Academic and advocate for Community Radio in India, Professor Vinod Pavarala tells Zeenab Aneez why it is important that everybody has a voice

A meeting with Professor Vinod Pavarala doubles up as a brief lesson on community media. He has, after all, been actively involved in the field for over a decade, in his capacity as professor at the Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication, as the founder of Community Radio Forum, India and most recently as the first UNESCO chair on community media.

His journey so far, a mix of research and advocacy, spans disciplines and continents. We catch up with him on the premises of the University of Hyderabad a few days before he leaves to Bedfordshire, UK to deliver the key note address at the biannual Radio Conference.

Pavarala, who calls himself a ‘quintessential Hyderabadi’ attributes his interest in community media and development to the values he imbibed during a childhood in the older neighbourhoods of the city. “I grew up in places like Vithalwadi and Barkatpura where the community bond was very strong. People would always be willing to help each other out. We would not just depend on the government for help but also look within the community.” Pavarala’s first stop as a young adult was in journalism.

The dream is to be able to ride from North to South or East to West and be able to listen to a different radio every few kilometres, broadcasting in different languages, even in the ones not officially sanctioned

He procured a master’s in the subject from Osmania University and began to work with a local English daily as a reporter. Still, he felt something was missing. “Before long, I felt like I was missing the big picture of the very things I was reporting on. I grew tired of the day-to-day rush of reporting and even though I was doing well, I decided to quit and do a master’s in sociology from Central University, Hyderabad,” he recalls. Pavarala left to the US to pursue his PhD, in the subject of corruption. He even went on to teach at Virgnia Tech for a year. “But the plan for me and my wife was always to return to India,” says Pavarala who is married to Aparna Rayaprol, also a professor in the Sociology department at Central University. Pavarala started his time at the University in the year 1995 after a brief stint at IIT-Mumbai’s Humanities department.

“My interest was always broadly on communication and social change,” explains Pavarala when asked what drew him to community media. “ I grew very critical of the mainstream media in the country. Nehru had a dream that media would bring about development but the media turned out to be expert-driven and followed a top-down approach. This might work but eventually it alienates the people,” explains the professor. “My critiques of this model led to asking why we cannot reverse it and look at a model of community media where people can also become active producers of information, rather than just passive listeners.”

Just as Pavarala was coming to these conclusions, in February 1995, a Supreme Court judgement freed the airwaves from the grasp of the government. “Although the court ruled that “Airwaves constitute public property”, the airwaves were first auctioned off to private FM channels. In response, a group of academics and activists met in Bangalore and campaigned for the need for freeing up of the airwaves for the use of public good. This was very inspiring and I recognised the need for carving out a parallel media sphere in the country. It was during this time I became immersed in building on community radio,” he says. Pavarala has since been an active participant of the community radio movement in the country.

He also went on to become founder-president of Community Radio Forum, India. “We were an informal pressure group that eventually decided to form an organisation,” Pavarala says. “Now there are over 150 community radio stations, so there is a need for a body to represent them. We also work as a lobbying group for policy changes,” he says, adding that while he completed his term there last year, he is still involved informally.

In 2000, Pavarala was a part of the team that set up India’s first community radio at Pastapur village in Andhra Pradesh. This was a result of a UNESCO sponsored workshop held in the village which brought out the ‘Pastapur Initiative on Community Radio’. It articulated the need for a three-tier structure of broadcasting service in the country, the third being non-profit community radio.

‘Sangham Radio’ of Pastapur Village, run entirely by semi-literate women, has, in Pavarala’s words, done much to raise relevant issues pertaining to the community and also empower the women in the village. “All the women of the village contribute Rs. 50 a year to the radio station and while this may not be a very large sum, it instils a sense of pride and ownership among them,” he informs us. Pavarala has written about his experience in Pastapur and other community radio projects he has been involved in a book titled Other Voices: The Struggle For Community Radio in India, which he co-authored with Kanchan K. Malik.

While Pavarala has come a long way in his academic career, he feels that he has a long way to go in his fight for community radio. “The dream is to be able to ride from North to South or East to West and be able to listen to a different radio every few kilometres, broadcasting in different languages, even in the ones not officially sanctioned,” he says. “In Bundelkhand, there is Bundeli broadcast, in Gujarat you have it in Kutchi. It is a powerful source of assertion of unique cultural identities and there is a linguistic pride involved too. ”

Another reason, why CR is important, especially in rural areas, according to Pavarala is that mainstream media is simply not equipped or structured to cover such locally specific information. “It is not a threat to mainstream media, but works parallel to it. The idea is that people tell their own story, rather than have media professionals do it for them. And this is not difficult,” he assures us. “Radio is not rocket science; in the last 10-15 years I have seen that it takes only a few days for a illiterate person to pick up the skills to do a basic broadcast.” The problem, he points out, lie within the system. State policy still does not allow community radio stations to broadcast news; also obtaining a license for a CR is a cumbersome process. “Areas near the border, especially in the North East are a complete blank so far as CR is concerned because the licenses have not been approved for security reasons,” he adds.

Pavarala’s goal is to eradicate what he calls ‘voice poverty’. “There is a need to give people, whose voices are otherwise never heard, a medium to communicate their thoughts too. People ask me why I am so bothered about radio when there are more basic needs to be fulfilled but I think that voice poverty is inextricably linked with those needs,” he concludes.