It is close to 10 years since a putative community radio policy was announced by the Government of India, allowing ‘established educational institutions’ to apply for a license to broadcast over a limited-power FM frequency. Before we rush into a spirit of decadal celebration, we need to make a sober assessment of where we stand today. It took three years after that initial announcement was made for the government to concede the right to community-based organizations, which were not any more seen as ‘a threat to the security and sovereignty’ of the nation. There was much excitement (if not actual radio stations) in the air as government luminaries threw out numbers like a possible 4000-5000 community radio stations across the country. For a variety of reasons, not least because of intransigent bureaucratic procedures, we now have only about 130 operational stations licensed under the policy, of which less than a third are those run by NGOs.
Contrast this with Thailand, where there are at least 6000 CR stations (started unlicensed, but now getting legalized) or with neighbouring Nepal with about 200 stations or with Colombia (violence-prone though it is) where there are close to 1000 stations or with the Democratic Republic of Congo which has over 250 community radio stations. According to a 11-nation survey in Africa, community radio grew at an astounding rate of about 1386 per cent between 2000 and 2006.
So what is the problem in a democratic and open society such as India? The recent arbitrary five-fold hike in the annual spectrum fee payable by community radio stations is symptomatic of the twisted and tangled mass (mess?) called CR policy in the country. While the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) is the front ministry driving the policy, with a fairly pro-active approach to issuing preliminary clearances, there are other Ministries, some less conspicuous than others, which seem to control the pace of this process of democratization of airwaves. The Ministry of Communications & IT holds the reins of spectrum and seems to deploy completely mysterious and mystifying processes to allocate spectrum. A government with an avowed pro-common man orientation has a ministry that says the spectrum fee is agnostic of user and purpose. In other words, it makes no distinction between an Ambani whose demands on the spectrum have a purely profit motive and those of this poor Kutchi woman for whom access to airwaves is about a choice between silence and voice. The Ministry of Home Affairs, with its known hawkish approach to security matters, decides that millions of people, for the sole crime of living in so-called ‘troubled areas’ of the country, are deprived of an opportunity to articulate their concerns. One can go on by citing instances of pronouncements from time to time by ministries of rural development, health, agriculture, environment, and panchayat raj which seem to have implications for CR. But you get the picture of a policy in disarray – bad ideas and half-knowledge driving away good intentions. It is time we had an integrated policy on community radio, with the government speaking in one voice in favour of the poor and the deprived getting the right of access to the airwaves.
Even as community radio stations all over the country are waiting for the government to roll-back this unfair increase in spectrum fee, there are many other aberrations raising their ugly heads in the Indian CR mediascape. These include excessive focus on financial sustainability (through advertising, ostensibly) without a deeper socialization into the philosophy of community radio, state attempts to appropriate and co-opt CR spaces through the backdoor, NGO-ization of CR, reproduction of the same top-down pedagogical approaches to development, and a stultifying imposition of standardized formats and genres in the name of training. Friends in the CR movement in Bangladesh tell me that they are following the Indian community radio policy closely. I would say, ‘tread softly’!
In May 2004, when UNDP had brought many of us together to see how we can make the policy more community-oriented (and beyond campus), my distinguished colleague Prof. B.P. Sanjay (then director of IIMC) made this prescient comment, which seems very apt for the current phase of CR policy in India: “Community radio has moved from the opportunity phase, to the aspiration phase, and now to the frustration phase. We need an enabling framework.” Touché!
Prof. Vinod Pavarala, UNESCO Chair on Community Media, Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad