is perhaps time once again for people to come on the street to demand their permits and the exemption of licence fees as has been promised by the ministry.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and curator of the mBillionth Awards. He is member of the working group for Internet proliferation and governance, ministry of communication and information technology. Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar.