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Is it possible for community video and radio to play this role?
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AN ENTITLEMENT REFUSED
The story of DDS Radio
P V Satheesh, Director, Deccan Development Society, Hyderabad

THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN ON THE INVITATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME AS A PART OF THEIR MANUAL ON COMMUNITY RADIO.

THE MANUAL HAS PUBLISHED A VERY TRUNCATED VERSION OF THE ARTICLE. PROBABLY THE ARTICLE WAS NOT POLITE ENOUGH FOR THE TASTE OF AN U N ORGANISATION.

 

What does it mean for low income, marginalised dalit women in one of the most backward semi arid areas of the country where female literacy rate has not crossed 10%, to own a radio facility of their own?

And what does it mean to the same women when their radio set up with so much of love and vibrant anticipation does not get a nod from the government even after eight years?

Between this sense of exhilaration and despondency swings the Community FM Radio set up by the Deccan Development Society in Machnoor Village in the Medak District of Andhra Pradesh. The Society has been working with over 5000 dalit women in Medak District since last two decades. The work has gradually focused upon a string of sovereignty: food sovereignty, seed sovereignty, autonomy over natural resources, market sovereignty --- all of them pointing towards an autonomous media owned and controlled by women from the marginalised sections of the community.

Such autonomy became crucial in view of the fact that the Society was working with women a majority of who were non literate. The non literacy did not affect their capacity to work with their environments in a sagacious manner. As farmers they had established complex ecological systems. As healers they had a fascinating repertoire of knowledge of herbs and plant medicines. Their knowledge of trees and plants was next to none. They raised a range of livestock with a full understanding of animal care systems. They were barefoot foresters, bankers, primary governers of their communities. Their range of skills was deep and wide. In spite of all this, just because they did not have a single skill called literacy, they had been looked down upon as if they were second class citizens. People with a fraction of their skills and understanding of their environment, lorded over them simply because they had the so called formal education and urban sophistication.

The second need arose because the participatory methodologies marketed so eagerly to involve rural people in their development processes had been hijacked by urban professionals. Participation had been even stolen by governments and international financial agencies and had been added as another column to be filled in a never ending series of columns in development projects. Poor and women and been cheated out of the possibility of participating in decision making.

Media was the third front which had made this issue urgent. With more and more private channels coming in, spaces for rural people, poor and women had been completely taken over by corporate and urban interests. Programmes were filled in spaces between advertisements. Consumerism had run riot. In order to save its own skin even the public media had abandoned its public good niche and had followed the prescription of private channels, the film songs and dances routine, imitation of Page 3 content, trivialising issues that had deep meaning for ordinary people. Media had not only been working for the elite but it had been an active partner in creating elites.
In response to this, if the rural communities did not find a means to find their media space and articulated their concerns, the chances were that their voices would be completely drowned in the cacophony generated by the series of mushrooming urban FMs propped by corporate money.

The Deccan Development Society sensed this acute need for an autonomous media completely owned and controlled by the marginalised rural women to amplify their issues and concerns. The DDS radio attempt, thus, would be based on this ideology.

When it all began, there was very high anticipation by the women of DDS. A feeling of ecstasy that they were on the threshold of history. This was amply reflected in the arguments that they made in front of Mr James Bentley, Regional Communication Adviser to UNESCO on October 2, 1996. Extracts from this consultation reveal a deep sense of marginalisation by the women and the feeling that the so called mainstream has no room for issues concerning them. [Meena Menon in Business Line, September 03, 2001]

  • The mainstream radio disseminates some dominant values. We must fight these dominant values which are anti-poor and are against village people. Therefore we must have the control of the media. [Ms Bidakanne Sammamma, 35, farmer]
  • Their (the mainstream) radio has no time for these (micro) details. They only talk broadly. For the poor this broadness has no meaning. They need (micro) experiences. Our radio can do this effectively. [Ms Matoor Siddamma, 45, farmer]
  • We are always talking about marginalised grains, marginalised people marginalised language and marginalised issues. This does not interest the mainstream radio. This is the reason we should have our own radio to allow us to discuss our issues. [Ms Pushpalata, farmer-healer]
  • The mainstream radio is still steeped in the traditional gender roles. If we depend on it, we have to go back in time. All that we have done in our sanghams will come to a nought. If we have our own radio it can help us continue this progress we have made on gender issues. [Chilukapalle Anasuyamma, farmer-forester]

