This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on December 25, 2015.
John Nelson is in his 30s and lives in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu. Cuddalore was severely affected in the recent floods. Nelson also runs a non-profit called Saranalayam. On 3 December, while he was engaged in relief operations, he called Ram Bhat, who is known for his in-depth knowledge of public radio. They discussed how community radio could help those affected by the floods.
Encouraged by Bhat, Nelson wrote an email to the Wireless Planning and Coordination (WPC) wing of the department of telecommunications on 4 December, requesting this arm of the communications ministry for an emergency licence to run a community radio station in the district using an available FM frequency to broadcast.
On 5 December, around 1am, Nelson got a positive response from the WPC, giving a go-ahead to use the 107.4 megahertz frequency. This is perhaps a historic moment when a government department responded so quickly to give such a permission. As a member of the screening committee for the licensing of community radio stations, I feel this was a positive reaction.
In the meantime, Nelson spoke to Cuddalore district collector Suresh Kumar, who welcomed the idea. To make sure of state-level support, Nelson also called Gagandeep Singh Bedi, Tamil Nadu’s rural development and panchayati raj secretary, who was, incidentally, the district collector of Cuddalore at the time of the 2004 tsunami. Bedi also offered his support.
Nelson then got in touch with the Community Radio Forum, which guided him to get in touch with various organizations that would help in setting up the studio and station for broadcasting. Nelson called Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Ltd and Unesco to enquire if they could provide a transmitter.
Broadcast Engineering Consultants sprang into action and sent a person with a transmitter and an antenna to Cuddalore. Over the weekend (5-6 December), Nelson mobilized supporting organizations and volunteers.
On 7 December, the transmitter and antenna arrived, the district collector cleared a room in the collectorate, Auroville Radio (a community radio station at the Auroville campus near Puducherry) brought in technical support, the National Informatics Centre provided two computers and Internet connectivity, BSNL provided a dedicated phone number (04142-231888) in the studio and several volunteers with engineering background arrived to help run the studio. I met two of them, Bharat Amalan, 25, and Sathya Seelan, 22, both of whom work in Chennai for IT companies.
The setting up of all the necessary equipment, software, antenna, transmitter and testing took two days. On 10 December, district collector Kumar left no stone unturned to mobilize the media and government staff to join the inauguration and the launch of Cuddalore Peridar Kaala Vaanoli (radio in the time of extreme calamity).
The announcement helped the radio station reach out to all citizens and agencies who sought help or wanted to provide relief. Details of all relief camps and locations of public relief distribution were announced; citizens and families in distress started calling for help; and many volunteers came from Chennai straight to the studio and announced what they could do to help.
In the first week of its operation, the community radio station made the most of its services to tackle the emergency. I frequently broadcast announcements related to health, emergency procedures such as not using electricity when the surroundings are under water, keeping away from stagnant water, where to report for health insurance, how to be safe from water-borne diseases, where flood-affected people in different areas can collect duplicate documents such as BPL (below poverty line) card, ration card, Aadhaar card, etc., where they can take shelter, and that they can call the toll-free number 1077 for any emergency.
The station now runs 24×7, but so far only 35 programmes have been made, recorded and broadcast, including interviews, the district administration’s announcements and local songs sung by community members.
As per plan, the emergency community radio station will run till the end of February. However, the local public works department (PWD) is already working to build a separate and permanent studio for the station and the district collector is believed to be of the opinion that the station should run permanently to serve the people of Cuddalore—not only for emergency situations but also for dispensing government information and addressing grievances and queries of citizens on a regular basis.
Considering that many people have mobile phones and can get in touch with the studio easily, the district administration wants to use the radio station to respond to citizens’ queries quickly rather than respond to them individually.
The message of the Cuddalore emergency community radio station is loud and clear: in the geographically remote areas of India, people are not always reached by the local administration. In such a scenario, a certain number of community radio stations can be set up and linked with either the district collector’s office or taluk or tehsil or block office to tackle disasters, emergencies, dispense government services and address grievances.
Even if we do not look at all 672 districts of the country, we should certainly look at the more than 250 backward districts, including several that are located in disaster-prone zones and in insurgency-hit areas.
The example of Cuddalore teaches us that setting up a community radio station is not only easy, but it is affordable and can be operated through a partnership between the government and civil society organizations.
Osama Manzar is the founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is the co-author of NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India & Internet Economy of India. He is also a member of the community radio screening committee at the ministry of information and broadcasting. His Twitter handle is @osamamanzar