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Campaigners hail community radio stations

Moving from State Radio and private FM channels, Community Radio would spark new waves in people empowerment.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2006 13:55 IST

More than a decade after the Supreme Court directed the government to "open up the airwaves", campaigners who battled long for this to happen are happy that India has finally given the go ahead to community radio.

"The decision to allow civil society and community groups to own and operate radio stations will give an additional tool to civil society to empower people," said Rahul Kumar of OneWorld South Asia, an NGO network.

On Thursday, the cabinet announced that community radio stations can be set up by non-profit organisations - besides the already-permitted educational institutions - provided they had a proven record, no links to political parties and fulfilled some other criteria.

Community radio caters to the interests of a certain area, broadcasting material popular to a local audience overlooked by more powerful broadcast groups.

In South Asia, Nepal is the only country where such radios have flourished. In India, citizens' groups have long argued for a 'third layer' of broadcasters, apart from the state-run and commercial FM networks.

"The new policy will allow NGOs, civil society and other non-profit groups to apply for community radio licenses," said Stalin K., a media campaigner and videographer of the Gujarat-based Community Radio Forum.

Backed by UNESCO and UNDP as also the experiences of even poorer, less tech-skilled countries in Africa, the campaigners have long made a case for promoting community radio in India.

But the news was tempered with caution. Campaigners were cautious, after many false starts - including a Bharatiya Janata Party-government drafted policy for 'community radio' that allowed prominent educational centres to launch their stations, that too under strict conditions, more on lines of campus radio.

IIT-educated New Delhi engineer Arun Mehta, whose company radiophony.com offers circuits to create ultra low-powered FM transmitters for a few hundred rupees, however questioned the latest policy.

Mehta commented, in an online discussion forum: "No news or current affairs (under the new policy)? (Delhi-based varsity) Jamia's community radio has a surfeit of Urdu poetry, because without news and current affairs, they don't have much else (to broadcast)."

Rajen Varada, director of the Bangalore-based Technology For The People network, added: "I agree (that this technology) will have many spin offs. There are exciting times ahead!"

Isteyaq Ahmed of RED FM 93.5 Bajate Raho in Mumbai congratulated those who campaigned for community radio.

The Kuala Lumpur-based Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union said the move sought to "put in place a vibrant community radio system" in India.

Community radio outlets may carry news and information programming geared toward the local area, particularly smaller population or language groups poorly served by other media outlets.

Its proponents argue that community stations can be valuable assets for a region.

Technology and economics have made it possible to set up a large number of low-powered FM stations, catering to local needs, and more importantly offering information that could play a crucial role in the lives of the poor.

Does this mark the beginning of the end of a regime where the airwaves in India were rigorously controlled?