First, the good news. After nearly a decade of advocating to the Central government the case for emergency based radio, the light at the end of the tunnel is finally visible. The havoc unleashed by the recent floods in Chennai and parts of Tamil Nadu would appear to have finally prevailed upon the Centre to do a U turn as far as Emergency radio is concerned. (See story on Emergency Radio) While the decision is undoubtedly a land mark in the annals of community radio history in the country and a significant achievement for all the relevant players who made it possible, it hasn’t taken place a day too soon. Community radio advocacy efforts towards making emergency radio stations a reality hark back to 2008 post the Kosi floods in Bihar and more recently when the Mandakini burst its banks during the 2013 Uttarkhand floods. However, these pleas fell on deaf years.

The significance of emergency radio as a vehicle to combat disaster has been emphasized on several occasions in previous issues of CR News. Now that a new chapter has been ushered in, we hope a similar attitude will prevail in terms of fast tracking licenses for community radio stations in disaster prone areas.

Across the world, radio has proven credentials as a crucial medium of communication in disaster preparedness and mitigation. Often, it is the solitary communication technology that functions during such times. Notwithstanding the efficiency which characterized the speed by which the license was issued for Cuddalore, India (and South Asia) has a lot to learn from countries like Japan where temporary licenses for community radio during times of disaster have been provided as quickly as 24 hours.

Side by side with the relevance of emergency radio, the case for mobile transmitters during times of disaster also assumes significant relevance. The use of the Suitcase radio in Fiji or Doko radio in Nepal or the Tuk Tuk Radio in Sri Lanka are cases in point which demonstrate the efficacy of mobile transmitters. Given that emergency radio has now become a reality; will the government consider the wisdom of course correction and review its thinking on mobile broadcasting?

Even as these questions merit consideration, there are larger issues that remain to be addressed. A recent report tracking the growth of community radio in the country pointed out that, “the actual number of operational community radio stations (CRS) is only 188 after more than a decade.” Of these, as many as 105 are from university campuses. The number would hardly inspire confidence in terms of the sector’s growth, given that even government projections in 2007 estimated that there could be as many as 4000 community radio stations in the country.

However, a more disquieting growth trajectory scenario emerges on unpacking and disaggregating some of the statistics quoted in the report. On the one hand there has only been an increase of eight community radio stations since the list which was issued in May 2015. While there are as many as 323 applications under consideration of the government some of these hark back to as early as 2011. The North East and Jammu and Kashmir only have three and one CRS in their states respectively. Ironically the sector’s sluggish growth comes at a time when some of India’s neighbours would appear to have embarked on a considerably more proactive course of action.

A second phase of community radio stations will reportedly get off the ground from 2016 in Bangladesh. About six months earlier, the country’s Minister for Information, Mr Hasanul Haq Inu committed his efforts to ensure that the country would have a community radio station in every upazilla (sub district). The Bhutan Ministry of Information and Communication recently embarked on a journey of initiating community radio by promoting the capacity building of eight pilot community radio stations in the country. (See story: CR makes waves in Bhutan). In contrast, the Indian scenario continues to struggle with the same cumbersome license application procedures and restrictions like the ban on news. The question however is: Will the efforts of some of our neighbours serve as a wakeup call to policy makers in Delhi? Or will it take another tsunami or a catastrophic flood for the writing on the wall to redeem itself?

Ashish Sen