The Indian government’s failure to disburse funds to small community radio stations is slowly strangling an endeavor that was supposed to be a means of empowering local communities.

Hyper-local, low-power community radio stations, run by local groups, are aimed at people in a five-to-10-kilometer radius in areas not served by conventional and mainstream media or, in urban areas, as an alternative to mainstream broadcasting.

According to government data, India is home to 217 community radio stations in 29 states. However, most of them, especially those in rural areas, are struggling to survive mainly because of the apathy of responsible authorities, radio operators told Asia Times.

A response to a Right to Information (RTI) request showed that their flailing condition isn’t because of lack of money, as 40 million rupees (about US$585,000) was allocated in 2017-18 to support these stations. Rather, it is the government’s failure to use that money to support community radio efforts; barely 4.8 million rupees, a mere 12% of the total funds, was spent.

As the third-tier broadcasting system, after the public broadcaster (All India Radio) and private FM channels, community radio stations create content to broadcast in local dialects, with focus on educational and other relevant information. But they are not permitted to broadcast their own news, only unedited news broadcast by All India Radio.

Lack of state support

There are several restrictions keeping community radio stations from raising their own funds. For instance, only seven minutes per hour of advertisements are allowed. Moreover, the government itself fails to pay promptly for advertisements it puts out over these stations, let alone supporting them in skill development or equipment upgrades.

“As these [radio stations] aren’t for profit, these stations mostly rely on government support,” said N A Shah Ansari, chairman of Radio Namaskar, a community radio station at Konark, Odisha state. “The government has not paid its advertisement dues for the last three to four years amounting to lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of rupees.”

A few non-governmental organizations and activists have been battling to ensure the viability of community radio using the British model.

Vinod Pavarala, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) chairman on community media in India, based in Hyderabad, said: “We had demanded an independent fund for such radio stations with disbursement decided by an independent panel of experts. The UK government, through the regulator Ofcom [Office of Communications], funds sustainability managers for radio stations. Such an arrangement eludes India and the funds get spent on other, less productive areas.”

Pavarala, co-author of Other Voices: The Struggle for Community Radio in India, pointed out that India’s neighbor Nepal hosts around 300 community radio stations and Congo around 400. Given India’s size and population diversity and density, the country should be able to accommodate 3,000 to 4,000 such stations to reach out to local populations in different areas and convey information in their own dialects or languages, he added.

Radio Kotagiri is a community radio station in Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu state run by tribals. In 2014 it filed a consultative paper to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommending the provision of repeaters for uninterrupted broadcasting in hilly areas like Nilgiris and Himalayan regions. But Pratim Roy, director of the Keystone Foundation, which manages the station, says such a provision is yet to take place.

Bureaucratic red tape

India woke up to the potential of community radio only in 2002, after the Supreme Court opined that the airwaves were public property and the government only a regulator, which had been a popular concept in many other countries since the 1970s.

Permission for starting a community radio station was at first restricted to educational institutions; it was later expanded to include state and centrally managed agriculture research centers, NGOs and charitable institutions. But the bureaucratic structure, involving clearance from multiple agencies, makes the process cumbersome and time-consuming.

According to data available up to May 21 of this year, 350 applications for setting up new community radio stations are pending, some since 2013, while 1,148 applications have been rejected.

The main problems are the delay in granting a license due to the involvement of multiple federal ministries, delays in the release of advertising revenue, lack of sponsorship, the reluctance of the government to open such stations in conflict zones, and delays in reimbursement for equipment costs, say experts and people working in the sector.

Funding issues

Experts say community radio stations owned by educational institutions and those in urban areas are still able to sustain themselves. But rural-area stations are marred by a lack of local advertiser support and federal and state assistance.

Not that money is not available. Replies to RTI queries show that in the last six years, the government has never utilized all the funds allocated for community radio. Even the 12% spent in 2017-18 of the allocated 40 million rupees was mainly on organizing awareness campaigns, some on staff salaries and some on listenership surveys.

No answers were available on why money is being spent on awareness despite the fact that community radio made its debut 16 years ago and not on improving productivity and quality of content.

This is despite the lofty claims made by the central government of boosting these stations. In 2013, the United Progressive Alliance government led by the Indian National Congress announced 1 billion rupees for community radio stations under the 12th Five-Year Plan besides setting up 500 new stations.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government came to power in 2014. However, five years down the line, the number of community stations remains at 217, showing that the NDA too has ignored this sector and failed to utilize allotted funds during its four-year tenure.