The recent man handling, match fixing and molestation charges that dominate what was once referred to as a gentleman’s sport attracted all the television news channels attention - nonstop. Important issues were sidelined as is often the case when masala takes over matter. I was frustrated that nothing of substance was on any of the news channels for extended periods of time.
Yet, I am still privileged as my language of choice for obtaining information and news that is relevant to my interests is English. I have blazing fast internet and a gazillion options worldwide to graze the news. And in my personal capacity, if I want to make the news, I can publish my thoughts via a blog, comment on others blogs and new stories. I can tweet my thoughts and retweet what I agree or disagree with comments, and on and on.
However, there are many in India whose issues, voices and languages are consistently ignored. The silence of these oppressed masses has given birth to many modern day Maoists. Occasional ado is made of India’s many languages mainly when a point needs to be made about our great, rich and diverse culture and much ado is made globally when a language is finally dead or about to expire. Little though is being done to enable the voices of millions of Indian tribals and their numerous living languages to be heard. Language and geography have made for misery for these millions. Out of sight and out of mind, these poor people have been ignored, sidelined and oppressed for too long. One can’t blame them for the methods they are utilizing to try to get what they need to survive let alone to live large and thrive in a country that is equally theirs.
Enter Shubranshu Choudhary a journalist who grew up in Chhattisgarh. At a recent seminar, he talked about how he had left his home state at a time when it was a very quiet place and in the twenty years that he was away reporting many details from many places around the world, his home state had become “India’s biggest internal security threat.” To figure out what went wrong and how his classmates from the tribal school in northern Chhattisgarh that he attended had become “terrorists,” he quit his job and returned home.
Communication breakdown. Choudhary found that this was the problem. His former classmates informed him that they needed to communicate with each other and the rest of the world through a medium that they owned. He was told that the mass media is owned by rich and powerful entities and does not allow them the option of communication nor does it speak their language let alone address their issues. Internet is not an option due to electricity, connectivity and language issues and the local issues of tribals don’t make for “good” television. Furthermore, voice is their preferred medium not print. A vast majority of Indians are simply more comfortable with talking and listening. An extension of sitting under the banyan tree and shooting the breeze. Choudhary knew he had to fix this problem. Community radio could have been the obvious solution here especially as it relates and caters to geography and also solves the language and literacy problems.
However due to various problems surrounding community radio including a ban on spectrum in “disturbed areas”, an innovative solution was devised using the “most democratic machine in India” – the mobile phone as the medium. Cgnetswara is the experiment where messages are called in via mobile phones and recorded. Anyone can give a missed call to 91-80-4113 7280. The call is returned immediately and you have the option to record or listen to messages. It is simple and effective.
To highlight the contrast between the two worlds – the mainstream and the marginalized, I checked to see what messages were called in during the over reported kidnapping of Sukma collector Alex Paul Menon. While the mainstream media did a “Peepli Live” on Menon’s kidnapping during a Gram Suraj Abhiyan meeting, the content of the people, for the people and by the people generated in Chhattisgarh was that of how the Gram Suraj Abhiyan project was a waste of time. The Gram Suraj Abhiyan sounds good in theory. Officials go to the villages and hear problems and inform citizens about government programs. However, the reality is that problems raised at these meetings are not solved. One message that was called in asked the Chief Minister to keep atleast 25% of his promises.
The mainstream media completely ignored an opportunity that was offered up on a golden platter to explore the underlying reasons for the unrest in this region. Sensationalism over journalism was and is the order of the day when it comes to dealing with such matters.
Messages called in at cgnetswara that highlight some of the problems faced by these marginalized communities include non-payment of NREGA wages for months, land grabbing, no food for pre-school children, banks cheating the adivasis, etc. Cgnetswara is succeeding in giving airtime to many people for the first time. Some of its reported messages have found their way into mainstream media as news stories. It is a great beginning and holds promise for many who now have their own medium for communication.
Another meaningful way to give voice to those missing from the mainstream is community radio. The push for community radio to give the many Indians who do not have a voice has an interesting origin and a group of dedicated activists who have been laying the groundwork for it for well over a decade.
Cricket ironically had everything to do with the 1995 Supreme Court judgment that said that “airwaves constitute public property and must be utilized for advancing public good.” The seminal case involved the Cricket Association of Bengal’s (CAB) attempt to license broadcasting rights to a foreign company, Trans World International (TWI) and Doordarshan and resulted in a rather lengthy and convoluted judgment.
The Supreme Court’s pronouncement in the case about airwaves as public property was given two interpretations. One was by the government that saw it as a way to privatize and make big bucks. Public means private in other words. Whereas, community radio activists viewed it as giving them a legal leg to stand on to push for establishing community radio stations.
Privatization has resulted in a big boom in commercial FM stations and to a certain degree has succeeded in reviving and re-energizing the airwaves. However, the corporate interests that own these stations promote inane chatter, endless advertisements and Bollywood type music. These stations have made for a monoculture and rarely do anything to promote the diverse music of India let alone address issues of the unseen. The music of the people that is prevalent all over India is absent too. These stations are also a mostly urban phenomenon that has successfully extended their reach to Tier II cities. (Disclosure: HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint, owns commercial FM radio stations.)
What community radio activists have been demanding is a third alternative to fulfill the needs of the marginalized and rural communities that are not served by either public or commercial radio. Their journey began in 1996 at a meeting that culminated in the Bangalore Declaration citing the need for community radio.
The loosely knit activist community formed the Community Radio Forum (CRF) in 2007 to more effectively advocate for community radio. Due to their efforts, the government has been listening and is slowly getting on track with understanding the need for community radio. However, there are issues that need immediate redressal.
Licenses for community radio were first given to educational institutions. The first campus community radio station was set up at Anna University in Chennai and now there are about a 100 of them all across India. College radio stations are a wonderful part of campus life that also allow university students get hands on training and this was a step in the right direction but these populations are already served by mainstream media and can do little to facilitate communication amidst the marginalized.
Only 30 true “community” radio stations exist currently. It is an arduous task to obtain a license and the immense beauracracy surrounding the process for getting a license has received some attention in the media of late. As has the proposed fivefold spectrum fee hike. The 1995 Supreme Court judgment ran to over a hundred pages as the justices spent considerable time examining and comparing how licenses and broadcasting were treated around the world. The current scenario around the world is to exempt fees for community based licenses. The government would do well to follow this move.
Other issues that need to be addressed include the mystery of the vanishing spectrum. Allocation of spectrum must be transparent. Citizens should know where it is all going. Spectrum can also be viewed as “electronic commons” and some spectrum needs to be reserved for community radio.
The ban on spectrum in so called disturbed areas needs to be lifted. These areas need it the most. It can be a tool for social change and act as a peace builder. The government needs to treat community radio in these regions as basic infrastructure like roads and highways to establish connectivity. Moreover, this is in line with established policy that seeks to empower and bring about the upliftment of the marginalized.
Community radio is thriving in parts of the world where there are tremendous national security concerns and violence such as in Colombia. India should take a cue from this example and act decisively in this matter. Inaction is clearly making things worse.
Finally, no news is good news for most of us. But no news on community radio makes little sense. This ban on no news has to be lifted. The policy of “no content of a political nature” on community radio is misguided. The issues faced by people are of a political nature. Schemes devised by the government that are not implemented are political, so too are issues of land allocation, non-payment of wages, schools and education for children, etc. These are problems that are faced by people that as a matter of right should be allowed to be discussed openly. Arguably everything is political these days.
If Arnab Goswami can chat about issues of a political nature every night with the usual suspects, why can’t the marginalized millions talk about issues affecting them?
The results of isolation and oppression are obvious. Lives are being lost both to death and to strife. It’s high time that the government begins to look at community radio as a bridge to quell the unrest amidst the unseen and unheard. A little spectrum will go a long way in making for a secure India and eliminating the threat within. Anyone listening?
Also Read | A spectrum story