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The megaphones remain mute

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It is easy to overlook the megaphones affixed to poles all over this small town. Ubiquitous leftovers from last night’s shaadi or satsang, you would think. But this lot once had a loftier purpose. They brought to life every morning ‘Sukma Ta Mata’ (STM), literally ‘Sukma’s Talk’. It was an innovative narrowcasting project that the district administration devised in March 2012 to reach out to locals in Gondi and Halbi, the two most widely spoken indigenous languages in Chhattisgarh’s south. With Hindi still limited in its extent here, the outreach in local languages quickly gained popularity. 

Every day, between 7.00 a.m. and 8.00 a.m., non-Hindi speaking locals clustered around these 60-odd poles at different public venues to listen to pre-recorded programmes that familiarised them with the government’s development schemes. Not just that, the project also became an output for the musical talent of locals and a platform for them to discuss cultural and social matters in their language. “Despite our limited reach, we got an encouraging response,” says Virupaksh Puranik of Yuva Jagruti Samiti, the organisation that collaborated with the district administration to launch STM. “We received over 150 postcards, even song requests and many queries related to banking.”

The good days didn’t last long though. With a frequent change of district collectors and their priorities, funding dwindled for this project. By the time it finally fell silent in September last year, it had established itself as a clever ersatz for community FM stations, which have not taken off yet in this region because of security-related complexities. It was a conservative challenge to the logic that keeps our airwaves away from public use to boost security. STM’s popularity also drove home the need for programming in indigenous languages, something that still remains very marginal on air. 

Yet, the megaphones remain mute appendages today. The local electricity department has cut power to them because of unpaid dues. STMs modern studio also lies in disuse, gathering dust and seepage. Its operational expenses were not much — it cost under Rs. 30,000 to run every month, including the salary for a guard and a technical assistant. Was it was too high a price for the administration to connect with locals in a language they understand best? Maybe linguistic public diplomacy wasn't a worthwhile investment in a theatre of conflict where winning minds is key priority?

This apathy is not unique. It also explains why the state continues to overlook and under-utilise the radio in countering Maoist influence. Oddly enough, this so in a region populated by numerous tribal languages that possess rich oral traditions. While the All India Radio (AIR) service in Chhattisgarh is still dominated by Hindi-language programming, not one community FM station, either in Hindi or any indigenous language, is operational in Maoist-affected areas of the state.

The state’s laggard approach is a stark contrast to the runaway success of CGNet, a mobile phone-based news platform, that has empowered has the indigenous peoples of our heartland. Marginalised by the established media, the tribals finally have access to a service that has democratised even citizen journalism. They can now simply record a news piece in their language using their mobile phone and have anyone in India access it on theirs. All this without a charge for them or the mediation of traditional journalists who have ignored them for long. Its impact has been dramatic and far reaching. Roads have been built, missing teachers have shown up at local schools, unpaid salaries have been credited and closeted rations have at long last found their way to villagers. 

The state, though, has failed to replicate such a success. To be fair, the current district administration in Sukma hopes to restart STM as a community FM station. It is a noble gesture but remains vulnerable to the tortuous process of securing a license. An application to do so, says Puranik, was first made two years back soon after STM started. How long it will be until Sukma Ta Mata starts buzzing again, therefore, is anyone’s guess. Even when it is reactivated, it will address, as it did, only part of the large infotainment deficit that exists across this region. For the community FM model of democratising our airwaves, though well-meaning, is not democratic enough. Based in cities and towns, community FM stations are limited in their reach (usually around a radius of less than 15 kilometres). In undulating terrain, it is even less. This keeps the backwoods the way they are — in a dark zone. 

Moreover, the process of obtaining a license is unfriendly enough to exclude genuine people’s participation. It is mostly educational institutes or communities backed by NGOs who give it a shot and make their way out successfully. More than half of the existing community FM stations today are run by educational institutes in cities and towns. “And those in rural areas tend to be managed by big NGOs in cities,” says Sajan Venniyoor, a former AIR producer and one of the founders of Community Radio Forum. The model is also ill-suited for a more liberal definition of communities across geographies. “For instance, if we were to think of the Lepchas, spread across Darjeeling and Sikkim, as one community, we would need over a dozen FM stations to reach all of them,” adds Venniyoor.  

Which is why Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist and founder of CGNet, thinks narrowcasting and community FM efforts are only “good starting points’” for a state like Chhattisgarh, where a single village can be spread over five kilometres. To get an idea of how vast and remote this terrain is, consider this fact — before being trifurcated in 1999, the undivided Bastar district was larger than the state of Kerala. The best way to reach locals here, he argues, is through the dedicated adoption of shortwave and mediumwave indigenous language broadcasts on Amplitude Modulation (AM) radio.  

Unlike FM, which has been favoured for its clearer audio, transmissions on AM are beamed across much larger geographies. It is an outdated technology but it is the one that fits our remote areas best. The Lepchas in north Bengal and Sikkim, for instance, can be reached with just one MW transmitter. Further empowered by the interactivity of mobile phones and the internet, MW/SW radio can indeed be the megaphone the marginalised section of tribals need to reach out to the rest of India. Says Choudhary, “There is a complete disconnect between mainstream India and issues of mainstream India with the lower class of tribals. The connection can be made by using AM radio creatively.” 

CGNet plans to move in that direction by applying for an AM license. They are likely to be denied one because private players in India, shockingly enough, still do not have the right to that resource. Any expansion of radio to let in private players, according to the government, has to happen on FM. “If refused, we will challenge it in court. This way we hope to at least take the debate further, which at the moment remains stuck on using community stations on FM,” adds Choudhary. That AIR reached an agreement with CGNet recently to give it some airtime daily for Gondi language programming offers a sliver of hope that the tight statist grip on our airwaves can eventually be loosened. 

The writer is a National Foundation for India Media Fellow, working on linguistic aspects of the Naxal conflict

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2020 3:21:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/debarshi-dasgupta-on-the-underutilisation-of-the-radio-in-fighting-maoist-influence/article7460403.ece

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