[SEE BOX: WOMEN AND THEIR RADIO; REASONS ARE PLENTY, SOUND AND STRONG]

This articulation by the non literate, dalit women of DDS was amazingly in sync with the statement issued in Toronto Platform for Action resulting from WOMEN AND THE MEDIA : ACCESS TO EXPRESSION AND DECISION-MAKING, an International Symposium of UNESCO held in Toronto, Canada in February-March, 1995. [Toronto Platform for Action, UNESCO, 1995] Of the several actions suggested by the Platform I quote two and compare them with what the women said in Pastapur:

TORONTO PLATFORM

  • Introduce, support & extent community radio stations as a way of increasing women's participation and contribution to the media and local economic development, especially in areas of high illiteracy rates.

PASTHAPUR ARTICULATION

  • Their (the mainstream) radio has no time for these (micro)details. They only talk broadly. For the poor this broadness has no meaning. They need (micro) experiences. Our radio can do this effectively. As we share these experiences we also get other women's (women outside the sangham) support in the work that we are doing.

TORONTO PLATFORM

  • Establish and diversify media products and services reflecting local cultures and languages in order to encourage local women's participation.

PASTHAPUR ARTICULATION

  • Our language and their language are very different. We can't understand their language at all. They will never use our language. For eg. I want to tell my fellow women not to stop eating green leafy vegetables during the rainy season. Only if I use our language and our imagery do people understand what I am talking about. But in the mainstream radio they won't use this language.
WOMEN AND THEIR RADIO : REASONS ARE PLENTY, SOUND AND STRONG

On October 2, 1996, Mr James Bentley, Regional Communication Adivser (Asia), UNESCO had a consultation with about 35 women from the sanghams of the Deccan Development Society. Most of these women were dalit agricultural labourers. The following are some extracts from the Consultation:

* Sammamma from Bidakanne village (a 35 year old non literate dalit organic farmer)

.. explaining why we must have our own radio

# We are working on so many alternative issues. The dissemination of this message is now the burden of a few women leaders who travel around, work till after midnight in sangham meetings, talk to their fellow women to try and convince them about the things we are talking.

If we have our own radio, the issues we are talking about will have a much wider dissemination even outside the sangham circles and will reach a larger community of women. This radio will also enhance the credibility of our messages by lending them the "weight" of the medium.

The mainstream radio disseminates some dominant values. We must fight these dominant values which are anti-poor and are against village people. Therefore we must have the control of the media.

* Sidddamma from Matoor (a 45-year old non literate woman)

.. discussing what can be the content of our radio

# If we are talking on our radio about our DWCRA group's experiences. We will tell about where we bought the goats. How did we take care of them. What were our problems. How did we solve them. And how did we make profit out of it.

Their (the mainstream) radio has no time for these (micro) details. They only talk broadly. For the poor this broadness has no meaning. They need (micro) experiences. Our radio can do this effectively. As we share these experiences we also get other women's (women outside the sangham) support in the work that we are doing.

****

This mandate by the women spurred the Deccan Development Society to start an FM Radio Station in 1998. This was a ready-to-air broadcast facility equipped with its own studio, edit suite, control room, tower and a transmitter. Three young dalit women took over the task of managing and running this station. After receiving some rudimentary training from a couple of radio professionals, the women started recording their own programmes.

Narsamma's fingers expertly move the knob on a mixer to regulate the sound of folk
music being played. It's an engaging song sung by Arya Dora, a beggar. ``We met him one day in the nearby village of Pastapur and asked him if he could come to the
studio and sing for us,'' she says.

