A historian, attempting to cover the course of community radio policy in India, might be prompted to describe the first couple of decades as throwing up a series of uneasy questions and- at best – piecemeal answers:
Between 1996 (in the aftermath of the Supreme Court of India judgment on airwaves being public property) and 2006, the question that many community radio activists may have posed (and did) to the government was: Who’s afraid of Community Radio?
Since 2006 (in the aftermath of the Government of India guidelines enabling the eligibility of grassroots community organizations to have a community radio station) the questions might well have been: Who’s bothered, befuddled, bewildered and brazen about Community Radio?
Now, with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology decision to impose a staggering 450 per cent spectrum fee hike another question seems to have entered the arena: Who cares about community radio?
History also reminds us that it is not just a matter of questions, but a question of answers that ultimately determine the coherence, intention and sustainability of policies and practices.
The spectrum fee hike has raised a several questions pertinent to media regulation, public good, equity and inclusiveness. Underlying these questions are even more fundamental issues which strike at the very heart of community radio policy in India. Consider the following:
The question of survival: The spectrum fee hike could (as several reports have indicated) compel many community radio stations to shut down.
The question of public good: The promise of the 2006 government guidelines not only enabled a three tier radio structure to be in place. The absence of license fees made it easier for “poor and marginalized” groups to have community radio stations of their own. The revision of the spectrum fee from Rs 19,700 to Rs 91,000 sharply reverses the promise. More than five and a half years since the 2006 guidelines, we have less than 50 community radio stations run by NGOs. About a year and half ago, a committee set up by the I & B ministry recommended and developed the proposal of a corpus community radio support fund which would strengthen both growth and sustainability of the sector.
The recommendation was subsequently disallowed for technical reasons: Ministry of Finance Guidelines prohibit creation of fund either through revenue of government borrowing.
International experiences confirm a trend indicating a reduction in spectrum fees. Countries like Australia, Canada, Denmark, South Africa, Uruguay and the US do not levy a spectrum fee while in other countries like Bangladesh and Colombia the amount ranges from moderate (USD 480) to low (USD 150). But India apparently prefers to look the other way.
Many of these questions are discussed more substantially in this issue of CR News. We’re inspired by the contributions – a mix of articles, views and experiences from community radio advocates, legal experts and practitioners- that our request for articles received.
Different perspectives notwithstanding – all of them underscore the relevance of sociologist, John Thomson’s principle of regulated pluralism where “the establishment of an institutional framework accommodates and secures the existence of a plurality of independent media organizations free from the exercise of state power, but also unhindered by market forces.” The legitimization of community radio in India as a distinct and independent third tier had evoked the possibility of such a principle. The reality check of the past however, would compel us to keep our eyes on the hills even as we keep our feet firmly on the ground. Otherwise, we might well be traversing the long road to nowhere.
Ashish Sen, President, AMARC-Asia-Pacific