While the direction of media reform in India has often been viewed in the context of demand and supply, its exclusionary and piece meal characteristics would appear to have been relegated to the background. These have significant fall-outs in terms of media democratization in the country. Even a cursory look at the pace of decentralization would take cognizance of its selective and reactive characteristics. If the first is predictable under a ‘market is the mantra’ regime, the latter is worrying as it raises a larger question: Does the course of the reforms conform to a larger and cogent media policy, or are they symptomatic of a crisis – management and reactive culture? While there are no easy answers, community would appear to have paid the heaviest price in an ambivalent and unlevelled media playing field.
- In a county of daunting socio-economic divides accompanied by a formidable diversity of languages, dialects and cultures, the potential for community media should have assumed critical significance. Unfortunately, the gap between potential and practices would appear to have widened, judged by the media trends. Community voices, if at all, struggle at the periphery of a contrasting and often iniquitous media landscape.
- In contrast to the government’s efforts to bridge the digital divide and take information technology to the masses, the colonial and fossilised Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 continues to hold sway over the broadcasting arena. On the one hand, the Supreme Court Judgement of 1995 has endorsed that ‘airwaves are public property.’ However, in the practical realm, lines between public and privately remain conveniently blurred. While Private Radio has made an entry into the Indian broadcast arena, community radio remains to find legitimacy by the law of the land, notwithstanding New Delhi’s recent New Year gift enabling residential educational institutions to be eligible for ‘campus community radio.’
- In many ways, the traditions of the Indian media fall between these two pendulum ends. In his essay on the Great Indian Media Bazaar, noted journalist and editor, N Ram has outlined the role of two media traditions in the country’s democratic process: An older tradition of a diverse, pluralistic and relatively independent press which has its roots in the Indian independence movement; a broadcasting tradition which has been vulnerable to manipulation and which began with the appearance of radio as a prop of the British colonial state, The last two decades of the 20th century saw the flowering of private media – especially in the broadcast and cyber media arena – under the umbrella of globalisation and liberalization.
- Underlying these media traditions has been the growth of small autonomous media outfits of subaltern groups and their organizations. These initiatives, while small in number, demonstrate the transformative power of community and participatory media. Unfortunately, in many cases, they remain isolated initiatives struggling to receive legitimacy and recognition from the State.
- There is no doubt that in terms of reach and access, India’s print and broadcast media manifest - very substantially - the characteristics of mass media. ‘While newspapers elsewhere struggle to hold readers, Indian daily circulation has increased by close to 500% in 20 years. Two all-India readership surveys conducted in 1999-2000, estimate that the press as a whole reaches between something 200 and 240 million persons. Translated in terms of percentages this means that about 60% of urban Indians and 25% of rural Indians read print media regularly. Radio’s reach is even more comprehensive covering about 96% of the country.
- But, notwithstanding this growth in terms of reach, media’s impact on development and governance remains, at best, tenuous. In fact there would appear to remain a substantial gap between potential and experience.
- Bridging the development gap
- Paradoxically, in terms of need, the role of media in bridging the development gap is more keenly felt today than ever before. The 1990s, especially in the socio-economic context, yields a disquieting picture. Globalisation’s impact on the poverty map leaves much to be desired. Even World Bank statistics point to a rise in the number of poor, with ‘40 million people’ in India having joined their ranks during the 1990s. The latest Human Development Report statistics point to India slipping further down the ranks to stand at 127, three notches down from the previous year. The situation is elaborated by development economist and head, human development programme, National Council of Applied Economic Research, Abusaleh Shariff. In a recent interview he asserted that ‘if the definition of poverty were expanded to incorporate the human development parameters, the world poverty level would touch 60%.’ In the Indian context, ‘70% of our people will qualify as poor,’ while the below poverty line figures indicated 26% to be ‘worse than chronically poor.’ Other observations and commentaries merely accentuate the argument.
- Noted journalist P Sainath,in his article, ‘The Age of Inequality’, vividly underlines this point: ‘There was no decline at all in the all India incidence of poverty between 1990 and 1997. The absolute number of poor went up by almost 70 million. Importantly, the incidence of poverty rose in the 1990s in a phase where the GDP growth had picked up. The poor have not gained from the reforms...’
- Sainath goes on to articulate that, ‘ India also enters the “millennium” with hundreds of millions of illiterates. Again, spending on education in India is less than 4% of GDP. Far less than the 6% that the government itself says is the minimum required. In terms of quality of life the picture is far from rosy. New nutritional data at the all India level show that average calorie intake declined steadily in both rural and urban areas between 1973 and 1994.’
- The threat of political conflict, communalism and terrorism has also palpably impacted on the notion of a democratic nation state.
