[Courtesy: Community Radio Facilitation Centre, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting]

Prof. Vinod Pavarala, the UNESCO Chair on Community Media at University of Hyderabad, says that the Community Radio Policy has not been revised in the last ten years and thus suffers from redundancies. the biggest issue being that of a multiple window policy because of which Community Radios have to wait a long time to get their license.

What do you think are some of the challenges in the Community Radio policy?

We are looking at the policy ten years after it was first formulated. We have come some distance but I think it is high time there is a comprehensive review of the policy. One of the big issues that the CR sector is raising is the objection to broadcasting news. I think there is enough inclination in the government to rethink that ban on news.

I think in Community Radio globally, news and information of local relevance may be the heart and soul of the sector, restricting it is not the wise thing any more.

Secondly, we need to prioritise licensing in so called conflict areas. It is probably not strictly to do with the policy but it needs to be added that we need to give priority to community access to airwaves in such area. Whereas the government for a long time has been wary about opening up the airwaves in those areas where they are worried about extremism and so on but, we have been saying that Community Radio can be a voice for peace and for conflict resolution in those areas. I think there is some change coming but, it is important to put it in the policy.

The third thing we have been saying is that there are certain areas of the country where geographical location and terrain make it very difficult for FM waves to go very far. The current restriction of 50 watt transmitter with 100 ERP is clearly not sufficient for those stations.

In the past in the areas like Kutch, for example, the villages are so far apart that the 50 watt transmitter doesn’t really make sense. I mean you would reach three or four villages. We really need to clearly make an exception in those areas to increase the wattage of the transmitter. I think there is something to that effect in the policy but it is not very active.

Nobody has ever considered increasing the wattage of the transmitter in certain areas like that. Wherever there is an exceptional need, we should give out possibly a 200 watt transmitter and that will make a big difference. These are some immediate challenges I find we need to address.

With respect to licensing specially, what are the challenges we should immediately take stock of?

With all the good intention of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the 9 month time period is not happening for getting a license and going on air. We really need to simplify the procedure, the government keeps talking about the single window clearance system. I think that is a procedural issue.

I have been making the point, for the last two-three years, that we need an integrated policy on community radio which is to say that it is not an MI&B policy. There should also be a Government of India policy on community radio which brings on board all the key actors. This would include the Ministry of Information and Communication for example which gives out frequencies through the Wireless Planning and Coordination wing.

All the ministries should come on board to prioritise community radio, if you talk about disaster mitigation and community radio, bringing in those agencies on board would really help them to get the emergency licenses during disasters, even during the Uttarakhand disaster, the stations tried desperately to get emergency licenses but it did not happen. By the time everybody got their act together, the emergency had passed, the dire need had passed.

So, the single window clearance procedure is good but, on a larger view an integrated policy is very important. I think there are some efforts already being made to facilitate the licensing process through CRFC. But, we need to do more.

I am not happy with the screening committee procedure also. Imagine small NGOs or small groups have to come to Delhi all the way to face the big inter-ministerial board. What is happening is that many of them are coming with very candid responses. Everybody comes up with the same questions and just imagine the whole expense, the inter-ministerial committee has no statutory standing. We should simplify this process.

In the past I have suggested that if you really want to check out the credentials of the organizations, get reports from the ground, ask people in the community, do you have an objection to the organization running a community radio station, have they been representing the issues of the community through other means in last five years. Check out their potential without having to come to Delhi. There are annual reports, there are social audit mechanisms, community audit mechanisms, you can do all of that, the whole screening committee is intimidating. All of them just sit there, asking tough questions. I think that can be liberalized further.

Prof. Vinod Pavarala is the UNESCO Chair on Community Media at University of Hyderabad.