"Rural voices: Unheard to empowered" Report of a conference held on 3rd May 2012 by IRRAD, Sesame Workshop India Trust and UNESCO at Gurgaon

The Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD), Sesame Workshop India Trust and United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) jointly organized a conference titled “Rural voices: Unheard to empowered”’ on the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day 2012 on 3rd May, 2012 in Gurgaon at the IRRAD complex. The event was attended by over hundred and fifty participants from media organizations, development agencies, the government, and academia.


Image courtesy: IRRAD

The conference featured creative ways in which rural communities receive information and express their needs and concerns effectively.  Community radio, vernacular newspapers, wall paintings, theatre, comics, songs and other art forms used in participatory communications were dealt with. The conference aimed to highlight the positive impact of each of these within rural communities.

Successful models and practices in alternative media were showcased. The conference restated the need for community inputs in the development process, and the need to identify communications resources for and policy gaps in rural development.

The core theme of the conference was to address the issue of how a democracy like India must permit all social groups to practice free speech and expression. Most rural Indians remain information-poor and unheard. Penetration of mainstream communication media has failed to reach the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Grassroots experiences reveal that this limited media outreach in the rural settings is largely linear, thus, preventing access to the ‘voices’.

Community media remains the only means of expression and political participation for grassroots groups with no access to the mainstream media. Freedom of expression for community media is thus essential for empowering marginalized communities in rural and underdeveloped contexts. Communication which is participatory and development oriented in nature can go a long way in empowering rural communities to manage and control the development process.

The inaugural session comprised of talks by Ms. Jane Schukoske, Chief Executive Officer, IRRAD; Mr. Shigeru Aoyagi, Director and UNESCO Representative to India; Ms. Shashwati Banerjee, Sesame Workshop India Trust and Mr. Sukumar Muralidharan, South Asia Program Manager, International Federation of Journalists. 

Ms. Jane Schukoske noted that community media can increase avenues for community input in development process. She stated that the event had been conceived as a platform to share innovative ideas, discuss policy, and plan together to enlarge media access for rural communities.


Ms. Shaswati Banerjee, Sesame Workshop talks about community media

Video courtesy: IRRAD

Ms. Shashwati Banerjee dealt with the role of community media for marginalized population. She talked about how the Galli Galli Sim Sim radiophone project on Gurgaon's community radio has emerged as a proven model for educational delivery. The organization has built an innovative model that can be replicated to bring quality, early learning experiences to disadvantaged children. In fact more than 12 lakh listeners have been created through this. The project is now being rolled out in 11 other stations across India including Mewat, Bundelkhand and Chamba.

This was followed by the launching of the ninth Press Freedom Monitoring Report for South Asia (2011-2012) by Mr. Sukumar Muralidharan, South Asia Program Manager, International Federation of Journalists. Since its institution by the UN General Assembly in 1993, World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) has been observed internationally on 3 May every year. The global theme for this year was ‘New voices: Media freedom helping to transform societies’.

IFJ report

Mr Aoyagi and Mr Muralidharan launch the new UNESCO–IFJ report on press freedom in South Asia

Source: UNESCO Portal

Mr. Shigeru Aoyagi stated that the title of the conference as well as the theme paid tribute to the critical role played by community media in promoting democracy and good governance. He noted that community radio was particularly efficacious as a development tool, and further that the Indian Community Radio Policy places community radio within the framework of Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, which enshrines the freedom of speech and expression. He sketched out some of the challenges that the community radio sector in India faces today such as spectrum availability, licensing procedures, sustainability and content restrictions. 

Session I on “Celebration of rural voices” was chaired by Ms. Pooja Murada and included speakers – Mr. Debarun Dutta, Drishti Media; Ms. Madhura, banglanatak dot com; Mr. Anupam Srivastava, Pratibadh wall newspaper and Ms. Raziya, Alfaz-e-Mewat. The speakers had effectively used participatory communication media and shared their experiences on how to bring about a positive change in rural lives and communities at large.

