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The sound waves of change

Community radios such as Kadal Osai, Sangham Radio and Radio Brahmaputra are focusing on pressing issues such as climate change, marginalization and gender

Photo: Radio Brahmaputra
Photo: Radio Brahmaputra

For 26-year-old Jeenath Rabiya—a single mother of two—the day starts early. She sends her children to school, finishes the daily chores and then heads to a modest white building on Pamban island, Rameswaram. A simple board on the facade displays the words Namathu Munnetrathukkana Vaanoli (A Radio for Our Development). This space is home to Kadal Osai, a community radio for and by fisherfolk. In a small room with a computer, an audio console and a microphone, Rabiya transforms into an RJ, hosting a 2-hour programme titled Samuthiram Pazhagu (Getting Used To The Sea).

She focuses on the many aspects of marine conservation and climate change. “I was working as a teacher prior to this, and was an avid listener of Kodaikanal FM. I would often tell my father that I wanted to be an RJ," she says. Rabiya’s father, who ran a country boat and would regularly head out to sea, had listened to Kadal Osai and encouraged her to find work there.

Photo: Radio Brahmaputra
Photo: Radio Brahmaputra

What excites her most is interviewing fishermen and sharing their life stories. In the process, Rabiya has also been documenting how climate change is impacting them. With rising temperatures in Pamban and the increasing mood swings of the sea, life has become unpredictable for the fisherfolk. The usual wind and weather calculations don’t hold true any more. In such a scenario, it becomes even more critical to talk about practices that affect the health of the sea. “We talk about how microplastics, eaten by the fish, make their way into our bodies. Sea pollution affects us all, particularly the fishermen community who depend on the fish for food and livelihood," she adds.

All over the country, you will come across many community radio services which focus on niche content targeted at a particular community. These are firmly by, and for, the locals. Thousands of miles away from Pamban, in Maijan Borsaikia village of Dibrugarh district, on the banks of the Brahmaputra in upper Assam, yet another young woman—24-year-old Rumi Naik—prepares for a broadcast. She is a community producer for Radio Brahmaputra, which focuses on health, nutrition and disaster-related information for the tea plantation and riverine communities in Dibrugarh and Dhemaji.

We talk about how microplastics, eaten by the fish, make their way into our bodies. Sea pollution affects us all, particularly the fishermen community who depend on the fish for food and livelihood. Photo: Radio Brahmaputra
We talk about how microplastics, eaten by the fish, make their way into our bodies. Sea pollution affects us all, particularly the fishermen community who depend on the fish for food and livelihood. Photo: Radio Brahmaputra

Naik, who comes from the tea plantation community of Maijan Tea Estate, joined the community radio 10 years ago. She stopped studying after class IX but would often participate in Unicef awareness programmes. It was then that two members of Radio Brahmaputra visited her house, while looking for field coordinators from within the community. After a lengthy discussion, Naik’s mother agreed to send her for training. At the radio station, she started with the basics—working on the computer, scriptwriting, conducting interviews. Over the past 10 years, she has travelled to the interiors of the district to bring out stories of malnutrition and the need for immunization.

Naik started a live programme in January, inviting people to the studio to sing their favourite tunes. “People have been coming in from other districts as well. Five people who didn’t know our address hired a car, came searching for the station, and recorded their songs," she says.

At a time when the Union ministry of information and broadcasting has announced plans to set up 118 new community radio stations (according to a Press Information Bureau note of 13 September), it serves well to look at case studies such as Kadal Osai and Radio Brahmaputra, which have not just become part of the daily lives of locals but have also got the communities involved. They are also moving with the times to talk about pressing issues such as climate change, marginalization and gender equality.

So, what is community radio? According to the ministry, it is a small, low power FM radio station, with a coverage area of around 10-15km radius. Its primary role is to disseminate information related to agriculture and welfare schemes, and to provide a voice to the marginalized. A community radio is required to produce at least 50% of its programmes locally. In a country where not all have access to the internet, radio serves as a great tool for entertainment and communication.

