India’s first emergency community radio goes on air in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu.
Chennai: The record-breaking rainfall in Tamil Nadu over the last three weeks may go down in history for more reasons than one: While the people of Chennai – and many other cities, towns and villages across the state – fought to keep their heads and belongings above the perilously high waterline, a small local radio station in Cuddalore made Indian radio history by becoming the first emergency radio station to broadcast in the country.
The station, provisionally named Peridar Kaala Vaanoli (Tamil for ‘Radio in the Time of Extreme Calamity’), is broadcasting on FM 107.8 MHz, and can be heard in an approximately 20 km radius around its current position in the district collectorate. The Union Ministry of Communications’ Wireless Planning and Coordination Wing (WPC) granted permission to Saranalayam, a local NGO, to set up the station earlier this month in response to the flooding experienced in the district.
Peridar Kaala Vaanoli was inaugurated formally by the district collector, Suresh Kumar on December 10, 2015, although it started broadcasting a day earlier with information on emergency relief services being undertaken by the district administration, as well as rescue and safety related information. The station is also currently broadcasting feedback from its listeners so that efforts may be better streamlined to assist the flood-affected.
The emergency radio station has brought together the efforts of radio practitioners and activists from across India, government entities and the local administration. The emergency radio station, currently situated within the collectorate building, has been provided with a telephone line and some equipment by the district administration. The transmission equipment has been provided by the Bangalore office of Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Ltd. (BECIL), a Government of India enterprise that manufactures FM radio transmission equipment. The station has also received support from the Tamil Nadu rural development & panchayati raj department. It is currently being manned and operated by volunteers from Saranalayam, as well as nearby radio stations like Auroville Radio (Auroville, Puducherry); Puthuvai Vaani (Pondicherry University, Puducherry); and Kalanjiam Samuga Vaanoli (Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu).
Cuddalore district, 200 km south of Chennai, is one of the worst affected districts in Tamil Nadu in the flooding caused by heavy rains since end November. In response to the flooding, early in December, John Nelson, managing trustee of the Vadalur-based Saranalayam Trust, approached the district administration to discuss the possibility of establishing an emergency response radio station in the district, in order to support relief and rescue operations.
On receiving an encouraging response from the collector’s office, Nelson reached out to community radio activists at Bengaluru-based Maraa, and New Delhi-based Ideosync Media Combine, both organisations that have been active in the community radio space for over a decade. With inputs from both organisations, Nelson approached the WPC with a request for emergency allocation of broadcast frequency for the station. The WPC wing within the Ministry of Communications is responsible for the allocation of frequencies to broadcast stations as well as mobile operators in the country.
Unknown to Nelson, previous approaches by community radio activists and stations during the Kosi floods (2008) and the Uttarakhand flooding (2013) had met with failure, with requests at both points receiving no follow-up from the local and central administrations, or even the state and National Disaster Management Authorities. On the latter occasion, many district officials from the flood-affected districts in Uttarakhand – notably Rudraprayag and Tehri Garhwal – went on record to note how effective action by community radio stations in the area could have saved countless lives and property; but even this failed to elicit a coherent response.
On this occasion, however, the WPC wing responded with alacrity, and Nelson received a positive response within hours of writing to the wing on December 3. The station was provisionally allocated the 107.8 MHz frequency late that evening – unprecedented speed for a process that often takes six months in the regular course of events.
Almost immediately, other activists within the community radio sector swung into action to organise an emergency loan of equipment from BECIL; as well as its transportation from Bengaluru to Vadalur, which was funded by contributions from other activists and well wishers. BECIL also provided two technicians to assist in the installation of the transmitter. Other equipment was carried in by volunteers from nearby stations, who arrived with their own recorders, microphones and laptop computers: Auroville Radio, in particular, was quick to respond with a basket of equipment and technical assistance within hours of finding out that the station was on the cards. As a result, the station was set up in record time, and was on air by December 9 – a historic event that will mark a milestone for the community radio sector in India.
The establishment of the station sets an important precedent for the use of local short-range community radio stations to address and coordinate action during disaster situations. While such actions by community radio are well known internationally – notably in many parts of South America, and even in nearby Nepal, as evidenced during the recent earthquake in that country – there is as yet no clear protocol for accessing, coordinating and streamlining content from Indian community radio (CR) situated within disaster areas. Though a few civil society initiatives, including the Community Radio Consortium for Environment Protection (CRCEP) in Uttarkhand – a response to the Uttarakhand floods in 2013 – have been implemented, the sector would benefit greatly from a unified protocol that lays out how local administrations could reach out to these community radio stations to coordinate relief and rescue activities. Such protocols could also create a clear response process for community radio stations, many of which are run by small NGOs, and are not necessarily well versed with such processes.
The community radio sector in India was formally established as a third tier of broadcasting in the country with the creation of the CR policy by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in 2002. While the policy, in its original avatar, only allowed educational institutions and krishi vigyan kendras (KVKs) to apply for licenses, the policy guidelines were revised in November 2006 to permit registered civil society organisations to also apply. There are currently 220 licensed CR stations across the country, of which approximately a third are run by civil society organisations. The rest are composed of a mix of educational institutions and KVKs.
In some ways, it is only fitting that Tamil Nadu, with 27 CR stations at the last count – the highest of any Indian state – should be a proving ground for the establishment of this new initiative. Even if it took the highest rainfall recorded this century in that state to make it happen.
[With inputs from Sajan Venniyoor; Arti Jaiman (Gurgaon Ki Awaaz CR); Ram Bhat and Angarika Guha (Maraa); Andrea Tazzari (Auroville Radio); Naguveer Prakash, Kalanjiam Samuga Vaanoli; John Nelson (Saranalayam Trust)]
The author of this article is associated with Ideosync Media Combine, one of the organisations noted in this article as assisting in the establishment of the emergency CR station.