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The MKA team on the ground before social distancing norms came into force.
The MKA team on the ground before social distancing norms came into force.

Community radio to combat Covid-19

Community radio stations, a lifeline in Uttarakhand, join hands to tackle fake news about covid-19

In the hills of Uttarakhand, seven community radio stations have come together to create a multi-level network that reaches the remotest villages to tackle misinformation about covid-19.

Mandakini ki Awaaz, Kumaon Vaani, Pantnagar Janvani, Radio Zindagee, Himgiri ki Awaaz, Heval Vani and Radio Khushi are coordinating with the People’s Power Collective, a community radio capacity-building, training and skilling organization. “There are a lot of rumours and fake news doing the rounds about covid-19 in Uttarakhand. We have come together to fight that," says Arjun Kaintura, who leads the 13-year-old Radio Khushi, one of the first community radio stations in the state. Operating from the Guru Nanak School in Mussoorie, it reaches out to urban and semi-urban populations.

The idea of this initiative, known as the UMEED Network, is to inform, educate and reassure the community. They are leveraging the strengths and networks of the stations, creating information-based communication.

“In Uttarakhand, there is already a deep engagement with community radio. There is a habit of listening and a sense of trust in the local station," says Saritha Thomas, founder, PPC, which helped set up Mandakini ki Awaaz 90.8 FM (MKA) in 2014 with a local grass-roots organization in Sena Gadasari village, Rudraprayag district. Today MKA reaches out to 350 villages in the Mandakini river valley and has around 250,000 potential listeners. It also sees over 75,000 listeners from across India and the world tune in via the app Mixlr.

In a state prone to disaster, the role of community radio in disseminating accurate information becomes critical. Uttarakhand is now the only state to have a community radio and disaster management policy. These stations, with content in Garhwali, Kumaoni, Hindi and local dialects, have emerged as lifelines, not just for transmitting accurate information but also for providing relief and succour in the form of music and drama.

These days, each station is getting a lot of calls on how to keep children engaged at home. “Whether it is in urban or rural areas, this is a common problem," says Manavendra Negi, who heads MKA.

Other issues are coming up too. People who have worked on MGNREGA, the rural employment guarantee law,projects haven’t been paid in months. “Can they be paid at this time of need?" asks Thomas.

People in semi-urban areas are worried about what a quarantine entails. “They worry that they would be locked in without any access to food," says Kaintura. There is also anxiety about what will happen once the lockdown ends.

Youngsters aching to go out are calling; so are parents struggling to deal with their rebellious moods. “Senior citizens are concerned that their medication is coming to an end and they are due for a follow-up health check. But health centres have instructed them not to come unless it is for covid-19," says Thomas. There have been enquiries about distribution of essential supplies at ration shops as well.

All such questions are compiled by the seven radio stations over a daily conference call and then sent to the various stakeholders—be it the district administration, health institutions, anganwadi workers or trusted NGOs. “People in the interiors might not be able to directly connect with health experts in cities. So we get their questions, call the relevant expert and then share that recording with all the stations," says Kaintura.

Each station has a signature style. If Radio Khushi adopts an informal tone with the youth in Mussoorie and Haridwar, MKA speaks in a matter-of-fact tone to students of Agastyamuni Intercollege who feel it’s okay to hang out together.

Mobile connectivity has come as a big boon for these stations, allowing them to connect with their on-ground reporters. It has also been useful for people in urban Uttarakhand worried about parents who are living in villages. Urban stations are reaching out to their counterparts based in rural areas through the UMEED Network.

“The rural stations, in turn, reach out to the pradhans or local village reporters for information. We tell them to follow the norms of social distancing, find out information from within their locality, and also to check if there is any way to support elderly parents living alone," says Thomas.

The group has had to tackle some peculiar problems. Negi, for instance, posted an SOS about a video that was going viral, especially in Rudraprayag district. It showed a man stating that if you dug just outside your main door and found a little piece of black stone, covid-19 would not affect your home. “The lines were jammed and there was panic. Those who were finding this black stone were jubilant and were all set to go gallivanting. Those who were not finding it were terrified," says Negi.

The network immediately reached out to Durgesh Pant, an eminent scientist who works with the Uttarakhand Science Education and Research Centre. Within half an hour, his recording, debunking the myth, was on air. “I am not an authority to tell people this is wrong. But when someone who is a scientist and well respected in the state says so, people will listen," says Thomas.

They too are practising social distancing. At MKA, India’s first disaster- resilient community radio station, enabled by the PPC and built with local material by award-winning architect Didi Contractor’s team, only two members are present—and not at the same time. All the equipment is regularly sanitized. “One of our members stays 30km away and another one, Poonam Badiyari, lives some 4-5km from the station. We have told them to work from home and not venture out. They connect with people on the phone and send those recordings," says Negi.

There are several lessons that the PPC and MKA teams, in particular, learnt from the devastating floods and landslides in Kedarnath in 2013. That was a time when there was no local media in Rudraprayag and the need for a community radio was felt keenly. “There was a desire among people to help, but not in a coordinated manner. Groups would come from the cities and simply dump the blankets or provisions by the roadside and leave," says Thomas.

Even now they are seeing “privileged people" landing up in towns to donate food but not following the norms of social distancing. “Can the districts say this is the designated centre, please come and leave the food there and it will be distributed?" asks Thomas, adding that people shouldn’t be using disasters for personal glory. “Goodness also needs to be channelled responsibly and in an accountable manner. With the community radios active, we can disseminate information about ethical ways of distribution, and more," she says.

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