New Delhi: The school bell rings. The teacher tells the girl students there’s going to be a meeting with an accredited social health activist, or ASHA worker, at the end of the day. Their mothers have also been invited for the interaction. The topic is menstruation.

The ASHA worker, Abha (who uses only one name), brings along some students who have done workshops with her earlier. Some of them share their experiences and problems to break the ice.

The programme is aired on Waqt Ki Awaaz 91.2 community radio, broadcast by Shramik Bharti, a Kanpur-based NGO that works with urban and rural poor. The teacher and ASHA workers encourage the audience to ask questions. The questions include the typical age for girls to get their period, the duration, why cramping happens and what to do for relief, and why women are considered impure while menstruating.

In March, Shramik Bharti was a winner at the Digital Empowerment Foundation’s SM4E Awards.

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Waqt Ki Awaaz is the latest initiative of Shramik Bharti, which was started in 1986 for the welfare of slum dwellers at a time when “sick" factories across Kanpur were closing down in large numbers.

Shramik Bharti chief executive Rakesh Kumar Pandey, 48, says the idea for Waqt Ki Awaaz grew sometime in 2009 out of a realization that community radio could become an important platform for community engagement. Waqt Ki Awaaz’s first show was on 24 September 2013.

The programme topic is fixed based on inputs from people. Waqt Ki Awaaz has a history of working closely with the community in areas such as microfinance, rainwater harvesting, sustainable agriculture, family planning and more. Station coordinator Radha Shukla was drawn from among these workers—she worked in the Save Motherhood maternal healthcare project of Shramik Bharti in the Kanpur Dehat (rural) region for 20 years. Workers of the organization go from door to door and to village meetings and talk to people about the subjects they would be interested in learning about. Once the topic is decided, Shukla and her team of six get to work writing the script to ensure that the message gets home.

The digital advantage

“We dramatize the programmes to make them interesting, but the topics come from our listeners," says Shukla on phone from Kanpur. “We recently did a programme on agriculture where we used the scarecrow as the character. We built a whole drama around it. For a show on democracy and elected women leaders, we used the real-life example of a ward member, Maya Devi of Kanpur Dehat."

Volunteers go out with hand-held recorders to citizens or sometimes call them to the studio. The key equipment comprises MP4 recorders, mixing and editing software, and a 50- watt transmitter with a 15km radius. “Everyone in the team knows how to do everything: programming, scriptwriting, casting, research, editing and broadcasting," says Shukla.

Challenges

Every day, the radio runs programmes for seven hours. Typically, each programme is 30 minutes long, with 15 minutes of recorded programming and 15 minutes of audience interaction. Shukla explains that the station often adds people’s voices to the programme because people tune in to listen to themselves and their friends on the radio. According to Shramik Bharti’s Pandey, the programming reaches 300,000 listeners across 300 villages.

In fiscal year 2014-15, 50% of the cost of running Waqt Ki Awaaz came from contractual assignments with organizations such as the Sesame Workshop India Trust, Gram Vani (now OnionDev), Reach and Ideosync Media Combine, he says.

Future plans

Pandey expects the community radio programme will become self-sustaining with more collaborative projects in 2016-17. He hopes to develop a team of 20 citizen journalists by 2017 as well as a village discussion forum, more grass-roots reporting of issues as well as lok geet (folk songs) and cultural programmes. “Shramik Bharti’s strength is community mobilization. Waqt Ki Awaaz fits in well in this scheme of solving problems together, with the community," he adds.

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