This nascent community radio movement has been fraught with challenges. According to a May 2015 article published on Scroll, it took three years of petitioning by activists before not-for-profit organizations were included, along with educational institutions, in the policy guidelines framed by the Union government in 2002 and allowed to set up such radio services. “...a non-profit organization that wishes to apply for a community radio licence has to have a track record of existence and service to the community for at least three years to even be eligible for consideration," the article stated. A licence essentially entails official allocation of frequency.

Radio stations such as Kadal Osai, Radio Brahmaputra and Sangham Radio in Telangana have managed to sustain themselves because of the support of people.

Take Sangham Radio, one of the oldest community radio services in the country. It started 22 years ago, without a licence, as a narrowcasting facility—transmitting content to a very localized audience. This meant that the team would record programmes in a studio, carry a tape to the villages and play it there on a recorder. “One-way communication has always bothered me," says P.V. Satheesh, co-founder of Deccan Development Society, which hosted Sangham Radio. When he started the service, he had already spent a decade in development activism, and was looking at demystifying communication. He wanted to create a set-up which could be handled at the village level. Today, the radio has a target area of 15-20km and reaches out to 30-40 villages in Sangareddy district.

The interesting thing about Sangham Radio is that it is an all-women radio. “Our first collaboration was with Unesco, which was conducting a ‘Learning without Frontiers’ campaign for adult education. We wanted to take it further. The idea was that people on either side of the ‘frontier’ should be learning from one another, so we started a women-to-women radio," says Satheesh. “The women in rural India have been marginalized several times over—they are rural, of the female gender, are Dalit and poor."

Today, the station is completely managed by women—three women, who regularly run the radio and get paid by the Deccan Development Society, a not-for-profit. The rest of the team comprises 15-20 people, of which 80 % are women—they are rural reporters who visit the villages for stories. Sangham Radio, unlike others, has no experts—everyone can participate in the discussions. “At the beginning of an agricultural cycle, women farmers discuss the problems they faced in the previous cycle and come up with practical solutions. They discuss everything from health to livelihood. Thankfully, the area we function in, there is not a rigid caste hierarchy, so everyone across caste and creed relates to the radio. A privileged person might not respond to our content, but if you are poor, a woman or a farmer, it will interest you," he says.

Armstrong Fernando, who comes from the fishing community in Tamil Nadu, attempted similar two-way communication with Kadal Osai, started on 15 August 2016. Later, he went on to start a quarrying business, but he never forgot his roots. As a young man, his friends and he had wanted to start a charitable trust. That was a time when Sri Lanka, just a few miles from Pamban, was in the throes of conflict. Accidents at sea were a regular feature, and fishermen would often be caught and sent to Sri Lankan jails. Some years later, he came across a community radio station in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu aimed at farmers. Inspired, he decided to start one for fishermen.

It helped that fishermen’s associations wanted a dedicated radio station for the community, instead of having to tune in to a Sri Lankan broadcasting service. “2019 proved to be a momentous occasion for Kadal Osai. Earlier, our transmission time was only between 6am-10pm. But, on 15 August, we started transmitting for 24 hours," says Gayathri Usman, who has been the station’s chief since February last year. The radio station transmits up to 12 nautical miles in sea.

Usman, who is based in Madurai— nearly two-and-a-half hours from Rameswaram—used to work with a commercial radio station, but chose to move to Kadal Osai as “there is so much to do here. Kadal Osai is as vast as the sea," she chuckles. One of the popular programmes is about disappearing fish species such as ooral, sira, velakamban and mandaikalugu. It also discusses overfishing by trawlers and fishing vessels that poison the water with diesel and petrol. “We talk about all those things without getting preachy. We can’t say, ‘stop using trawlers immediately’. In fact we don’t directly mention trawlers. Instead, we talk about corals, turtles, dugongs and countless species that make up marine life," says Gayathri. And it has clearly had an impact—today, fishermen have realized the importance of releasing dugongs, in case they get caught in the net, to save them from extinction.