Session II on “Community media in rural development communication” was chaired by Mr. Vinay Kumar, Chief Operating Officer, Digital Green and comprised of speakers – Ms. Anshu Meshack, Charkha Development Network; Mr. Micheal Ginguld, Rural Broadband (RBB) and Airjaldi Research and Innovation; Ms. Usha Bhasin, Doordarshan TV Corporation and Mr. Zahir Koradia, Gram Vaani Community Media Pvt. Ltd.

The session dealt with how the gigantic media corporations had gradually gained an unyielding foothold in the cultural and information market place in India. Community media represented the interest of the community it serves and offered the marginalized a platform to express themselves socially, politically and culturally. The mass media on the contrary is owned by powerful entities and does not allow these sections the option of communication nor does it address their issues. The uniqueness and inherent strength of each of the community media was highlighted.

Ms. Usha Bhasin talked about the re-energization of the airwaves in the recent times and also how public media could deal with sensitive issues. The session highlighted the demand by community radio activists that there be a third alternative for catering to the needs of the sections of society that are not served by either public or commercial radio.

The difficulties in obtaining licenses, the five-fold increase in spectrum fee, ban on community media in disturbed areas, ban on content of political nature and the lack of transparency in allocating spectrum for community media was discussed. The speakers noted that some spectrum needs to be reserved for community media as “electronic commons”.

Session III on “Policy framework, guidelines and resources for development communications” was addressed by the speakers – Ms. Iskra Panevska, UNESCO; Ms. Kriti Sharma, Human Rights Watch, Mr. Ram Bhat, Maraa, Bangalore and was chaired by Mr. Sajan Venniyoor, Deutsche Welle Radio Agency. The speakers shared their views about resources for development communications. The policy environment governing community media operations in India was closely examined. A number of policy shortcomings were identified and brief recommendations made.  

Ms Iskra Panevska stated that giving a voice a to rural people, development workers and local authorities can help in policy acceptance processes, in mobilizing people for participation and action, and in disseminating new ideas, practices and technology. Most importantly, communication tools and resources can help overcome barriers of literacy, language, cultural differences and physical isolation.

The evocative performance by street theatre group - Asmita and puppetry artists supporting social change lifted the spirit of the conference.

The conference concluded with a session where stakeholders prepared plans for collective action and cooperation. The responses from the participants’ indicated that they were optimistic about the plans developed and new partnerships forged at the conference.

This was followed by a visit on 4th May, 2012 to the IRRAD initiated community radio station, Alfaz-e-Mewat FM 107.8 set up on a NGO-government partnership model, in Ghaghas village in Nagina block of Mewat district of Haryana.

Alfaz-e-Mewat: A community radio station in Mewat 

Launched in February 2012 and housed in IRRAD’s community center in village Ghaghas, it caters to hundreds of villages within a 20 km radius. The radio station is an initiative of IRRAD with support from the Ministry of Agriculture, GoI under the Agriculture Technology Management Agency (ATMA) scheme to give voice to the farming communities in Mewat.  The station has been set up primarily for agricultural extension through a three-year funding under the scheme.

After an arduous process of application, screening and paperwork, the test broadcast of the radio station was held in January this year followed by the formal phase of broadcasting. The community took a lot of interest and issues that impacted them were taken up. Very soon the station began broadcasting for 8.5 hours every day. It has a dedicated community-led team headed by Raziya.

Raziya, Coordinator of Alfaz-e-Mewat speaks about the objectives of her radio station, challenges and way ahead

Video courtesy: IRRAD

The program topics range from agriculture, water, soil health, local culture, school kids, governance to village-based institutions. The themes have been identified through several baseline & need assessment surveys and community mobilization. The signature program of the radio station “Tohfa-e-Kudrat: Jal Jangal Zameen (Water, Soil, Forests)” focuses on agriculture and allied activities. The station attempts to bridge the disconnect between policy makers and beneficiaries and promotes local art and culture.