- The media’s response to these trends has been a mixed bag. A study conducted by the Centre for Development and Learning, Bangalore, in 2000 focussed on media coverage of development issues in newspapers. The data was based on coverage spread over the period of one year. It noted that if ‘development news can be defined as “information that has social consequence”, priorities were startling. For instance, in the Times of India (one of the largest dailies in the country), 4% of a total of 24 pages were devoted to development news. This percentage proved to be more or less representative in terms of coverage in many other dailies.’
- Media’s relationship with governance is equally tenuous. Media coverage of the recent communal strife in Gujarat has, in the main, been positive. But disparities do exist. As Mukul Sharma points out, ‘both media and governance in India suffer from serious problems, which at times, even feed into each other. Suspension of civil liberties, excessive militarisation, communal assertions and homogenising tendencies have too often spelled doom for Indian democracy. In this context, it is imperative that media become more sensitive on issues of democratic governance, people’s struggle against social injustice, and so on...’
- This, however, is only part of the picture. If the media are effectively to mirror society, then ‘the role of people’s organisations, social movements, voluntary organisations and other civil society formations in monitoring the functioning of the media and making it more people centred is critical.’ It is here, that the rub comes.
- Community activism needed
- Unlike the government or political parties and sections of the corporate sector who have developed the own press and media channels, voluntary organisations, social groups and activists, have not been able to develop their own press and television channels in a sustained manner. The exceptions that exist are usually journals/newsletters of development organisations which cannot in terms of size or scope make a sustained dent at the macro level. What is required is an active tradition of community/peoples media. Unfortunately, we do not appear to be moving in that direction.
- The promise of media reform which gathered momentum in the 1980s and 90s unfortunately did not actualize into performance. The journey from the Broadcast Bill to the Convergence Bill generated considerable expectations in the public domain – only to fritter away into cynicism. While the Broadcast Bill suffered an untimely death, the Convergence Bill (notwithstanding the hype it initially evoked) remains to be tabled in the Lok Sabha despite the passage of three years. Clearly, an overt lesson would indicate a reluctance, at the policy level, to ‘walk the talk’.
- This weakness in political will towards media reform per se becomes more evident in taking a closer look at broadcast legislation.The Prasar Bharati Act (1990), which in many ways provides a watershed in media legislation in the country, demonstrates this substantially. While the Bill was based on the Verghese Committee Report of 1978 there were significant differences. The Verghese Committee had favoured the creation of a ‘Trust’ in the service of the public, as against the Prasar Bharati Bill which proposed a Corporation which did not have the same statutory dignity and power. While the objectives of the corporation are virtually the same as the Verghese Committee’s objectives for the National Broadcast Trust, they would appear to fall short of the Verghese Report’s recommendations, which wanted the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to shed its responsibility for broadcasting altogether. The Bill has provisions for a representative of the MIB as a part time Governor which is at variance with the ‘full autonomy’ suggested by the Verghese Committee. The Verghese Committee Report also underlined the need for a decentralized structure with powers delegated at regional and local levels. In sharp contrast, the Prasar Bharati bill says little about the devolution of the powers of the Government of India and executive boards.
- Consequently, despite obtaining ‘autonomous status’ under this Act, the Prasar Bharati Corporations’s functioning has been described as ‘de facto under the influence of the Government of India’ in various ways. For instance, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has the ability to intervene and provide inputs to Prasar Bharati. The Convergence Bill, however, vests powers of regulation and licensing for communications in a Communications Commission. In doing so, it would, in effect, take away those very powers from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. But it would be unrealistic to discuss these implications, given that the bill has yet to be tabled in Parliament.
- In many ways, the radio broadcasting scenario in the country provides an apt benchmark to view the case for community media reform. Unlike India’s neighbours, - Sri Lanka and Nepal – community radio broadcasting remains outside the pale of legitimacy. Despite advocacy initiatives which have articulated the need for a three-tiered media structure – public (government), private and community – the latter remains to be endorsed by law. After a virtual decade of lobbying, in early 2003 the Government allowed residential educational institutions to apply for licenses to operationalise what it defined as community radio stations. It took nearly a year before the government upheld one of the licence applicants. At the end of 2003, community Anna University was given the green light by the Government of India to implement the country’s first ‘campus community’ radio programme. Reportedly, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, is likely to closely follow on Anna University’s heels.
- So far,so good. But a closer look would indicate that it is far too early to cheer the new year gift. For instance, New Delhi’s decision to allow residential educational institutions recognized by the state and central governments to apply for licenses to broadcast would appear to have completely overlooked the proven credentials of community based NGOs and CBOs who have demonstrated the viability and impact of community participation in radio. It needs stressing, that in terms of grass roots experience these NGO and Community based initiatives are demonstrably ahead of the educational institutions that have no tradition or practical experience of community broadcasting. Further, many of these initiatives have applied for licenses as early as 2000, long before the campus community initiative was conceptualized.
