Stop being airtight

Community radio network is a must to ensure development

 
By Ramya Viswanath
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Stop being airtight

Voice counts: the airwave way< (Credit: Ramya Viswanath / CSE)the 'freedom of speech and expression' guaranteed by article 19 of the Indian Constitution may at last emerge out of the realms of myth. Of late, some people have become vocal about their rights in a country sound asleep to its strong democratic traditions. On March 28, 2003, India's first private cable radio network -- Namma Dhwani -- was launched in a remote village of the Kolar district of Karnataka. As its name suggest, Namma Dhwani is truly a people's radio that perceives listeners not as consumers, but as citizens who have every right to be informed.

The development is noteworthy, as India's broadcasting network is the domain of a bureaucracy hell-bent on giving step-motherly treatment to educational and developmental programmes; despite developmental organisations constantly sounding a warning note: radio is the only mode to reach out to the illiterate masses. Community radio (that uses airwaves to disseminate information) is deemed illegal because of religious adherence to the archaic Indian Telegraph Act of 1885. To change tune, the Supreme Court had passed a judgment in 1995, according to which "airwaves are public property to be utilised for promoting common good". But even for this the masses faced the music: broadcasting network was commercialised and its prime focus became entertainment and earning revenues. Alas one invariably fails to learn from thy neighbours -- community radios have bridged the 'information gap' in nations like Nepal.

Left without any other option, a few good souls launched a small-scale version of Namma Dhwani in the Boodikote village two years ago. Programmes addressing the needs of the community were recorded on cassettes, and thereafter relayed during local gatherings such as fairs. The idea proved to be a resounding success, but its audiences were mainly limited to Boodikote even after two years of operation. Therefore, voices and Mysore Rehabilitation and Rural Development Agency (myrada) -- the organisations behind the endeavour -- decided to revamp Namma Dhwani. They sought technical assistance from the All India Radio (air) and financial help from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. After being given endless assurances about profitability, a local cable operator agreed to broadcast Namma Dhwani. He slotted two hours per day to the programme (an hour each, morning and evening). Now, 35 neighbouring villages of Boodikote are also able to voice their opinions and problems.

Namma Dhwani can boast of endless success stories. "After hearing our children's education programme, a woman enrolled her children in a school," reveals Mangala, a station manager of Namma Dhwani. "A talk on women and law helped a family from my village to claim insurance on a cow," tells a beaming Subbamma, a resident of Boodikote. Most importantly, officials were not able to turn a deaf ear to people's pleas. Example: despite repeated promises, the secretary of Boodikote's panchayat was not taking any action to solve the water shortage problem. When Namma Dhwani interviewed him, he once again rattled off the assurances. But when the entire community heard him on air, he realised he was left with no alternative. Within a week, the water was provided.

The authorities even discouraged people from availing the benefits of self-employment schemes. "But they were quite forthcoming to talk about 250 schemes during an interview. This changed the fate of many," says Seema Nair, programme executive for community radio, voices. Another offshoot of Namma Dhwani was the setting up of a children's club and a disability club. The children's club trains students to make programmes for Namma Dhwani. "A show on the schemes for disabled people has made a lot of difference," says Ambrish, another station master. To date, Namma Dhwani's staff and volunteers have identified 350 programmes under seven broad categories: agriculture, irrigation, youth development, health, self help groups' news, environment and social issues. "Attempts have also been made to revive the region's culture through folk songs," says Nair. "The volunteers are permitted to present shows on any subject. We do give technical and research-based support," says Mangala. At present, 250 houses with television are beneficiaries of Namma Dhwani. "In order to reach out to a larger audience, we are selling radio sets with input jacks to which the cable line can be connected. The subsidised radio costs Rs 110. A few field tests have been conducted and we are assured of the technology," says Ashish Sen, director of voices. The cable network is also not too taxing on the pocket: Rs 50 per month; the wiring is done free of cost. The project for sure is sound; hopefully, it will induce authorities to be no longer airy-fairy and they will get tuned into the needs of the people.

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