Arya Dora's song -- a rare form of folk music -- covers an entire 60-minute audio cassette. There are many dying traditional folk songs sung by women, some relate to their crops, others to the mind-boggling cropping diversity in the region, and these have been faithfully recorded by Narsamma, nicknamed `General' for some reason, and her two colleagues, all rural women.
[Breaking A Silence, Meena Menon in The Hindu Business Line, Sept 3, 2001]

Their heart was filled with the hope that their radio will get a license from the government. The United Front government which was in power then had finalized a Broadcasting Bill which had reserved a space for the Community Radio. This had further kindled the hope. But in the winter session of Parliament during which the bill was due to be entered the Government collapsed. With this crashed the hopes of the people also.

In August 2000, the Society made an application to the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India requesting a licence for the FM Radio. The application was carefully drafted by a team of people that included myself, Prof B P Sanjay [currently Director, Indian Institute of MaSS Communication]and Dr Vinod Pavarala, a renowned expert on community radio and Associate Professor in Communication, University of Hyderabad. Much of the application quoted the criterion for community radio established worldwide and the Bangalore Declaration on Community Radio as well as the Pastapur Declaration on Community Radio.

After sixteen months, in January 2002, came a bland six line reply from the Government of India which said starkly At present the Govt. does not have a policy of granting licenses to NGOs or charitable institutions for setting up and operating Radio Stations. Licenses have been issued only to Indian registered Pvt. Companies for operating FM channels for entertainment, Music & Information.

It was quite surprising that the government did not even pause to think that somewhere this reply could be in direct conflict with the ethos of Indian democracy; that the government can give licenses to companies for operating FM channels for entertainment, music and information[sic] but had NO POLICY to grant licenses to NGOS AND CHARITABLE INSTITUTIONS to set up and operate radio stations. As Prof Vinod Pavarala aptly put it in a subsequent article for the Economic & Political Weekly, The question we should ask is: why does OUR government find Rupert Murdoch trustworthier than a poor, unlettered, Dalit woman who wants to use a media channel to communicate?
Reacting to a statement that it might be very difficult to get a license to run the radio from the government Ratnamma a 45 year old non literate rural dalit woman leader from Algole village in Medak District says:

Why won't the government issue us a license ? They invite us so many times to their meetings and listen to our views. When they do that, why not a radio license ? They can hear us regularly and better. [P V Satheesh in A RADIO OF THEIR OWN, DDS website <www.ddsindia.com>]

Her trust in the government is touching.

It is not just the protagonists of the Community Radio hold this view but also the highest legal institution of the country, the Supreme Court of India. In a landmark judgement, the Court said:

……. in a democratic polity, neither any private individual, institution or organisation nor any Government ... can claim exclusive right over it. Our Constitution also forbids monopoly either in the print, or electronic media...." -
Judges Sawant and Mohan, AIR 1995 Supreme Court 1236

This being the case, there is no obvious reason for the government to deny license to its own communities when it goes round offering licenses to all conceivable business houses and international media empires the right to run FM stations in this country. It almost appears as if democracy is being sold to the highest bidder.

In spite of this rejection, the women of the DDS Community Radio continue to produce their own programmes with grit and determination. The radio facility works for eight hours a day. Three women, General Narsamma, Algole Narsamma and Sukkamma manage the station on a daily basis. Over the last six years they have canned over 500 hours of programmes. The programmes incorporate almost every format in radio barring news.

For two years now, a neatly designed radio station, complete with a studio, part of a unique `Green' school campus in Machnoor village in Zaheerabad Mandal of Medak district in Andhra Pradesh, is all set to make broadcasts. ``We can broadcast two hours of programmes daily,'' Narsamma says. ``We have programmes on agriculture, gender, children not attending school, bonded labour, health, tips in cropping, weeding, organic manure and other subjects. We interview people with traditional knowledge and skills, record discussions on current issues and have over 300 hours of recordings,'' she says,not without some pride.
[Breaking A Silence, Meena Menon in The Hindu Business Line, Sept 3, 2001]

The women of DDS Radio want to call their radio Bichapolla Radio. Bichapollu are the mendicant bards of the Zaheerabad region. Their folk narratives include singing, telling a story and bring in contemporary messages. They travel from house to house in the villages and sing their absorbing narratives. Every day the studio is busy for a couple of hours recording programmes by the local people, mainly women, on issues of agriculture, gender, biodiversity, education, folk music etc. At the end of the week the three programmers get together and make an audio magazine by putting together various programmes that respond to the theme of the week.

