Sajan Venniyoor has been into Indian community radio since its very first minute. As a broadcaster and producer for All India Radio, the state run TV channel Doordarshan and a founder-member of the Indian Community Radio Forum, Venniyoor reflects on the importance of community radio with over 15 years of experience in the field.
Almost eight years after the official establishment of Community Radio in India, how would you describe today’s situation?
The situation for community radio today is still a pretty bad one. I am doubtful whether more than a few of the 148 community radio stations registered are really community run. They might be campus stations, farm radios and mostly city stations. Delhi for example has more so called “community radio stations” than the states of the North East, Jammu & Kashmir, Orissa, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh put together. Officially, there are a lot of community radio stations, but if you give them a closer look, there might be 8 to 10 that are really run by the local people, all over India.
Why is it so hard, to establish Community Radio, though it is the oldest Indian medium?
The older the technology, the more restrictive the law. Cable television for example came before there was a law for it: The government had no idea what to do, when CNN came to India during the Iraq war in 1991. When they established a Cable TV law five years later, cable had already spread – we Indians are very quick with that.
Today, we have about 60,000 local cable operators and it is practically impossible to control them. The same thing happened with the internet, it spread much quicker than laws could be established. In contrast, radio was controlled right from the beginning and it still is.
There is no such provision in the Constitution, that the government can monopolize a medium. So in 1995, they were forced to hand over the right to broadcast to others. It took almost six years to finally give broadcast licenses to private and commercial radio, but still not to the “common people”. In 2002, the government came out with a campus radio policy, which was still not real community radio. Since 2006, radio is given to civil society, but only if they can provide a legal registration. Today, community radio is still dependent on a civil society body for its license.
Where do these strict laws for community radio come from?
We have a long colonial history of radio in India. We had different radio platforms before, which were owned by various local kingdoms. Then, All India Radio was introduced under the British in the nineteen-thirties. When the British left in 1947, the state took over all the stations. Until 2001, radio in India was purely a government monopoly. It is a colonial law, the 1885 Wireless Telegraph Act, that still controls radio, although we have no more telegraphs. It’s not only a very old, but also a very primitive Act.
So today’s Indian government does still refer to a communication law that is more than 100 years old?
Yes, especially in radio, the colonial Act is still very restrictive. It does not allow any private citizen to have control over radio or any kind of communication. Radio is the only medium in India on which news is banned. You can do news on the internet, TV or print, but not on the radio. The Indian government is happy to keep this law, as they have kept all the British laws. It is a question of power and control.
Why not leave radio behind and use other forms of media for activism then?
Radio has the highest reach. Also, the costs of access are the lowests, as well as the skills required. In rural areas, we do not have 24 hours power supply and TVs are expensive. For half a Euro and two batteries, you can listen to your radio the whole day. Also, the minority of the rural population can actually read a newspaper – for radio you do not need literacy. Forget about internet, that has incredibly high barriers for the majority of Indians.
Doesn’t the government support the development of Community Radio?
I don’t think so. The government asks people who have no computer or English language skills, and no access to internet, to apply online using the most difficult software. So there are 1300 applications lying in the Ministry, but most fall out because they cannot handle the bureaucratic pressure from Delhi. In the end, there might be 100 left.
These are economic and social barriers we cannot control. The government has to stop adding more and more stupid barriers making the license application too difficult or raising the costs for radio that no one can pay. In fact, I cannot see any advances within the last fifteen years. The government promised we’d have 4000 stations, in 2003, but today we only have 148 CR stations in the whole of India.
Can this difficult process you just mentioned be seen as a structural censorship by the government?
Sure, there is censorship by limiting access and by keeping the entry barriers so high, that most poor communities can only dream of their own radio station. Our 240 commercial FM radios are doing very well. When the economy is booming, private radio profits the most. Another 830 stations are coming up right now, all belonging to rich guys. All the big newspapers have their own radio stations, and they are extremely well integrated in economy – Community Radio is not. If you look at the list of rejected Community Radio applications, no reasons are given. Just a single phrase, “this is a militancy-prone area”, can make any application disappear.
What role does ownership play for community radio?
As a sad example, you could look at the region of Darjeeling, where a tribal association – the Lepchas – applied for their own radio station. This minority group did not get their license for many years, whereas rich NGOs get one quickly. Campus stations also call themselves community radio and they sometimes broadcast community issues, but they are run by a university or a private college. You could find a community radio station in the remotest mountain area, but it would still be owned by a Delhi-based NGO. So they may be run by a community, sort of, but not owned by its people. Actually, this was never the idea, this is not the concept.
Why can’t you finance Community Radio like private stations do, through advertisement?
There is a big debate going on, because on the one hand, we need advertising the same way the big companies do, to stay sustainable. But on the other hand, most community radios would not touch big corporate ads. The topics they report about are of political activism, development, community issues. Beneath health and educational issues, they also expose corruption. You cannot criticize the mining business in Goa, for example and broadcast mining company advertisements the next minute. Of course, it is a moral decision: If you lived in a remote place or in a poor community where the only company available is Coca Cola, then what will you do?
What is the effect on a community that cannot afford its own radio station?
There are whole states without a community radio station. There are some communities – like the ones in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands – where there may be only eight or ten people left who speak a language. The last person who spoke “Bo”, an old lady herself called Bo, died last year without having anyone to talk to in her mother tongue in last ten years of her life. That is only one example of hundreds of languages that could die out without internet, newspaper or radio.
Why is it necessary to have community radios in future?
You see, India is a very multicultural country, though not every citizen feels the same way about it. There are conservative people who ask, “why can’t everybody be a Hindu and speak Hindi?”, but they overlook the diversity of our country. Look at the Indian Rupee and you will find fifteen languages on it. Making India homogenous is not going to work. Community media is needed to encourage minority languages and minority cultures, because we think that diversity is the core of Indian identity.
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