As governments, media conglomerates, communication specialists and academicians debate the future of media, an important tool with immense potential which continues to remain neglected in India is the community radio.
While the Prime Minister has understood the power of radio and has been reaching out to the masses through his hugely popular Mann ki Baat, the mandarins at the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting are yet to take any concrete steps to unleash the potential of a medium that can take development to the grassroots.
While successive governments have been taking major initiatives at the macro level, they are unable to achieve the desired objectives in the absence of an effective Information, Education and Communication (IEC) policy.
It is here that Community Radio Stations (CRS) with their limited range and budget can make an effective and targeted intervention. Community radios with a range of 10-12 km can address the concerns, grievances and aspirations of the community they serve.
At present, only educational institutions, NGOs and Krishi Vigyan Kendras are allowed to operate these stations. Despite certain incentives provided by governments, the cumbersome licensing and renewal procedures and lack of proper training and dearth of resources have hindered the growth of the medium.
As against the projected establishment of about 4,000 CRS in 2002, the total number of operational radio stations today stands at a paltry 251. Government officials do not seem to be even aware of the number of stations which have obtained licences but are not operational.
Keeping these factors in mind, I had set up the Community Radio Empowerment and Resource Centre at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, a couple of years back.
The objective was to train existing and aspiring professionals in terms of technology, content and resources.
It was also envisaged that gradually the Centre would become a national depository for content which can be accessed by all stations as the current provisions require that 50 percent of the content has to be generated locally.
In another boost to CRS, UNICEF India, which conducts Radio4Child awards to encourage radio jockeys to weave in socially relevant messages related to routine immunisation, child sexual abuse, cyber safety, hygiene etc, has decided to extend the incentive to CRS as well.
Besides disseminating socially relevant messaging, including creating awareness about major government initiatives, the CRS can play a critical role in documenting, archiving, preserving and promoting local language, dialects, culture and art forms for posterity. It can also help nurture local talent.
CRS such as the Jammu-based Radio Sharda are catering to the information and cultural requirements of the global Kashmiri Pandit diaspora.
The government needs to take proactive steps to promote this highly effective tool by making it mandatory for all universities. Investment may also be allowed as part of Corporate Social Responsibility. CRS can bring about a paradigm shift in grassroots level development communication.