IMA Visits Indian Community Radio Movement

DSC_0094From pete tridish

In February, I visited India for a month to work with community radio stations. After many years of advocacy, community radio was first permitted in India in 2007. Among the stations that I visited was the very first community radio station in India, Sangham Radio, owned and operated by an organization of 6000 Dalit women laborers. I also visited stations in Madya Pradesh, Gurgagon, and other places. I spent several days with the UNESCO Chair for Community Media in Hyderabad, speaking with classes and graduate students. I also worked with NOMAD, a transmitter and antenna manufacturer near Mumbai, and did a workshop with Maraa, an arts and policy advocacy organization. You can see an article about the visit to Sangam Radio in Radio world International… here: Sangham

Here are some things that I didn’t know before I got to India that really amazed me:

First: Some Facts and Figures:

Over 650 million Indians make less than 40 Rupees per day, which is about 60 cents.

India has 22 official languages, 1652 total languages, and about 150 with a sizeable population of speakers. 28% of Indians speak some English, but only 5 % are fluent in English.

If current trends continue, it is estimated that India will surpass China in population in 2028, when both countries will have 1.45 billion people.

And a bit about the current government, and Hindutva:The current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is a representative of the BJP, the Hindu Nationalist Party. He is best known for his pro-business, neoliberal policies, and for the fact that while he was Governor of Gujarat, the police under his command police stood by idly during a killing spree of 2000 Muslims by fundamentalist Hindus. He was investigated and ultimately was not charged by the Indian government. For his complicity in this atrocity, he was denied entry to the USA until he was elected prime minister last year. Yes, this is the guy who hugged Obama on the recent presidential visit.

Why would such a person rise to the highest office in India? Elites are happy to give him support for his pro- business policies. But why would the poor support him? To understand, it helps to look back to the time of independence in 1947. Before the British occupation of India, no one would have ever said that they were Hindu. They identified themselves by caste: Brahmins, Vaishyas, etc.

As the elite Hindu castes started to realize that India would be ruled democratically upon independence, they understood that they would be in a minority and would not maintain their high position in society if things were decided by voting. So, they endeavored to convince Hindus of all castes that caste was not so important anymore, and that what mattered was Hindu identity. They endeavored to make the most minor reforms that they could get away with (such as Gandhi’s campaign against untouchability, and a form of affirmative action for government hiring based on caste called “caste reservations) while preserving the caste system. Then, Hindus would vote in a bloc, and the higher castes would remain on top. Incidentally, and not too well known in the West, Gandhi was a big supporter of the caste system, believing that society falls apart when the people do not know their place. Gandhi felt that certain cruel excesses like untouchability should be done away with, but he was completely in favor of keeping the caste system in place, while others called for its abolition.

So, today, Hindu fundamentalist politicians from the BJP posture as being in favor of unity of all Hindus of all castes. The other main party, Congress, has had such a poor track record on corruption that many vote against them. Congress has been saying all the right things forever about poverty and democracy, but things never change. So the appeal of the right wing BJP to the poor, promising Hindu unity and change, makes more sense than it did when I read about it before I went to India.

Hindu fundamentalism is similar to American religious fundamentalism, in that the belief is promoted that the events in the holy texts literally happened exactly as written, and they are not merely stories for religious and moral instruction. Bolstered by examples from sacred texts, Hindutva influenced “scholars” have recently put forward laughable claims that thousands of years ago, Hindus invented manned space flight vehicles, plastic surgery, stem cell research, and many other innovations. It is difficult to separate how many of the fundamentalist leaders in either country really believe this, and how many cynically take this position to manipulate the uneducated portion of the people.

Kerala: A Different Way Forward For The World’s Poor

There is one state in India that is quite different from the others, Kerala, at the far southern tip on the western side. It has had governments alternating between Congress and the Communist Party, in every election since 1982. In Wikipedia, it is described as such: “The state holds an invariable position of having the largest politically aware and active population in the Country.”

Since the seventies, Kerala has confounded economists because the numbers contradict all of the neoliberal truisms about “free trade” policy.

As Bill McKibben said, “Kerala, a state in India, is a bizarre anomaly among developing nations, a place that offers real hope for the future of the Third World. Though not much larger than Maryland, Kerala has a population as big as California’s, and a per capita annual income of less than $300. But its infant mortality rate is very low, its literacy rate among the highest on Earth, and its birthrate below America’s and falling faster. Kerala’s residents live nearly as long as Americans or Europeans. Though mostly a land of paddy-covered plains, statistically, Kerala stands out as the Mount Everest of social development; there’s truly no place like it.

While the poor in the rest of India suffer terribly under neoliberal policies and a corrupt and indifferent government bureaucracy, Keralites appear to be managing fantastic life outcomes without the income to match. Many see the “Kerala model of development“— where people have a decent life without consuming mountains of resources— as a lesson to the rest of the world that there is a third way. Not grinding poverty or American style over-consumption, but modest, decent living with good health care, education, clean cities and active, engaged citizenry. I did not get to visit Kerala, but I spoke with several Keralites during my trip, and I have every intention of going there when I return.

The People’s Science Movement:

Back in the 70s, there were a bunch of intellectuals and activists who were thinking about how to move India towards socialism. They came to believe that one of the reasons that Marx’s “inevitable destruction of capitalism and march towards communism” was not happening was because people in the countryside were not literate, had no education, and were trapped in superstitious beliefs that bred a kind of fatalism and reluctance to challenge the status quo. It was believed that if people could be taught “the scientific temper,” and encouraged towards technological innovation, this helpless attitude of the poor could be cast aside. A rather large movement of intellectuals started going out in the countryside and teaching science, with an underlying agenda of politicization. Guess where all this started: yes, Kerala!

The movement has grown over the years, and while promoting science, it also encourages taking a critical view of how the benefits of technological progress go to the rich, while the costs to the environment disproportionately affect the poor. I hope to learn more about this fascinating movement and interview its participants the next time I visit India.








W hy Community Radio? Development or Freedom of Speech?

Community Radio did not start in India until 2007. It was first permitted based upon arguments that it would be good for development, education, and poverty alleviation. Under this relatively non-controversial guise, the government’s fears were allayed, and a legal framework was developed, and stations started to be built. However, some of the conceptions we have in the United States and other countries of freedom of speech and a lively debate were not significant parts of the rationale for community radio.

Also, a lot of the stations are built with international money, and sometimes these reflect the agenda of donors more than the full range of interests of the community. I heard stories of a “community radio station” put together by a health NGO that had a huge amount of programming focused on hand washing. Now, I am totally in favor of washing hands, but there is only so long anyone can talk about it… and keep it interesting!

A related issue is violence between groups, in India called “ Communal violence.” Enthusiasm for freedom of speech is tempered by concern about massacres, such as the Fundamentalist Hindu attack on Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Some worry that while most community stations would do good work, if they are not held to strict standards they could be used as a tool to incite hate and riots against other groups. In the US, we consider hate speech the price of free speech, but it is important to remember that this is a fairly unusual attitude in the world. We also have grown to tolerate hate speech because it is relatively rare that hate speech makes the jump to transform into hateful actions in the US anymore. Most governments around the world regulate hate speech, in some form.

No News on Community Radio

Community Radio in India is not permitted to broadcast news. There is some division among advocates about how important this is. On one hand, it is sort of crazy to allow community radio without allowing news. And some believe that this makes community stations timid, and less likely to do the kind of political content that helps bring about change.

Some others think the restriction is wrong, but not as big a deal, so long as they don’t call their public affairs content “news.” News in India implies registered professional journalists. India (and other countries) has rules for what constitutes news, unlike in the USA where even Fox news can call itself news! In India, the one state news network is akin to the BBC model. Some think: “Be careful what you wish for—once allowed to do news, there could be a big law book full of additional regulations that community radio has to follow. Better to have less regulated public affairs than highly regulated news.”

India is currently starting an effort to monitor all the new radio stations in the country, either by setting up monitoring stations that send streams of broadcast content, or by requiring stations to send recordings of all their content. If this policy is implemented, it will be incredibly burdensome for stations, and likely make many fearful of political reprisal if oppositional sentiments are expressed on the radio.

Continuous Improvement Toolkit.

I had a great opportunity to visit the UNESCO Community Media Chair at the graduate University in Hyderabad. While visiting Professors Vinod Pavarala and Kanchan Malik, they told me about a new toolkit they developed, the Continuous Improvement Toolkit for Community Radio.   This is a method they have developed for station for self and peer evaluation, so stations can set common goals for improvement.   While some things are designed specifically for the Indian context, I think it could be useful for any station anywhere. It is a very good way to have a structured discussion of how to push your station forward towards its goals.

Some Community Radio organizations you may want to check out in India-

MARAA: arts and activism collective based in Bangalore and Delhi

NOMAD: transmitter and equipment manufacturer, trainings and installations for community radio

COMMUNITY RADIO ASSOCIATION: an association of community radios

GRAM VAANI: connected to a major technical university, IIT, developed Linux software for use in community radio stations

UNESCO CHAIR for COMMUNITY MEDIA, – publishes community radio news and does academic investigations in support of community radio.


Want to learn more about India?

These are some good books I read for the trip in my little crash course:

A Fine Balance: Rohinton Mistry- A beautiful, heartbreaking, and funny novel charting the lives of four Indians during the time of Indira Gandhi’s totalitarian emergency government

The Argumentative Indian: Amartya Sen- Nobel Prize winning economist reflects on Hindutva, development, India’s Atheist tradition going back thousands of years (who knew?), and other topics

Capitalism: A Ghost Story: Arundhati Roy- A series of essays condemning neoliberal and development policies

Everyone Loves a Good Drought: P. Sainath- An award winning journalist takes a year to see the impacts of development policies on India’s poor, unmasking corruption, caste violence, exploitation of the indigenous, and reporting on a small handful of people powered bright spots, like the women’s bicycle project

River of Gods: Ian MacDonald- The only one by a non-Indian, this is science fiction on taking place in 2047, the hundredth anniversary of Indian independence. India has broken into warring provinces, new genders are invented, Artificial Intelligences take advantage of loose regulations to open a wormhole to another world… as always, good science fiction tells more about the present than the future.

The Stars Change: Mary Ann Mohanraj- Another sci-fi. Indians have colonized a far distant planet, but retained many of their traditions. A ragtag group bands together to stop a group of racist humans who are channeling a meteor shower to destroy a non-human neighborhood. Light hearted and fun.

Wow! The Sequel!

I’ve been awarded a small grant to return to India next year for two months by the Institute for International Education! The grant will take care of my airplane ticket and expenses, but it cannot be used for tools, equipment, and other things that I will need to do the most possible good that I can with my time in India. If you’d like to donate money or equipment, it is tax deductible, and you can rest assured that I will make great use of it with these wonderful, underfunded community radio stations.

 Please donate here:

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