The team of 12 puts together several shows through the day—early morning starts with a motivation show. Then Raj Kapoor, a medical shop owner and part-time RJ, puts out information on diesel and currency rates. Fishermen share fish rates, weather and wind reports, potential fishing zones. This is followed by game shows, sections on conservation and women’s empowerment. “We also have a kids’ show. In this area, there are a lot of child marriages and education is discontinued. We have kids coming in with their books, they discuss homework, share a poem and thoughts on why they like school. The idea is to keep them interested in education. We are not saying don’t go and fish later, just finish your studies, learn digital processes and gain knowledge," says Gayathri.

Radio Brahmaputra has a bigger team, of around 300 volunteers. It is licenced under the Centre for North-East Studies, but is run independently by the community. The station started in 2009 and was supported by Unicef till 2013. Unicef still partially supports it for specific interventions such as community research and development of communication tools for health-related issues. The licence finally arrived in 2015.

At present, the radio reaches 32 tea plantations and covers a population of 500,000-700,000. “It is a participatory community radio station. The producers are from the community and not students from mass communication or social work," says Bhaskar Bhuyan, who heads the station. Locals feel a sense of kinship with Radio Brahmaputra, which broadcasts in local languages and the dialects of Sadri, Hajong, Bodo and Mishing.

Radio Brahmaputra operates in the most flood-prone districts, with the community largely unaware of health issues— Dibrugarh has the highest maternal mortality rate in Assam. So the team creates dramas on nutrition, environment and disaster. “There are more than 27 radio programmes for different communities in different languages. Maternal health is a huge problem in the tea gardens. We do shows on this all through the year and not just as a limited series," says Bhuyan.

Programming for floods has been divided into three phases—pre-disaster, during a disaster and after it. “We have created programmes around ‘disaster and health’, ‘disaster and nutrition’ and ‘disaster and gender’. We reach out to pregnant and lactating women in flood-prone areas to assess how prepared they are," he adds. During the floods, volunteers are always on standby to do a live feed—this was instituted last year, when there would be live updates for 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the evening about aid and relief material. In the post-disaster phase, Radio Brahmaputra collects stories of people who may not have been able to access rehabilitation schemes and explains how they can benefit.

Both Kadal Osai and Radio Brahmaputra are now focusing on narrowcasting. Radio Brahmaputra does this for over 90 women’s and adolescent groups. The team has designed specific series on nutrition, menstrual hygiene, maternal health, and more, which are then played in the villages on a tape recorder. This is followed by discussions, brainstorming sessions and a range of activities such as quiz and games. “Through our games, the anganwadi (rural mother and childcare centre) workers draw up a community nutrition map. They look at the produce available during the floods, and how this can be incorporated to create a balanced diet," says Bhuyan.

Kadal Osai is trying narrowcasting for fishermen in Dhanushkodi, a town on the south-eastern tip of Pamban island. Since the radio can’t reach them, the team has formed a WhatsApp group. For now, the show on weather forecasts is placed on that group. “Dhanushkodi has no electricity, and no other form of entertainment. Yet people are not willing to evacuate. Soon, we will start placing other shows on the group as well," says Usman.

Each of these radio stations has led to personal stories of empowerment too. For instance, Rabiya feels that if she had pursued her career as a teacher, her knowledge would have been limited to the syllabus. Coming from a fisherman’s family, she takes immense pride in being part of a team that serves fishermen and the sea.

Naik’s journey from adolescence to a young woman with Radio Brahmaputra is one her family is proud of. “I used to cycle to far-flung areas to get interviews. When my father retired, he got me a scooter. He was extremely proud of what I did. He passed away recently, and from the vidhwa (widow’s) pension that my mother gets, she bought me a laptop. These two have become integral tools of my work," says Naik.

She even tied the knot with a man from the tea plantation community on the condition that she could continue her work. “I have done a lot of programmes on prenatal nutrition. And now that I am pregnant, all the women from the community tease me that I need to follow all the instructions that I have been giving them all these years. Since I live in the tea plantation community that these shows are targeted at, I know the kind of impact they have been making. It’s a great feeling," she says.

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