Community Radio will dry out in India

Sevanti Ninan writes in her column Talking Media (livemint.com) about the Community Radio (CR) services affected by the spectrum policy.

A spectrum story

The ministry of I&B has been holding periodic consultations to see if it can give a fillip to the spread of CR

Here is a spectrum story that does not make the headlines. No fancy lawyers arguing on behalf of top-drawer clients, no Rs. 1,000 crore sums to bandy about, no industry associations seeking meetings with cabinet ministers, or a 2G or 3G label to guarantee page 1 when a story lands on the desk. And completely without the drawing power of Aamir Khan on Star TV to compete for media mind space.

The drama is small scale: a meeting boycotted this week with the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B) in the hope that some pressure will be exerted, a one-day no-broadcast strike by community radio stations on Wednesday in districts across the country, which will be noticed by the communities they cater to, but nobody else. Desperate consultations with each other by very small radio broadcasters catering to communities within a 5-25km radius, in scattered districts of the country.

In April, a small community radio (CR) station, run by people dedicated to the Brahma Kumaris in the hilly area of Mount Abu, got a rude jolt. Radio Madhuban 90.4 FM caters to a rural community around the town of Mount Abu. Its website has the usual pictures of happy cows and smiling people. April brought the annual licence fee invoice from the wireless planning and coordination wing (WPC) of the department of telecommunications. This is the wing which allocates spectrum and had announced in March that rates were being revised upwards from 1 April this year. The announcement had tables to help you calculate the rate for the spectrum you were using.

But until Radio Madhuban got its notice, nobody quite understood what the implications were for CR stations, which have always got concessional rates. The short-range radio spectrum for which they had paid Rs. 19,700 the previous year, would now cost Rs. 91,000 for an annual licence. That might be less than chicken feed for the Bhartis, RComs and Telenors of this world, but was bad news for a small community radio, which in any case struggles to be viable.

Why it was done is probably because spectrum rates were upped across the board after the Supreme Court’s judgement on getting higher value for natural resources. But if that is the case, it directly contradicts the 1995 judgement of the Supreme Court which says the airwaves belong to the people. Can all users of spectrum be lumped in the same category for pricing purposes? True the CR licence fee has remained unchanged since 2003, but then elsewhere in the world the trend is to bring down costs of CR to enable its spread. Some countries have a free citizen band of spectrum.

The ministry of I&B has been holding periodic consultations to see if it can give a fillip to the spread of CR. There are some 120 stations now, the majority run by universities and colleges, because that is how the policy started out in 2002. The government, always terrified of what little people might do to national security, opened up a band of very local spectrum for use by educational institutions. By 2006, they gathered courage to open it up further. But there is an impressive list of ministries who have to clear each licence. Which is why it has taken 10 years to get to 120-plus stations going operational, the majority still linked to educational institutions.

So who needs CR when we are drowning in media of all kinds, including rural direct-to-home (DTH) and cable television? Communities that need information and entertainment in local dialects in rural areas, and even on the fringe of metropolises. Communities that have learnt to create their own radio programmes. There is Gurgaon ki Awaaz and a new radio station called Radio Mewat, catering to communities outside Delhi. There is Apna Radio in Tonk, Rajasthan, Chanderi ki Awaaz in Madhya Pradesh, Radio Namaskar in Puri, and Sangham Radio, the oldest of them all, in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh. They put out local news-you-can-use and music. Do they now need to become a source of revenue for the government of India?

There is a body of CR advocates called the Community Radio Forum who make a few basic points. Is this just another way of denying access by raising the barriers to entry? In actual money terms, what the government gains from charging Rs. 91,000 each from 125 community radio stations is a pittance. The bigger non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and university radio stations might survive this fee hike, but it will be the last straw for the smaller CR ventures run by local-level NGOs. They are yet to find a sustainable revenue model for CR.

There is nothing to indicate that a body like the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is seized of this issue. They have bigger fish to fry. And evidently, in the government of India, ministries such as I&B, rural development and communication and information technology don’t consult each other as to what their priorities are, when they make policy.

Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.orgShe examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.

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