Indian government expands community radio

by Rahul Kumar, OneWorld South Asia

The decision by the Indian government to allow civil society organisations and community groups to own and operate radio stations will give an additional tool to the civil society to empower people it works with.

The Indian Cabinet on Thursday approved a long-standing demand of civil society organisations to allow non profit organisations and educational institutions to initiate Community Radio broadcasting. The policy says that the license will be given only to a 'non-profit' organization with at least three years social service to local communities and the Community Radio Station should serve specific local community.

Educational institutions are already covered under the existing policy, in force since December 2002, in the Community Radio Guidelines. This had allowed Indian civil society enough leeway to join hands with university broadcasters and start producing programmes.

A press release by the government says: "The Community Radio Station (CRS) should be designed to serve a specific well-defined local community and the programmes for broadcast should be relevant to the educational, developmental, social and cultural needs of the community."

The policy also defines the ownership of the radio station as: "It should have an ownership and management structure and is reflective of the community it seeks to serve and it must be registered under the registration of Societies Act or any other such act relevant to the purpose."

Stalin K, spokesperson for the Community Radio Forum - an association of community radio broadcasters, activists and academics - has welcomed the policy and said: "India will become the first country in South Asia to have a separate policy for community radio. We look forward to a genuine democratization of the country's airwaves when this policy comes into force."

Radio broadcaster Sajan Venniyoor said: "This policy has been cleared by the government 80 years after broadcasting started in India, 60 years after independence of the country and 11 years after the landmark Supreme Court judgment in 1995 which said that airwaves are public property and should be used for public good."

Though civil society organisations are satisfied with the policy, there have been some dissenting voices as well. Dr Arun Mehta, who runs ICT company Telephony said: "News and current affairs is not part of this policy. What will people air – entertainment? The New Delhi based university Jamia Milia Islamia's community radio station has a surfeit of Urdu poetry, because without news and current affairs, they don't have much else."

Mehta adds that even the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had recommended news and current affairs for community radio stations. "But we have to wait for the fine print as we do not as yet know what other surprises might be in store. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry still has to frame complete guidelines."

Venniyoor disagrees: "The government has not allowed political and electoral news but besides that community radio stations can cover everything else. Moreover the focus is on community and local information, which has been allowed. An important point is that it is up to the people to decide what they want to air."

The decision to allow five minutes of advertisements every hour has gone down well with community radio advocates. The Community Radio Forum said: "The new policy will not only open up community radio to NGOs, self-help groups and other community-based organizations, but will also allow them to become self-supporting through limited ad-revenue.

© IFEX

Experts are divided on the benefits that community radio can bring to people. Venniyoor says: "It depends on the imagination and the genius of NGOs and communities as to how they use it. Some may want to play local or folk music, others may want health or agricultural programmes. But we cannot be prescriptive on such issues."

Mehta agrees: "Radio is like a newspaper for non-literate people. Therefore much depends upon people running and managing the radio stations as to where do their interests lie and what do they want out of the radio service."

Project Manager at OneWorld TN Anuradha says: "If community radio does not take the voice of the people to policy makers, it might end up losing its shine. On the other hand rural communities can benefit immensely by airing behaviour change programmes and discussing local issues in their languages and dialects."

article originally published at http://southasia.oneworld.net/article/view/142618/1/.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey