Mewat’s community radio Alfaz-e-Mewat gives a powerful voice to the unheard
It has become a powerful platform for villagers to demand their rights and for accessing public services in a region where literacy rates are among the worst in the countryUpdated: Sep 03, 2017 07:58 IST
The road cuts through dense agricultural fields, ending where the vast sweep of the Aravalli range of mountains begins. The hills form a beautiful backdrop for Ghaghas, a village tucked deep in the heart of Mewat, one of the country’s most backward regions and home to the ethnic Meo-Muslim community. “Natural beauty can be deceptive; it is certainly so in the case of Mewat villages,” says a local.
The village is also the headquarters of Alfaz-e-Mewat (Voices of Mewat), FM 107.8, one of the country’s most famous community radios, known for its bottom-up, community-oriented and community-produced content on issues relating to health, sanitation, land, and agriculture.
No wonder then it has become a powerful platform for villagers to demand their rights and for accessing public services in a region where literacy rates are among the worst in the country, and where having a television at home is looked down upon, what with religious beliefs.
Alfaz-e-Mewat’s sound-proof, air-conditioned studio sees a steady stream of villagers, officials and artists who come to record a wide range of programmes. The 13-hour radio broadcasts reach 225 villages in the region.
The broadcasting room has mikes, mixer consoles, computers, amplifier, transmitter, etc. On the wall, there is hand-written programme chart and a few inspiring messages by the staff.
One of the messages scribbled in Hindi and signed by Anuradha Dubey reads: “The biggest gift one can give to a woman is the gift of respect.” Another message by Mufeed Khan reads: “If a loser in a contest flashes a smile, it ensures the winner loses the joy of winning. That’s the power of smile.”
Anuradha, who lives in a nearby village, is a radio jockey and a reporter who covers women and health issues for the community radio; Mufeed Khan, a local, covers agriculture; Sohrab Khan is in charge of the station and handles the equipment and hosts a popular a Gaon ki Baat; Shakir Hussain presents a programme called Hum se Hai Shashan, and Fakat Hussain hosts Tere Mere Man Ki Baat—a programme that involves answering questions and responding to the feedback of the listeners.
Fakat is quick to point out that Tere Mere Mann Ki Baat was originally called Mann Ki Baat. “We changed the programme’s name after Prime Minister started his own Mann Ki Baat. We did not want any confusion,” says Fakat as he peers into computer screen, monitoring listeners’ calls.
It’s 2.45 pm and time for a special programme on the value of savings. Anuradha and her guests Bhagwan Devi, Shakina Begum and Swarnlata -- women from nearby villages -- have taken their place around a table in the recording room. As Shorab gives the signal to start, Anuradha, dressed in salwar kameez, begins speaking to her listeners with the panache and confidence of a seasoned RJ, introducing herself, her programme and her guests. Her voice is mellifluous, her style lively and engaging.
Equally articulate are her guests. Bhagwan Devi, dressed in a green sari, pallu pulled over her head, clearly relishes being on air: “I saved money without telling anyone in the family and helped my husband buy an auto rickshaw. He thought it was good proposition as there is no transport in rural Mewat,” she says, adjusting her headphone . Shakina shares how her savings helped the family build a house. “My son did not know I had the money, which I had saved over many years,” says Shakina.
Many live calls are coming in during the programme, mostly from local women. Filtering the calls is Mubina , 40, a caretaker at the station, who doubles up as a cook and presenter. “I learnt everything by watching others do it,” says Mubina.
The station receives about 50 calls every day, and many from women. Mubina says that most women complain of being overworked and talk about many health-related problems.
“For them, radio has as emerged as a platform to ask questions and seek solutions, which is a big deal in Mewat where women haven’t had a voice. Empowering women is big achievement of our radio, “says Mubina, who is illiterate like majority of women in this part of rural Mewat. “These women tell us what they will never tell a journalist from traditional media,” adds Anuradha. “When we record the programme, they ask questions about pregnancy, child care and their rights. Anaemia is a widespread health problem.”
In many villages, women have formed self-help groups in the absence of formal credit institutions—they come together and pool their savings to form a large corpus for individual and group help. Shakina feels the station will be more effective in connecting with the community if it also distributes radio sets. “Not many women have radios or mobile phones to tune in,” she rues.
“We have tried to solve this problem through narrowcasting. Our reporters go to villages and play the recorded programmes on speakers at village events where women also gather,” says Pooja Murada,” director, communication, Sehgal Foundation, a trust that set up the radio station in 2012 with financial help from the union ministry of agriculture.
Gaon ki Chaupal, Sehat Ka Pegam and Kisse Kahani, featuring folk musicians of the Mirasi community whose songs valorise the history of the region, are the most popular programmes.
Noor Mohmamd, 65, from Mubarakpur Rawalki village, says he is a great fan of the radio station’s reporting on agriculture. “I have changed my farming practices; now I am using much less urea than earlier,” says Khan, who now shares his new-found farming knowledge with other listeners as a guest on programmes related to agriculture. “In my village, people love to hear my voice on the radio. I am called radio chacha. In the beginning, I was hesitant during live programmes, but now I love to speak into the mike.”
The reporter and presenters, mostly local youth, have countless stories to tell about the frustrations and aspirations of the people of Mewat. They had no previous experience or background in the media. They got a six-month training from Sehgal Foundation. “In my village of 250 families, only one house has a television. So, you can understand how important our role is as reporters in this region,” says Sohrab, who belongs to the Meo community and lives in Notki village, two km from the radio station.
The reporters act as a bridge between the authorities and the locals, invites them to the studio to answer questions about various governance issues. “Most of them are cooperative, but we have to pursue them hard,” says Mufeed Khan.
Sitting on the chaupal of Malab village , Hazi Ismail, a local, struggles to find the signals of Alfaz-e-Mewat and complains about it to the Mufeed, who assures him it is a technical glitch that will be sorted out soon.
Ismail is quite cynical about the power of the media as a medium of change, especially in Mewat. “Mewat has become a definition of backwardness and governmental apathy. We get electricity for two hours and depend on tankers for potable water. This after 70 years of Independence,” he says, pointing to a tricolour flying atop a shop. “Very few communities have been treated so shabbily by successive governments as we Meo-Muslims, whose contribution to the freedom struggle has been completely forgotten,” says Ismail.
Reporting in Mewat is not always easy. Mufeed says it is next to impossible to report on issues relates to family planning. “People feel it is not necessary, what with their religious beliefs,” he says.
The reporters feel their stint at Alfaz-e-Mewat will help them build a career in the media. While Shakir Hussain, 22, a graduate, wants to do a course in mass communication and join a national news channel, Anuradha wants to join a commercial radio in Delhi. “I want to be a radio jockey at a commercial FM station in Delhi. I am sure I can do it,” she says.
Ask her about her hand-written message about the gift of respect to women on the wall of the studio, she says, “This is a message that needs to be spread across the country, not just in Mewat.”