Community radio at last?

BY hoot desk| IN Community Media | 18/10/2006
The opening up will allow NGOs to apply for licences without a license fee and to carry five minutes of advertising per hour of broadcasting.

Hoot Desk

For a vibrant democracy India has been extraordinarily fearful in its approach to community radio. Internal security has been a constant alibi, whereas existing insurgencies are sufficient proof that terrorists or extremists or militants?whichever term one wants to use?don¿t need community radio licenses to execute their agendas. Some of them are known to be using suitcase radios.

However, from the beginning of the 21st century constant lobbying for opening up community radio (since thousands of frequencies remain unutilised) has helped to erode the steadfast opposition from ministries such as Home Affairs. The year 2002 saw the NDA government announce that educational institutions would get licences.  Few applications were forthcoming since colleges and universities are not those who feel the most need to utilise community radio, it is civil society bodies that are the most keen to use the medium. So the concept of a second phase which would open up the medium to non governmental organisations was floated.

In October last year the UPA government postponed a decision on the issue by referring the matter to a group of ministers. Those gentlemen took a full year to give their assent to a comprehensive  proposal which will now have to go to the cabinet for clearance. But people within the ministry suggest that it is as good as done barring a last minute hitch. And what we will get then by way of a community radio policy will be the most liberal so far.    

First, non-governmental organizations with a record of at least three years of community service will be permitted to apply  for licenses, and these will be given free of cost.  It will still be an enormously centralised process. You apply to the ministry of information and broadcasting in Delhi, and wait for various ministries to give their clearance. But a three month wait is not so bad, because at least this time the policy will say that if the ministries concerned do not respond in that period clearance will be deemed to have been given.  

It is significant that while registered voluntary organisations will be permitted to apply, panchayats and trade unions will not be granted licenses. However, it is also significant that self help groups will probably be included in the categories eligible for a license.

Having decided to open up radio frequencies to the NGO sector enabling provisions are also being worked out. First, the big step forward has been to permit five minutes per hour  of advertising on these community stations. This was one of the points of contention which lead to the policy being referred to the group of ministers. While finance minister P Chidambaram and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar had been in favour of permitting this revenue stream, other ministers in the cabinet, notably Communications Minister Dayanidhi Maran had been against this. The uncharitable attribute his opposition to Mr Maran¿s family owning several FM radio frequencies. Estimates made by the I and B ministry assume that local advertising revenue accruable over these five minutes could be  around Rs 7400 per hour.

Other enabling provisions being worked out are how to process the license applications. Licenses will be given for five years at a time, the normal transmitter permitted will be 50 watts, but in exceptional cases licenses can be also given for 250 watt transmitters. Bank guarantees, and ways of funding these stations are also being worked out. The government will probable allow funding agencies to finance this sector, including foreign agencies. Normal FCRA rules will apply.  The ministry is working on collaborating with UN agencies to conduct enabling  workshops for capacity building in this area.

Programme codes, application processes and penalties will also be worked out. The frequencies that have been identified  to begin will be 90.4, 90.8 and 91.2 MHZ, or thereabouts. Thousands of frequencies around the country can technically be allocated, but repeater stations will not be permitted at this stage.     

If the cabinet does approve the  proposals cleared by the group of ministers, it could be as early as this month itself. But there is always the possibility of a last minute spanner in the works.

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