- Community radio initiatives
- One of the reasons cited by official quarters for the absence of community radio legislation is the lack of demand. While it is true that community radio advocacy needs to go beyond preaching to the converted, it is not realistic to restrict it to a clutch of initiatives any longer. Post New Delhi’s campus radio initiative in early 2003, there have been several universities across the country which have not only evinced interest, but introduced community radio as a part of their media pedagogy. These include Anna University in Tamil Nadu, Indira Gandhi National Open University, Jamia Millia and the Indian Institute of Mass Communications in New Delhi. At the same time, several development NGOs at the grass roots level have initiated or facilitated endeavours which demonstrate community participation in radio. Some of their experiences are articulated in the following voices:
‘We can’t use government radio. It is used as a tool for propaganda. They will go to a village and say that they have given so many buffaloes to this village, we have given so much land to this village… that kind of radio will not allow poor women to discuss their own problems and issues...’ (Metalukunta Susilamma – from Pastapur village in Andhra Pradesh).
‘You people often come to shoot work on the Gene Bank in our village. But there are seasons when it is impossible to shoot and you are not able to come. Maybe we can do our own recording and give it to you.’ (Laxmamma).
‘We want people outside to know about issues that concern us.’ (Ipappally Malamm from Pastapur).
‘My experience in Namma Dhwani community audio production is huge. Because of this we are reaching 22 villages and thousands of villagers...’ (Balu, from Boodikote village, Karnataka).
- These are a few of the many underprivileged voices from rural India where more than 60% of the country’s population resides. They also represent communities who notwithstanding their exclusion from the media mainstream are actively engaged in building and developing community media of their own. Initiatives like the Pastapur media centre in Andhra Pradesh and the Namma Dhwani project in Karnataka demonstrate not only the relevance, but also viability of community media centres and their impact of development and governance in the country. But in the face of exclusion by law, it is worth reflecting how long they will continue to wait in the wings.
- Their denial of legitimacy stands in sharp contrast to the private radio scenario. While restrictions continue to handicap the pace and viability of commercial broadcasting in the country, their growth in the recent past has been impressive. The recent recommendations of the Radio Broadcast Policy Committee in October 2003 – if endorsed by New Delhi – could dramatically improve their fortunes. These could reportedly permit big broadcasters ‘to own one third of the radio stations in the city or 25% of all frequencies in the country.’ This apart, the recommendations have advocated the lifting of restrictions on news and current affairs with the provision that the AIR code of conduct is followed. There are provisions which also call for non-commercial channels and strengthening niche channels through fiscal incentives. But what these imply for community media – if at all – remains unclear.
- Notwithstanding the need for the recommendations to receive the official stamp of approval, their provisions palpably demonstrate the contrast between private and community broadcasting. These, in turn, effectively mirror the overall media climate in the country.
- Reviewing concers
- If the writing on the media reform wall is clear, it also needs reiteration if community voices are to move from the margins towards the centre:
- 1. The current media climate needs to be reviewed in the context of not only strengthening the public domain, but bringing community into the centre stage. This calls for a closer and more interactive link between media and development in the country which in turn warrants an appraisal not only of processes in the existing media traditions, but also widening the scope and legitimacy of media democratisation in the country. If deregulation is the buzzword, we need to ensure that its vision goes beyond the pale of strategic mergers and corporatisation. This, in turn, demands a review of the notion of access. Access without inclusiveness could be akin to information without communication and handicap the development and governance process. Inclusion of Community Media would demonstrate a way forward.
- 2. The two tiers of public (government) and private media are already a legitimate part of media processes in the country. However, a third tier – that of community media – needs to be legitimized. A community media tradition has, unfortunately, not been firmly rooted in the Indian landscape. Priority needs to be given in issuing of community broadcasting licenses to rural areas and other regions and communities that are least developed in terms of various socio-economic indicators. This is also based on the fact that the least developed regions and communities of the country are also least served by media.
- 3.While the crux of the problem in several instances might lie with a reluctant state, civil society needs to get its act together. This, in turn, demands a review of the demand-supply equation. For instance, the observation that the demand for community radio is restricted needs to be questioned and dispelled by effective documentation, networking, capacity building, strategic alliance building. Specifically, this could mean: collaborations between universities and community media advocates/practitioners to ensure that community media is part of the curriculum and pedagogy; capacity building awareness programmes to widen the relevance of community media in the country in general and the social sector in particular; using traditional and new media to document and disseminate best practices.
- 4. Synergise the Right to Information with the Right to Communicate as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The recent endorsement of a freedom of information act by the Lok Sabha and the increasing popularity of the movement across the country (five states already have the Right to Information Act in place) needs to be integrated into community media advocacy agendas. If the denial of information aggravates the poverty gap, information without communication could be dead wood. Producers of information need to be able to communicate it in a manner they deem appropriate.
Ashish Sen works for NGO Voices, Bangalore, India. E-mail: