In 2007, when Shiv Shekhar Shukla took over as district collector (DC) of Sagar district in Madhya Pradesh, his first act was to make himself available 24x7 to all citizens. He did this by giving out his mobile phone number; the calls never stopped, some coming in well past midnight. But Shukla wanted to do more than be available. He wanted to process these queries in a transparent manner.
Soon the DC devised a mechanism: live radio from the local station of All India Radio (AIR). This led to the launch of the Jansamvad programme.
Shukla announced a dedicated time for grievance redressal calls on the local radio station. The promise made was the DC himself would attend the calls. And the conversations would be broadcast live. The initiative received the Manthan Award for innovative community broadcasting for 2007.
To millions living in the countryside, a radio is still a dominant and powerful information and communication platform. India has 225 AIR stations and around 310 commercial ones. In addition, it has around 70 community radio (CR) stations out of which around 45 are campus-based. Despite criticism that CR could compromise India’s security or propagate communal sentiments, the fact is, community broadcasting has the ability to address key development and governance challenges.
And demand for them is growing. Till the end of 2008, India’s information and broadcasting ministry had received 800 applications for the service. Since launch in November 2006, CR stations in India have offered communities a locally owned public forum to look into their problems. And the Manthan Awards have recognized innovations on this platform.
The Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli initiative in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, a winner of the Manthan Award in 2008, undertook community awareness drives after the tsunami. Broadcasts told locals how to cope with disasters better. Sangham Radio in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, an entry in the Manthan Awards for 2009, works with village women’s collectives. The station focuses on issues such as food and seed sovereignty, and autonomous health, market and media.
So what next? Perhaps all panchayati raj bodies in India can be helped to run their own CR stations. Government-sponsored programmes such as NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and policy drives such as RTI (Right to Information) can find greater outreach through such platforms. The utility of an accessible technological tool like CR as a direct link between the government and the governed should no longer be ignored.
Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of Manthan Award. He has recently released his third title Digital Inclusion for Development—Cases from India & South Asia.
He can be reached at email@example.com