In the summer of 1923, the Bombay Presidency Radio Club started broadcasting in India over a small radius of less than 500 metres. In 1927, two privately-owned transmitters were set up by Broadcasting Services at Bombay and Calcutta, which got taken over by the government in 1930 and became the Indian Broadcasting Service. It  became All India Radio in 1936. This was the beginning of a new era of communication in a country which was waiting for both independence and industrialisation. All India Radio finally came to be known as Akashvani from 1957. Because of its wide reach, it was expected to connect the country – but, did it?

Almost a hundred years later, India has 245 commercial radio stations spread across 50-odd cities out of a total of 1,600 cities and towns in the country. Some might argue that radio is an ageing technology and shouldn't be revived, but it is dying even faster where it is needed the most: in rural hinterlands and communities.

More than 70% of Indian population lives in villages and a vast majority of them have little to no connectivity to Internet, electricity or telephone lines making radio the only feasible medium for mass communication. However, 13 years after India first opened itself to the idea of having community-run radio stations, only 179 such stations are currently functional in the country, far short of the 4,000 stations the government in 2007 promised would be set up "in a few years".

The community myth

Even these 179 radios are far from useful as community radio services, experts say. “Community radio in India is a well-cultivated myth,” said Shubhranshu Choudhary, the founder of CGNet Swara, an organisation involved with setting up community radio and call centres to relay citizen news in Chhattisgarh. “Out of the existing radios, most are run by educational institutions and others are by non-governmental organisations, so there’s no role of a community.”

Choudhary is not far off the mark. The policy guidelines framed by the government in 2002 originally only allowed well-established educational institutions to set up community radios. It took three years of petitioning and lobbying by activists to get the policy to include non profit organisations as well.

Currently, a non-profit organisation that wishes to apply for a community radio license has to have a track record of existence and service to the community for at least three years to even be eligible for consideration.

Activists working in the space feel that the policy of only allowing NGOs to set up radios needs a review. “NGOs have their own interests in mind when they apply for community radios,” Choudhary said. “Those in the communities speak regional dialects and tongues that NGOs have no intention of broadcasting in because their listener base reduces as soon as they switch from a common tongue to a dialect, but thousands of people speak these dialects which people sitting in Delhi don’t care about.”

Identity crisis

The issue, however, is broader than merely that of local dialects and languages. A small number of community radio stations apprise people of local updates, news, weather and such information which can prove really helpful, both during everyday agriculture activities or at the time of disasters.

Nepal, with a small fraction of India's population, has 260 community radio stations, and no restrictions, which helps make radio useful at the time of need. The recent earthquake which claimed over 7,000 lives proved to be one such opportunity where the radio stations did their best to relay critical information to the centres of activity in the cities and informed about the relief and rehabilitation efforts.

In India, All India Radio can be called the mainstay of those dependent on radio for their news and information but even that is far from enough for hundreds of communities with their own dialects. “The AIR broadcast is only in 20-30 popular languages with just 47 stations in a country of 1.2 billion people,” said an official on the screening committee of the ministry of information and broadcasting. “The AIR broadcast can’t compete with the power of a community radio because it is neither in the language that each region speaks nor carries the local news which actually matters to them.”

Beyond the reach

For those who might really want to set up a community radio, the process is indeed cumbersome. The process requires an NGO with three years of existence to apply for the license, pay Rs 19,700 in spectrum fee, take permissions from four to five ministries and buy transmitters only from sellers authorised by the government.

This process, the I&B ministry official said, takes at least three years to complete. Many who are currently running the stations struggle to sustain themselves on a mere five minute advertising slot allowed every hour when the radio doesn't cover a large enough geographical area. Choudhary pointed out, “The guidelines say that the transmission can’t go beyond the limit of 12 kilometres, but the equipment we get can’t even reach beyond 7 kilometers, limiting the reach to just one village often.”

Not all agree, though. Hemant Babu, director of Nomad India, an organisation involved in the manufacture and setting up of community radio stations, feels that it is better to have low intensity radios to prevent the monopoly of a few players. "If the government allows high power broadcast, only a few players would cover whole regions," he said. "We need smaller players but a large number of them so the government should focus on making it easier to set up radios instead of handing over permission to broadcast over long range."

Choudhary, however, feels that the impact of having a radio gets severely limited as communities tend to be widely dispersed – the Gondi community, composed of 50 lakh people, is spread over five states, for instance. “Community radio is a joke,” he said. “It’s not meant for communities but for the rich and powerful who funnily enough, don’t threaten the government, but common people do.”