Each magazine has a timely focus. If it is the ploughing season there would be a likely discussion between experiences farmers on the merits and demerits of let us say, deep ploughing. With the onset of sowing season, there could be another discussion on the exact karti [the rain bearing star] in which to sow a particular crop. Each of these timely discussions, talks, interviews will be interspersed with folk and/or traditional songs that are related to the particular farming activity, some other issues related to social issues like gender, education, childcare etc. [See box: Anatomy of a typical magazine]

These audio tapes are sent to each of the 75 villages where the DDS works. In each of these villages, the members of the DDS Sanghams [the village association of women] sit and listen to the programmes. The feedback from the villages reaches the programmers so that they can build in necessary corrections in their future productions.

ANATOMY OF A TYPICAL MAGAZINE

Heralding the rainy season

  • Starts with sounds of drum [Alugulu] typical of the area
  • Song : Vaana Vaanalante Valcherutunnaaru Devuda [a traditional song on rains]
  • Followed by sounds of rain and cattle mewing
  • Anchor comes up and talks about the impending rainy season and possibility of diseases for cattle. She also introduces a traditional animal healer Hulgera Sangappa who will be interviewed on the kinds of diseases for cattle and their natural cures
  • Interview with Sangappa follows
  • Another song on cattle and rain
  • Anchor follows and says that women have far more intimate knowledge of the animal diseases and the healing methods and therefore a discussion with a group of animal health workers.
  • Discussion follows
  • Song : Vaanakalam Poyi Chaana Kaalam Aaye Devuda [a traditional song on rains]
  • Anchor : signs off

This process of narrowcasting continues. Over the past six years, the women have been relentless. They are not defeated by the refusal of a license. But how long can they continue with their infrastructure and enthusiasm? [see box: an enviable infrastructure] Especially in the face of an extraordinary discrimination against rural communities by a government which proclaims at every available opportunity that it is committed to its farmers, women and the marginalized people? It almost appears that the governments are happy to keep their communities just at the level of receivers of communication rather than making them producers of communication. Are they probably scared that once people become real producers of communication, their control over the minds of the masses will be lost for ever?

AN ENVIABLE INFRASTRUCTURE

1. STRUCTURES

  • Low cost laterite building (1020 sq ft divided into three blocks)
  • In character with the local landscape
  • Built totally with local materials
  • Circular with a domed roof
  • 340 Sq ft octagonal studio with full acoustic treatment
  • Split wall construction for acoustics
  • Wooden channels & perforated tiles alternate for acoustics

2. EQUIPMENT

IN STUDIO

  • One 16-channel Tascom stereo mixer
  • One 4-channel Tascom field mixer
  • Two Tascom Stereo recorders
  • One Tascom stereo double deck
  • One Philip stereo double deck
  • SONY WMD 6C cassette recorders
  • One SONY WMD 3 Walkman recorder
  • Two SONY microcassette recorders [M 100 MP and 200 MP]
  • One McIntosh G-3 Computer for editing

3. TRANSMITTER & TOWER

  • Two 100 watts FM stereo transmitters
  • Height : 30 mtrs
  • Coverage area : 30 kms radius

In a short film called A Radio of Their Own produced by the Community Media Trust of the Deccan Development Society, General Narsamma, one of the three women who manage the DDS FM Radio asks eloquently:

For over six years we are ready for transmission. We hear that people in Delhi or foreigners get permission to start their radio. Does that mean that small villages like Pastapur have no right to have their own radio? For small people like us will that opportunity be denied for ever?

A poignant question. As people committed to the principles of democracy, decentralization and equity in media do we have an honest answer to this?